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Bright Wall/Dark Room October 2023: Killing Time: 3:10 to Yuma & the Lonesome West by Nicholas Russell

We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the October issue of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. Their theme for October is "Westerns," and, in addition to Lindsey Romain's piece about "3:10 to Yuma" below, includes new essays on "Rio Bravo," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," "The American Friend," "Bacurau," "The Furies," a podcast on "Once Upon a Time in the West," coverage of this year's New York Film Festival, and more. 

You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here.


The opening shot of Delmer Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma (1957), which doubles as the opening credits: an impossibly even horizon, sand and dirt flattened out into a sheet, high clouds stretching across the top of the frame, the camera booming slowly up then back down as a stagecoach rolls into view.

Immediately, the scene reminds me of the cover of The Killers’ sixth album, Imploding the Mirage, which features a painting of two gigantic naked cloud figures—a bearded man and woman—flying through the sky over a desert valley. The cloud shapes are the same, but flipped left to right. The valleys could be the same, just color instead of black and white. Few contemporary American rock bands have been so interested in and beholden to a certain myth of the southwest. Frontier cosplay. Battleground state fetishism. Rebellious patriots.

I doubt The Killers would be much interested in the same vision of the southwest as Daves was. For one thing, Brandon Flowers is too enamored with neon. He’s a Mormon who sings of claustrophobic small towns, divine destiny, infinite horizons, the mettle of men—recognizable features of the Western, ones that Daves himself illustrated. But the latter man is fascinated by altogether quieter, more intimate moments in a landscape nearly vacated of its human inhabitants.

The 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma, utterly dreamlike and hypnotic, easily lends itself to a viewing of the film as true fantasy.

Outlaw Ben Wade, played by Glenn Ford, leads an outfit that has just robbed a stagecoach belonging to the wealthy Mr. Butterfield. Rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) comes upon the aftermath with his two sons, Matthew and Mark, after their herd of cattle scatters across the hills near the robbery. Indeed, so much of Daves’s film happens after the fact. The action of motion feels beside the point—not absent, just off camera. Wide black-and-white vistas frequently overtake the frame, a shot tracking a carriage across the desert almost reluctantly leaving the scenery behind.

Wade notices Evans and his sons and takes their horses so the family can’t report what they’ve seen to the authorities; yet even here, guns present and ready, there is no convincing threat of danger. This is partially because Ford plays Wade like a son of fortune: easygoing, measured, the random daily occurrences of his life each interesting and worth smiling over. That he happens to be an outlaw seems merely that—happenstance. He doesn’t threaten or demean. He takes what he wants, and it’s hard to think poorly of him for it. Meanwhile, Heflin fashions Dan into a man defeated ten times over, someone who, instead of becoming hardened by fallow seasons and the drudgery of ranch life, has turned soft, meek—principled but half-hearted. The word “emasculated” initially comes to mind, though Heflin’s performance is too specific, too worn-in, to be simply a portrait of failed masculinity. Set against Ford’s near-lethargy, Heflin maintains a taut and uncomfortably visible strain, less a gaping wound than a tendon about to snap. There is the sense that his misfortune is cosmic rather than social.

As Daves illustrates it, the desert plains of Arizona in the late 19th century harbor towns that were forgotten before they were finished being built. Perhaps this is why Dan is so melancholy; the place looks abandoned. When Wade rides into Bisbee with his crew for a celebratory drink, it’s like they’re traveling through a memory. Wade and his men fill out an entire bar that might have sprung into existence just before they arrived, this row of clean-shaven, well-fed, lightly-dirtied ruffians as only a late-50s Columbia Pictures production could imagine them. Where there are people in 3:10 to Yuma, there are stories of opportunities missed and homes left behind, though to imagine these backstories is to conjure them on the spot. Characters flow in and out of the narrative when called upon—though some, like a band of school children and their teachers early in the film, seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere. Bisbee and the town of Contention, where Wade will be taken for the titular train ride to prison, are empty. Not barren, but bereft.

