3:10 to Yuma is, at the end of the day, one of the movies that I think every young man should be forced to watch. It’s not really that hard of a sell, especially if you catch them at the age when the Western rediscovers its boyhood luster, but in the event that someone pushes hard against you, watching should prevail. It’s not a historical film, nor is it particularly famous, but what it offers is an important lesson gift wrapped in fantastic action and surprisingly high quality acting. At the end of the day, 3:10 to Yuma is a resonant film, urging us to ponder the idea and value of heroism.
The story revolves around rancher Dan Evans – played well by Christian Bale – and the outlaw Ben Wade, also played well by Russell Crowe. There are other characters that come and go, but aside from a criminally underrated performance by Ben Foster as Charlie Prince and a memorable turn as Doc Potter by Alan Tudyk, they are sort of inconsequential. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, as much as an observation. The idea is simple enough – get the bad guy (Ben Wade) onto a train so he can be taken to Yuma prison and hung for his transgressions. Obviously, complications arise, and the result is a romp of a good time that unfolds against the blustery desert background.
A word about the cinematography. Filmed predominantly in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, 3:10 to Yuma is a gorgeous film. The Western genre in particular uses landscape to great effect, and 3:10 follows this tradition marvelously. Though the landscape doesn’t become quite the “character” that it does in other Westerns – as it does for example, in No Country for Old Men – it’s still a great backdrop for the human character drama to unfold. As I’ve already mentioned, the characters other than Dan Evans and Ben Wade are a little shallow, but not so shallow that it’s distracting. I don’t get the sense while watching that they were supposed to carry the story. Charlie Prince, Ben Wade’s loyal (and psychotic) man-dog is particularly well crafted. I don’t know what happened to Ben Foster – he didn’t break out with Pandorum (a flawed but underrated film) and it’s like ever since then the world turned the other way. It’s really too bad, because he’s a joy to watch here.
I think maybe the reason 3:10 to Yuma is so refreshing – and why I feel it should be required viewing for all young men – is because it is, ultimately, a meditation on male heroism and what makes a man a hero. Dan Evans is a man we like, and come to love over the course of the film. He’s constantly being overshadowed by the enigmatic and fascinating Ben Wade, overshadowed in the eyes of his son William (played by Logan Lerman) by a dime novel outlaw, and overshadowed in the green eyes of his wife, Alice. It’s easy to hate Ben Wade on Dan’s behalf, but it’s also easy to fall in love with Ben Wade ourselves. We want to believe in him, best acknowledged by a scene wherein William pleads with Wade, saying “You’re not all bad.” “Yes, I am,” Ben Wade replies. Yes, he is. But he’s our bad guy. What I enjoyed most, I think, was the film’s willingness to paint both the Outlaw and the Hero in mythic sepia tones – by the time 3:10 rolls around, we’re not sure exactly who we’re supposed to be rooting for or against, and that’s a very good thing.
The film suggests a simple philosophy when it comes to heroism, summed up best in a memorable line of dialogue by Dan Evans himself, who tells his son, one hand on his shoulder, “You just remember that your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when nobody else would.” And that’s that. That’s the discourse, the revelation, the discussion on the as-of-late-slippery idea of heroism. Heroism, the film suggests, isn’t a slippery idea at all. It’s just doing the right thing, especially when nobody else will. It sounds stupid, really, or infantile. It sounds like something we tell our kids on the first day of the second grade. The problem, though, is that we as adults rarely hold ourselves to the very same standards. We forget about them somewhere along the line, or we talk ourselves out of them, or we make up excuses about why they don’t apply in situations A, B or C. Our childhood standards end up abandoned, and what we’re left with is a train of regrets that might have been easily avoided.
What I admire most about a film like 3:10 to Yuma is that it endorses a powerful message without ever feeling preachy. I don’t have a problem with preachy things – expounding on one’s thoughts concerning morality can be a good thing, provided you do your best to reign in the condescension (Terrence Malick can be guilty of rampant condescension, at times). Still, though, I don’t think enough films make moral points anymore – we’ve abandoned them in lieu of the grittier, grayer films, films that ask more questions than offer answers. I love a good gray movie – I like movies that make you ask questions, but I don’t think there are enough films coming out that offer guidance. I think maybe that’s because answers are so hard to come by, and when we do find them, they’re either incredibly disappointing or become the source of enormous controversy. Either way, there’s a lack of accountability that’s become a cultural norm, and 3:10 to Yuma is a film that’s all about the merits of holding oneself – and indeed, others – accountable for their actions, if only because it’s the right thing to do.
A word about my opening. I said that 3:10 to Yuma is a film that every young man should be required to watch, and I stand by that. I encourage young women to watch it, as well, but for different reasons. Young men should be given cultural icons like Dan Evans to emulate, and young women could have them as a caricature of the kind of man that they deserve. Too often, I think, our youth is presented with impossible idols, which can either lead to romantic disappointment for our girls (Edward Cullen, anyone?) or unreasonable expectations, consequent self-depreciation and violence towards women for our boys (think the rap industry, a lot of professional athletes, etc). I want my sons to look up to the Dan Evans’ of the world, to admire them the way Dan’s son admires him at film’s end, finally seeing him as being just as cool as any outlaw. I want our young women to see that a man can be good, tough, loving and real – but that a lack of perfect men is no excuse for settling for bad ones. In short, I want more films like 3:10 to Yuma, so we can start fashioning ourselves after realistic heroes again. I think we as a generation, as a nation, as a culture, really need it.
The Western is a dying genre. I read an article not too terribly long ago that pondered why the Western was riding out of the American purview when it’s a distinctly American tradition. Its relevance is receding on a near daily basis. This may have something to do with the fact that the very nature of Western is to be set in a world on the edge of an ever-encroaching future. I think, however, that the Western may be dying because the West is gone and there’s no one around who remembers it. It’s as fictional to us now as James Cameron’s Pandora, and infinitely less colorful. It’s a shame, really, since the Western has a capacity to conjure heroes and outlaws of mythic status out of dust and wind. 3:10 to Yuma is an example of what a Western can be. See it, and remember what it was to believe in heroes. It’s inspiring. It really is. Oh, and it has a cursed revolver nicknamed “The Hand of God” in it. What more do you need to know?
The Good: The chemistry between Russel Crowe and Christian Bale – which, by the way, is surprisingly good.
The Bad: That the movie had to end, and that it’s been largely ignored.
The Ugly: Ben Foster’s mesmerizing turn as Charlie Prince, which went unnoticed.