In March of 1953, the late Elmore Leonard published his story Three Ten to Yuma in the pulp publication Dime Western Magazine. He eventually sold his story to Columbia Pictures. With an adapted screenplay by Halsted Welles and directed by the great Delmer Daves (Destination Tokyo, Dark Passage, Jubal), Leonard’s pulp fiction western has become recognized as one of the great films of the genre.
For those who fear riding long and hard in the saddle, clacking spurs, and one-on-one showdowns at high noon, 3:10 to Yuma avoids all of those tired plot devices. While it exemplifies the genre, it may be the rare exception.
Dan Evans (portrayed by Van Heflin) is a modest cattle rancher who is faced with a harsh multi-year drought that is threatening his herd and his family. The stubborn Dan is unable to sufficiently provide for both and finally is on the verge of asking for help.
After the famous title theme sung by Frankie Laine (also of Blazing Saddles fame), the film opens with the notorious Ben Wade Gang holding up one of the Butterfield stagecoaches. Dan, his sons, and his herd stumble onto the scene just as the simple robbery escalates to murder. Wade (Glenn Ford) and his men spare the Evans clan although they take their horses, emasculating Dan in the process in front of his sons, and then escape to the closest saloon. Pretending to be cowhands, the men take in several rounds courtesy of the lovely barmaid Emmy (Felicia Farr). When the gang decides it’s time to keep moving, Ben stays behind to make a quick conquest:
Ben: Hey, you know you look kind of skinny.
Emmy: I feel skinny.
Ben: That’s all right. I don’t mind a skinny girl – just so she has blue eyes to make up for it. You got blue eyes?
Ben: That’s all right. They don’t have to be blue.
Dan and his boys lead the herd back home on foot and promise to bring back a horse for Mr. Butterfield. After arriving back to the stranded stagecoach with the promised ride, Dan quickly finds himself sucked into the manhunt for Ben Wade.
Ben : Something I can do to help you?
Dan: You drove off my cattle.
Ben: You got ‘em back, didn’t you?
Dan: Yeah, but it took me half a day’s time.
Ben: What’s half a day’s time worth to you?
Dan: Well, when I hire out a full day, I get two dollars.
Ben: [reaches in his pocket and pulls out dollar coins] I’ll give you two dollars for half a day.
Dan: All right, then that’s what I’ll settle for.
Ben: There’s two more for you.
Dan: What for?
Ben: For your boys. I used their time too, didn’t I?
Dan: Now, if you don’t mind, there’s my cattle. You owe me two more for tirin’ out my cattle.
Ben: Two more for tired cattle. Now, is there anything else you want to get paid for?
Dan: I’ll tell ya. If it’s all right with you…you can give me two dollars extra for making me nervous.
Although Dan has the upper hand in this exchange at the saloon, Ben shows his power by carelessly throwing money Dan’s way. Essentially it’s an Old West pissing contest, a showdown with words not guns. Just then the trap is sprung, and the marshal arrests Ben from behind. Dan ends up “volunteering” for $200 to escort Ben to Contention City to put him on the 3:10 to Yuma (sorry, had to do it).
Dan and the town drunk Alex take Ben to Dan’s home to wait it out until nightfall. Over dinner, Ben pours on the charm with Dan’s family. Dan’s sons are proud of their father for his role in capturing Ben, but at the same time show off a bit in front of the fascinating stranger. The same goes for Dan’s long suffering wife Alice (Leora Dana); incredibly proud of her husband, but a bit mesmerized by the good looking and wicked Ben.
After the dinner scene at Dan’s house, the journey on to Contention City is without incident. There is a room in the local hotel waiting on them, the bridal “suit”, to sit out the slow hours until the train arrives.
At this point the real showdown begins. Contention City is living up to its name: Dan in a wicker chair and Ben stretched out on the bridal bed have a heated battle of wills in the tiny room. Ben tries double-talk, offers large amounts of money, and nearly breaks Dan. Ben knows that even a good and decent man has a price when desperate. And then something comes over Dan: it’s not really about the money at all. It’s about being a man, proving his worth to his wife and boys, and doing the right thing.
Throughout the entire film, the classic white hat/black hat roles are blurred, even to the very end. Without the likable bad guy Ben, the pragmatic-to-a-fault Dan would have no motivation to fight for something. In a bizarre sort of way, Ben Wade brings out the best in Dan Evans. Their showdown isn’t about who can draw his gun the fastest. It’s about pride and honor.
The Criterion Collection has released the newly restored 4K digital transfer of 3:10 to Yuma on DVD and Blu-ray and it is absolutely stunning. The black and white is incredibly clean and crisp, as is the audio. Have a towel ready because you’ll want to dab the sweat from Van Heflin’s forehead. As for special features, the disc includes interviews recorded especially for this release with author Elmore Leonard (who passed away on August 20, 2013) and Glenn Ford’s son and biographer Peter Ford. Both are excellent additions to the disc.