Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 12, 2013)
Remade in 2007 with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, we need to head back to 1957 for the original version of 3:10 to Yuma. In this western, a drought drives cattle rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) to the brink of bankruptcy. He needs $200 to gain access to a stream that would help the situation, but when he can get into town to ask for a loan, events intervene.
Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his gang just robbed a stagecoach. Though his subordinates ride away, Wade gets captured. Because the locals fear Wade’s goons will return to town and shoot up the place, they want him escorted away as soon as possible, which means someone needs to take him to the town of Contention so Wade can be placed on the 3:10 train to Yuma.
Given the danger that comes with this assignment, no one seems eager to accept, but eventually Evans agrees – largely because coach owner Mr. Butterfield (Robert Emhardt) offers a $200 reward for this action. We follow Evans’ attempts to get Wade to the train and the drama that comes along the way.
If one wanted to draw parallels between Yuma and 1952’s High Noon, one could do so pretty easily. Both feature men stuck in a tough predicament and forced to deal with poor odds and ticking clocks. Both also lead toward climaxes that inevitably involve shoot-outs between the forces of good and bad.
That said, Yuma never feels like a knock-off of Noon, and it becomes a Western classic in its own right. The major difference comes from the nature of its lead characters, as I think Yuma provides much more three-dimensional personalities. As much as I like Noon, I can’t claim that Gary Cooper’s Kane presents a particularly nuanced character, and villain Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) acts more as a threat of impending doom than as a full-blooded personality. In addition, Kane and Miller spend little time on-screen together.
By contrast, Wade and Evans occupy the same scenes much of the time, and those become the film’s best. As they wait for the train, Wade and Evans get stuck together in a hotel room, and Wade does his best to play the Devil. To gain his freedom, Wade throws one temptation after another at Evans, and these sequences give us real tension.
That’s because Wade is no mustache-twirling psychopath and Evans lacks the steely resolve usually seen in this sort of role. I’d find it hard to think of many Westerns with better-developed leads, as both Wade and Evans create rich personalities, and their lack of simplicity lends a sense of unpredictability to the events.
Within reason, that is. I understand that no Hollywood Western from 1957 will let the bad guy win, so there’s zero chance that Wade will succeed in his Last Temptation of Evans. It’s inevitable that Evans will eventually discover his courage and act in a heroic manner.
Nonetheless, the path Yuma takes to that climax proves to be tense, largely due to the lead performances. Ford delivers a villain for the ages, as he makes Wade charming, confident and likable – all the opposite of what we’d expect from a cold-blooded killer. He brings a delightful air of cool charisma to the part; you don’t know if you want to buy him a beer or see him fry in the electric chair – or both.
Heflin gets the less showy part but he comes across with equal skill as the beleaguered rancher. Evans offers a tough character, as the actor needs to give him a sense of weakness but also convey the potential for strength – all while we also wonder if he’ll cave to the temptations offered by Wade. Heflin portrays the part with a nervous ease; he doesn’t overplay the character’s traits, as he turns Evans into a realistic lead.
Toss in some light humor and good action and Yuma ends up as a terrific Western. It may not enjoy the same reputation as legendary films like High Noon and The Searchers among “non-aficionados” but it should.