Daves is clearly enamored with the land—with towering rock formations and plateaus and the motion of riders rushing through the dirt. Even through the sharp black-and-white photography, one can almost see the vivid green of the cactus, the rusted sandy floor. With so small a cast overshadowed by their director’s love of the nature they find themselves in, the few impressions made are more crucial. On his dying ranch, Evans has contended with drought and listlessness. He’s raising two boys who hold their father in high esteem without question, while Dan’s wife Alice (Leora Dana) endeavors to support a husband who has surrendered himself fully to disappointment and surliness. In one scene, Mr. and Mrs. Evans look to one another, Heflin’s wide shoulders tensed, his small mouth drawn down into a frown as he recounts his bad luck.

“Three years of drought killin’ my cattle, that’s terrible too. What can I do? I can’t make it rain.”

Alice stares at him, leaning forward, searching his eyes. There is the sense that, in an earlier confrontation, Alice would have told Dan to snap out of it. Instead, she lets him vent—lets him tell her everything she already knows about their lives—powerless against the enormity of her husband’s pride.

Meanwhile, in Bisbee, Wade romances Emmy the bartender (Felicia Farr), though what draws the two together isn’t Wade’s danger or his relentless charm, but the fact that he recognizes her, a former singer, as a conduit for the past. The scene is slow, or it feels slow. It feels as if the film has halted precisely to allow Wade the opportunity to take his time. Wade says he’ll have any girl, as long as she isn’t too skinny. Wade says he’ll have any girl, as long as she has blue eyes. Neither apply to Emmy. Wade doesn’t care.

3:10 to Yuma is filled with moments like these. Characters come together and share space, the drama and movement of the Western paused to explore scenes of almost silent philosophical wonder. People listen to each other, watching as one tells a story and the other weighs whether or not they believe what’s being told. There seems to be next to nothing to do, and the notion is made romantic. Then a shot is fired and the spell is broken.

*

Of course, the Western is also a genre of omissions.

If nothing else, it represents an endlessly expansive repository for the whims and dreams of a period of American history that juts up from beneath and through the truth like a splinter. The Western’s most ardent defenders plead for viewers to pay attention to the oft-ignored beauty of the scenery shot, to contemplate how we’ve surrendered our awe at the rural for the urban. The desert, in all of its varied, inhospitable, and wondrous configurations, and the silhouette of someone walking into or out of it.

Romance. Loneliness. Violence. Freedom.

There is little that hasn’t been said about what the Western is actually doing; who it exalts; where the true direction of its supposed amorality, the possibility of lawlessness, points. As time goes on, the genre’s meaning and its consequence changes drastically: a myth of men fighting in and with the land. It becomes a record of what those men, playing dress-up, playing sheriff, would rather not talk about. I’ve never been fully convinced that it comes down, simply, to racism, imperialism, rapacious conquering. Those things worm around in the marrow of it, but you watch a Western and you also see a different kind of dream.

The omissions come from and for the people—for the wives and the Chinese rail workers and Mexican cattle herders and indigenous warriors and freed slaves—yes, they all appear and disappear like set dressing. But amongst this deleterious wish fulfillment, what you see, beyond these men amongst men, is a simplicity of living. Not traditional living only, not homogenous living only, but literally, a simplicity of being, where an entire life’s worth of intention, everything that one wishes to communicate, can be delivered with a single nod or a single bullet. The Western is about compression. Set against the vastness, very little needs to be said to be understood. It’s the collective dream of a generation of men, but its appeal extends far beyond them. Indeed, this compression of intention is everywhere in cinema—the meaningful look, time frozen, the before-and-after moment. The fantasy is uniquely American, one of instant recognition, a world where no one has to explain themselves, and if they must, they’re free to do so with violence.

*

Two men ride into town, any town, one prodding the other, the captor demanding compliance from the prisoner (even if that compliance is merely peace and quiet), and all around them is nothing but open country. The prisoner has everywhere and nowhere to run.

