By Jon Warner
Delmer Daves has usually been last in the line of discussion of the great western directors, if he gets mentioned at all. If one were to create a Mt. Rushmore of western film directors, it would look something like this: Ford, Mann, Leone,…..and in most circles Boetticher as well, would probably get all the attention. Maybe the recent Criterion releases of two of Daves’s best films (including this one) will begin to highlight his career more. Those that forget to mention Daves in the discussion are certainly creating an oversight. His films stand among the best of the genre in the 1950’s, as he made a series of fascinating moral masterworks, unlike anything else. Daves’s works often incorporate what I call parables (and even one could label them as Biblical parables of sorts), providing a context and filter through which he examines our instincts, our responsibilities, temptations and our challenges as a human race, thereby taking a moral inventory of human nature. In these ways, Daves carves his own niche within the genre, adding this unique perspective not found in other films. 3:10 to Yuma is his most famous work, if also perhaps his best, weaving moral complexity with significant amounts of tension. It’s an essential western masterpiece that is also a gateway into the rest of Daves’s work.
3:10 to Yuma builds slowly toward a tense climax. It’s about a rancher named Dan Evans (Van Heflin), who with his two boys, happens to witness a stage-coach robbery and murder by Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his gang. Through some chance happenings, a local posse is able to apprehend Wade in a local saloon, after Wade hangs around a bit too long in town (for some hanky-panky with the saloon-girl Emmy in a small but terrific performance by a Delmer Daves regular, Felicia Farr). It becomes clear in these early scenes that Ford’s Wade is not only a ladies man, but has a convincing, rather cerebral way with people, and can be in fact, quite gentle and sensitive when he wants to. In order to raise money for his flailing, drought-ridden farm, Evans decides to take a job to get Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma so Wade can be turned in to the Yuma Penitentiary. The train will arrive in a nearby town named Contention. Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that Evans and the few other volunteers for the job need to keep Wade’s whereabouts a secret from the rest of his gang in order to prevent the group from descending upon them and breaking him free. Evans ends up spending a stress-filled afternoon with Wade for several hours in a hotel room in Contention as they while the afternoon away until the train arrives, in one of the great sequences in western film history.
And let’s discuss that sequence. The film is really a build-up to the final hour in which we watch the battle of wills and manhood between Ford’s Wade and Van Heflin’s Evans. With his short-barreled shotgun at the ready, Evans starts the afternoon cool and determined. Slowly, Wade, through a series of conversations, temptations, and bribes, begins to chip away at Evans’s crumbling façade. Sweat begins to drip profusely from Evans’s forehead and we sense as the other gang members learn of Wade’s whereabouts, that Evans begins to question whether this whole thing is worth it. Other men who’ve said they would help with the cause begin to abandon the efforts as odds become tougher, until Evans is the last man standing. Charles Lawton Jr.’s photography in this second half as it takes place in the room, is shaded with chiaroscuro, as light and shadow come pouring through the windowpanes, bathing the room in a sort of moral quagmire. Nothing is completely illuminated….nothing is completely hidden. Morals begin to constrict, as a corruption and melding of good and evil come together. We sense Wade has a core of decency as we’ve seen him be sensitive throughout the film, particularly his gentle moments at Evans’s house before they headed to Contention. We also begin to question Evans’s motives, as it appears like he’s being persuaded to take Wade’s bribes. Both men, Ford and Van Heflin might give the performances of their careers. Overall this section of the film is a worthy section to diagnose. We begin to see shades of Biblical recollections. Wade’s bribes and lies begin to sound like Satan in the Garden of Eden, or when he tempted Jesus in the desert, promising riches and glory. In fact, the Biblical angle also comes up when discussing the drought in the film, that is only broken once Evans is able to prove himself faithful to his cause. He holds firm at the end, and not only is his life spared, his cause emboldened, but the drought is lifted in a climactic thunderstorm that rains down upon the parched land. Some viewers wonder about the overheard, oncoming “thunderstorm” on the soundtrack near the end of the film, prior to the final showdown. All indications appear that Evans hears this alone and we hear what Evans hears. If this is the case, it’s almost like a moral prodding or moral signpost, indicating to Evans that he is doing the right thing. These sorts of religious themes are rampant in Daves’s best works. Think of The Last Wagon, where a Moses (Richard Widmark) leads his people through the desert. Think of The Hanging Tree, where there is an examination of a flawed Good Samaritan (Gary Cooper). Or even in Jubal, where the lure of sex is strong, but chastity is rewarded, recalling the story of Joseph and Potipher’s wife (and Shakespeare’s Othello as well). All of these historical recollections give Daves’s films a timeless quality and a remarkable distillation of human nature, reminding us how our desires and temptations haven’t changed much through the years.
Daves’s film avoids relying on usual tropes in films like this, mainly because of his insistence on letting the rancher dictate the outcome. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, this is a film that lets the everyman be the hero. This isn’t Shane. There is no strapping gunfighter that will come along and make things easier for the common folk. This also isn’t High Noon, where the seasoned veteran stands up one last time. 3:10 to Yuma is in fact, the Everyman’s shining hour. It allows this rancher/husband/father a chance to stand up for himself and hold to his principles. Even if the initial prospect is for money, it turns out in the end he does his job in the name of honor. After Evans realizes that he will have to do the entire job on his own, he clearly and succinctly views this opportunity as a way of proving himself….if not to his wife, or his children, or his town, but perhaps to a higher power. It would make perfect sense for Evans, without help from anyone, to give up the cause. But, he decides to continue on by himself and succeeds through nothing less than his own sheer ingenuity and determination in the face of ridiculous odds, or perhaps a little help from above. People like Evans and his wife in this film are forced into tough decisions because of the hard-scrabble life they live. Here, the west is a place where these decisions are life and death and where every one of these decisions seems to operate in a complex shade of gray. Daves’s film allows this reality to unfold with precision.