CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
One thing that I’ve always admired about Delmer Daves’ “The 3:10 to Yuma” (1957) is the effortless way in which it rises above its literary source as a pulp Western adventure yarn and its cinematic antecedent–that would be Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon”–to find its own place as a parable of redemption.
On one hand it’s the simple tale of failed rancher Dan Evans’ rediscovering his own sense of “grit” by taking on and seeing to its conclusion a dangerous assignment–to hustle outlaw leader Ben Wade onto a train bound for Yuma Penitentiary while Wade’s gang makes plans to free him and the frightened townsfolk refuse to help him. But it’s not just a tale about a jailer. It’s a tale about his prisoner as well. When we first encounter Ben Wade we learn that he is smart–he and his men “borrowed” Evans’ small herd of cattle to block the way for the Contention-bound stagecoach, which happens to be carrying a gold shipment–and he is ruthless–when driver Bill Moons grabs one of Wade’s men to use as a shield, Wade calmly shoots first his own man, then Moons. Later on he will bitterly describe the dead driver as a fool for risking his life to protect something that wasn’t even his to begin with. But Wade will subtly change over the course of the film’s 92-minute running time and will ultimately sacrifice his freedom to save Evans’ life. A cynic or a less perceptive viewer might set this down to scriptwriter Halsted Welles offering viewers “a Hollywood ending,” but that would be doing a disservice to Welles, Daves and actor Glenn Ford.
To set the stage for his “Hollywood ending,” Welles created two scenes not in Elmore Leonard’s original story that tell the tale. In a scene just after the stagecoach robbery that opens the film, Wade and his men ride into the town of Bisbee and enter the town saloon. In a scene of unusual tenderness for a 50s Western, Ford’s outlaw romances a lonely barmaid played by Felicia Farr. The sense of loneliness and longing that passes between the two is palpable, yet it resolves itself as an afternoon “quickie,” the story of Wade’s life. This dalliance costs Wade his freedom as it gives the local law a chance to catch up with him, yet he doesn’t seem especially upset by this turn of events. Later, as a prisoner at Dan Evans’ farmhouse he observes the family life of Evans, the love that he and his wife have for each other and for their two young sons–things that he will never have. The dinner table pleasantries that he and Mrs. Wade exchange make Evans uneasy because they suggest that the outlaw Wade knows his way around women and knows what they want more than does the rancher Evans. The casting of the thick-set and graying Van Heflin in this role only plays up the essential difference between the charmer and the plodder. As they depart for Contention, Wade comments to Mrs. Evans that he’ll try to send her husband home to her. At first this sounds like a threat, an attempt to rattle the woman and convince her to get Evans to drop the plan.
Initially Evans is involved in Wade’s fate for $200–money he needs to purchase water rights for his parched herd. He has nothing against Wade personally, even though the man took his cattle. Mr. Butterfield, the blustery owner of the robbed stage line is only able to recruit one other deputy to aid Evans–Alex Potter, the town drunk, played by Henry Jones. Poor Alex is a joke in everyone’s eyes. Yet he warns Evans when one of Wade’s gang is attempting to shoot him in the back, and pays for it with his own life. In an especially grim scene Charlie Prince, Wade’s right-hand man, orders the wounded man to be hanged in the hotel lobby. This demonstration of the gang’s resolve sufficiently unnerves Butterfield that he is now willing to pay Evans the $200 without his escorting Wade to the train. At the same time Wade’s departing comment has so rattled Dan’s wife that she now arrives in Contention to make one last plea that he turn Wade loose. She is confronted by the sight of Potter’s corpse. But Prince has miscalculated. The very act that frightens Butterfield and Mrs. Evans stiffens Evans’ resolve. He must go through with it now because an inoffensive man, a walking joke, the town drunk sacrificed his life. But without realizing it, Mrs. Evans has also made a sacrifice, risking her life, running a gauntlet of Wade’s concealed gang, to try to convince her husband to save his own.
Sacrifice is the key here. When Evans is wavering in his resolve, when Butterfield’s offer of the cash with no further risk sounds too good to say no to, Alex Potter’s death renews his determination. When Ben Wade sees the love that “loser” Dan Evans’ wife has for him, he realizes that he must send her husband back to her. So when Wade allows himself to be used as a shield, blocking the guns of Prince and other gang members, so that both men can safely hop aboard the train, it all comes to a satisfying climax, Wade has elected to allow Evans to enjoy the life as a husband and father that he will never have. As if in affirmation of his decision, the drought comes to an end and rain falls in Contention.