3:10 to Yuma began as a 1953 short story by Elmore Leonard titled “Three-Ten To Yuma,” and, in the context of its adaptations, the story begins at the end. Deputy Paul Scallen and the outlaw Jimmy Kidd arrive in the Arizona town of Contention awaiting a train that will take Kidd to prison in Yuma. Kidd has already stood trial and been sentenced, none of the on-the-fly frontier justice seen later in the adaptations. The two men, both in their twenties, wile away their time together in a hotel, not doing much of anything besides sizing each other up. In 1957, Daves and screenwriter Halsted Welles allowed this scene to play through nearly half of the movie. In 2007, James Mangold, along with Welles, Derek Haas and Michael Brandt, cut it down to the final fifteen minutes.

In Leonard’s story, Scallen—erased in the adaptation and replaced with Dan Evans—reads as a typically virtuous and capable man of the law, a former cattle herder turned marshal (because of the money), his confidence more of a weapon than his gun. By contrast, Kidd, defined early on in the story by his youth and later reshaped onscreen into the merciless Ben Wade, is more impetuous, nervous yet still dangerous. His gang of outlaws are searching for him, and one of them just so happens to be napping in the hotel lobby.

In crisp prose, Leonard paints a stark picture, the majority of the story having already played out before the reader gets to it, a Western entry truncated past its genre conventions. There are no shootouts, no horse chases, no standoffs. Indeed, there are moments when Leonard calls the reader’s attention to the very artificiality of what’s taking place: a scene being set, players moved into position.

“People would be in the windows and the doors though you wouldn’t see them. They’d have their own feelings and most of their hearts would be pounding … and they’d edge back of the door frames a little more. The man out on the street was something without a human nature or a personality of its own. He was on a stage. The street was another world.”

When the time comes, Scallen escorts Kidd to the station where the train is already waiting, and, in the last pages, a brief skirmish breaks out between Scallen and Kidd’s men. Two of the gang, Charlie Prince and an unnamed posse member, are gunned down by Scallen before Scallen and Kidd successfully board the train.

“You know, you really earn your hundred and a half,” Kidd remarks in awe.

It’s not an insult to say there is little to the story beyond its style and the slickness with which Leonard passes the time. “Three-Ten To Yuma” is a yarn told expertly by a writer who once claimed that his stories had no theme. Leonard began writing Westerns because the literary market favored the genre. He wrote while working a job at an ad agency. In interviews, Leonard characterized his time writing Westerns in decidedly unromantic, pragmatic terms, describing how much money he made from the sales of his stories, novels, and film rights and how, though his stamp on the genre remains indelible, Leonard didn’t hesitate to move on when Westerns stopped paying like they used to. 

Fifty years stand between Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma and the remake by Mangold. That period is a chasm. The tidy appeal of the gorgeous, divine, sprawling open desert, violently but infrequently disturbed by the intervention of mankind, was never real. Watching Daves’s film, one doesn’t get the sense the director thought it ever was. But then there came an appetite for more than stagecoach robberies and sand-flecked battles between burly cowboys. There was the Civil War to contend with, for one thing, contemporary with the period of time most Westerns take place in, and forever influential to every aspect of this country’s history since. There was also the fact that much of the history of this region is ugly and repetitive. Land fought over, people pushed out, enterprise brought in. The aftertaste of manifest destiny turned sour. Maybe what people really wanted was to be left alone, the libertarians like to say. Maybe freedom was just about getting paid.

So it makes a sort of sense that in 2007, in the final days of the Bush presidency, three major revisionist and neo-Westerns are released within months of each other: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, and Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma, which is, tonally, a complete negative of the film Daves made.

Dan Evans (Christian Bale) remains a cattle rancher, but this time he’s a veteran drowning in debt, and while he’s still tired, he’s angry, too: “I’ve been standing on one leg for three damn years waiting for God to do me a favor. And He ain’t listening.” Dan still has two sons, Mark and William, but Mark’s a precocious young boy, while William, a petulant adolescent irritatingly and thus aptly played by Logan Lerman, despises his father’s lack of courage. Indeed, in a small meta turn, William is already captivated by the freewheeling life of the outlaw, which has yet to be fully mythologized, collecting dime novels from the very same publishing company that would later buy Leonard’s “Three-Ten To Yuma.”

Meanwhile, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) has turned into a cruel, vengeful criminal who kills easily, quotes scripture, and spends his free time sketching. In his Criterion essay about the 1957 film, Kent Jones described Wade as a killer with a “capacity for awe.” Crowe’s interpretation is less metaphysically curious than Ford’s performance, a terse brute whose occasional lapses into tenderness often serve as prelude to spectacular violence. Wade’s posse is a reflection of his proclivities, a ragtag group of psychos who are only kept in check by Wade’s reputation and his fast trigger finger. Among them are a Mexican sharpshooter, an Apache gunman, a bear-like barbarian, and a revolving door of newcomers who are more likely to be killed by Wade himself than the law—all second to Wade’s doggedly loyal lackey, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster).

There is nothing like the transcendental romance or sparseness of the 1957 version in Mangold’s film, though the story beats are largely the same. Here, there are prospectors, land owners, sex workers, Pinkertons, rail laborers, blacksmiths, and even more lawmen. The pulpier trappings of the genre—torture, explosions, gunfights, horse chases—are brought to bear mainly because, where Daves charts the journey from Bisbee to Contention over the course of an afternoon in one cut, Mangold elongates the narrative over three days. In that time, the story focuses on the themes that Mangold has often returned to: masculinity in crisis, the exploitation of good men, doomed male friendships.

It’s telling that love plays no meaningful part here, that miracles are kept at bay, that, in the end, the only assured happy endings are the ones that have to be negotiated for. Mangold has never been a director interested in commanding the elements or contriving moments of poetic stillness. The best of his films are master classes in the cumulative emotional power of functional performances, tight editing, and a familiar story arc. Within the comfortable confines of medium-to-large studio productions, Mangold prefers to direct momentum with a literal ticking clock. Hence the tension whenever the time is mentioned in 3:10 to Yuma, hence the proliferation of stopwatches, hence the impending sense of the ending rushing forth to the beat of a train engine.

What this spells out is a rougher, less elegant film, with the kinds of internal callbacks and zingers common to 21st-century American filmmaking—which, if minimal, are still glaringly noticeable. These feel like diversions deemed necessary by the studio, whereas Mangold’s interest lies squarely with Dan and Wade, the erotic and fraught relationship between cop and robber, the development of an impossible friendship. Both men will spend the majority of the movie waiting to kiss. Or, that’s how it feels. Mirrored in the barbed but ultimately sweet relationship between Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) in Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari (2019), Dan and Wade are opposites: one man chooses to have morals, while the other has no use for them. 3:10 to Yuma’s various pyrotechnics feel perfunctory in comparison to the attention Mangold pays to Crowe and Bale playing off each other. The overt male posturing throughout the film—Mangold seems titillated, amused, and troubled by it—means Dan has to prove more vociferously his mettle as a father and a principled person. The prison escort becomes a chase when Wade escapes. Dan’s son loses, then regains, faith in his father. Amongst a landscape of corruption and convenience, Dan refuses the easy way; what Wade deems stubbornness, Dan calls character.

*

Something that’s always struck me about 3:10 to Yuma is the fact that Dan Evans is a cattle rancher with seemingly no ardent political affiliation. This might be another of the evasions present in the kindlier Westerns that, instead of pitting white men against so-called savages, simply endeavor not to include them at all. The majority of settlers in that area of Arizona around the time 3:10 to Yuma takes place were Democrats and southern sympathizers, if they weren’t already southern transplants. In 2007, James Mangold made Dan Evans into a Civil War veteran who fought for the north. This nominally sets him on the “right” side, though there is never any chance for the audience to see what this means in the context of anyone who isn’t white. Of course, the myth of the north is that the north was where all the abolitionists and nice white people who hated slavery were. With that in mind, it’s supposed to be unsurprising that Dan’s moral compass points unerringly toward righteousness. But the film never tests the limits of that righteousness. I think maybe because the filmmakers have a feeling we know the real answer.

There is another, more forgivable, yet pressing omission.

Dan Evans weathers a drought that lasts three years, in an area then populated, conservatively, by fewer than 100,000 people. Today, the drought is widespread and ongoing, with lowering lake levels and little rain, and eighty percent of the remaining water diverted from the Colorado River going to agricultural irrigation. Over 20 million people are spread across seven southwestern states. The free and open country still fetishized by Confederate apologists and wide-eyed dreamer bards like Brandon Flowers and the Killers has become clogged by industrial resource extraction and outdated environmental policies. The aches and paeans to some old way of life never countenance a reality where so few of the conflicting forces duking it out in the desert—pollution, the degradation of nature, rising temperatures, migrant exploitation, suburban expansion, rampant disregard for the unhoused and mentally ill—are romantic.

Projections show the same thing that they’ve shown for a long time now: a fast-growing population in a precarious region, a boom without a discovery or a worthwhile commodity. Evans frets over a limited future, while others fret over a nonexistent past. “Without food in the desert,” Wade Davis writes in his book River Notes, “one can live for a fortnight; without water, perhaps a day. The collapse of the Anasazi occurred in a single generation. The drought in the American Southwest has now entered its twenty-third year.”

*

In 3:10 to Yuma’s final moments, Daves booms the camera high above Alice Evans as rain pours down, darkening parched earth, while Dan, safely on the train with Ben Wade, looks on with joy at the possibility of a better year. It is a divine ending, we’re led to hope, goodness and justice arriving if only one has the wherewithal to wait.

In 3:10 to Yuma, Mangold kills Dan, a warrior’s death by technicality only. His late-in-the-game friendship with Wade doesn’t save him, though its aftermath haunts Wade. After Charlie Prince repeatedly shoots Dan in the chest, the film’s only moment of true stillness comes—train engine thrumming, winter wind blowing—just before Wade slaughters his entire gang. Regret, retribution, or disgust: it’s difficult to know which motivates Wade more. 

That divine rain that saves the Evanses in the 1957 film comes without fanfare in 2007. Indeed, seen off in the distance, it serves as an indictment of Dan’s insistence of seeing the job through. With water for his land and his cattle, he can finally make an honest living without putting his life in danger. Wade points this out, confused, impatient with Dan’s obstinance. Indeed, the remake swerves away from key moments in the original film (for example, there is never the same character knocking at the door), as if the filmmakers believe or worry that the simpler path wouldn’t be satisfying, as if the new Western creed of sudden, senseless violence amid good intentions was the only way that made sense. But, underneath it all, Mangold is a sentimentalist.

In both adaptations, Dan claims a man’s duty supersedes any other obligation. When Wade tries to bribe him, Dan laughs a laugh that is refreshingly optimistic, without a hint of hesitation or temptation. Bale, so free under Mangold’s direction, strikes a subtle chord in these scenes. He is Wade’s superior in ethics, if not daring. Or maybe he’s just scared of what it’ll look like if he walks away before the thing is seen through. Mangold, too driven by a heightened, gritty realism to allow Dan a miracle, instead has him leave a stain on Wade’s soul. It’s practically romcom logic, except the jaded lover afraid to get hurt again is traded for a calloused murderer who might have a conscience after all. The effect is manufactured but incredibly moving.

The Western, under the aegis of 21st-century nihilism, can often function less as wish fulfillment and more as satiation for bloodlust. It can cut in any direction, from fantasies of black retribution to reclamations of indigenous heritage. At the core of every version of 3:10 to Yuma is a demand for payment for services rendered. America’s westward expansion—the dream of untouched and verdant plains—couldn’t outpace capitalism. Leonard makes this a given, while Daves cedes a farmer’s dismal struggle to stay afloat to cosmic reward, providential grace. By contrast, Mangold’s interpretation is more legible as a generalized yet impassioned critique of private interests, not so much an indictment as a pointed finger.

Before he begins his bullet-riddled journey to the train, Dan must demand his recompense from the railroad stooge, Mr. Butterfield. Butterfield, until now the moneybags with the handlebar mustache and a preppy chip on his shoulder, attempts to back out of the agreement by paying Dan to walk away, just as Wade predicted he would. It’s nice that the weather is changing, but Dan knows good seasons come and go, and he, unlike Wade, is unwilling and unable to live a life outside the law. If land ownership, access to water, and cash are the legal currency of the day, that is what Dan will demand and what his courage will buy him. A deal is made, assurances are given. The rain falls anyway.

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