Dan Evans (Christian Bale, left) takes Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the 3:10 to Yuma.
At a critical moment in 3:10 to Yuma, the hero, Dan Evans (Christian Bale), is overpowered, pinned to the floor, and struggling to stay alive. Nearly breathless from a vicious choking given by the outlaw, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), he manages to exhale a story, one that reveals to Wade why Evans, a rancher on a dying homestead, agreed to escort this killer to a train that would take him to a federal pen.
Evans’ story is brief but poignant; he confesses to Wade about a battlefield failure, when he was shot in the foot by his fellow Union soldier. This experience has been a source of shame for Evans, for he is unable to tell this story to his sons. In most contexts, his confessional would garner some sympathy, but within the framework of a masculine culture, his story affects Wade with gravity. Moved by Evans’ pathos, Wade, ever the storyteller himself, spares this father and, somewhat incredibly, relents to running for the train while his gang is gunning for Evans in a torrent of bullets.
3:10 to Yuma plays on the idea that storytelling and narratives are deeply involved in identity formation and that stories help make sense of human motives and experiences. Though this film takes place in post-Civil War Arizona, this retelling of Elmore Leonard’s short story doesn’t settle for remaking the 1957 film on which it is also based. This version creates direct links to contemporary America, where the hegemony of masculine culture is implicated in the formation of big business, the oppression of minorities and the marginalization of women. Furthermore, the film’s social conscience plays on a larger irony, one that underscores the hazards of being male in a culture inscribed by masculine privilege.
The film explores the rigid definitions of maleness and the narrowness in which valor is earned. In this western tale, Evans and his family live in diminished circumstances created by difficult conditions and unfair social practices. These things play on the guilt-ridden psychology of a man who can no longer provide for his family. Modern audiences probably see Evans not as a failure but as a hardworking father who takes daily risks working a homestead. His complaint that he is tired of watching his kids grow hungry seems a bit false given the number of cattle on his ranch. Nevertheless, what is important is that their home is not just a place of property but is a locus of decency, propriety and spirituality. Evans’ personal crisis manifests into a dangerous conflict with Wade that reveals the heavy burden men carry for their masculine identities and illustrates the steep price they pay for their social duties.
3:10 to Yuma is about the distance between two men, both of whom are different in important ways. Unable to make ends meet, Evans leaves his family for a big payday to escort Wade, a Pinkerton prisoner, to a train in another town. Wade, a well-dressed, quick-triggered gunfighter, is the leader of a vicious gang of criminals, a gang held together in Wade’s absence by the highly focused Charlie Prince (Ben Foster). As a character, the sartorial and rhetorical Wade quotes scripture and pencils images. He is an artful tactician who dutifully focuses on robbing and killing while occasionally sparing the lives of his victims. He has a clear sense of his own rules, and, by his own definition, his criminality is part of his identity as a frontier gentleman.
These character differences are further defined by how each man reveals aspects about himself when telling stories. When we listen to Evans’ confessional about losing his foot, we get the sense that Evans believes that stories should forge relationships between people. For Evans, stories possess greater authority when they reveal hidden truths, truths that provide clear explanations for motives and experiences. What is emphasized throughout the film is that Evans, with his working class status, uses language to barter, negotiate and plead. Early on, we get a sense of his desperation when he pleads with a banker to stop diverting water from his property. His argument is good to be sure, but this character would rather drive off Evans and sell his land to the railroad companies than listen to civil discourse.
Conversely, Wade uses stories to antagonize people, investigate their limits and understand their intentions. Because of his dubious nature, we’re never quite sure if Wade is being truthful when he is conversing. As an antagonist, he uses conversations to distract people, soften their attitudes and, perhaps, lull them into forgetting their real world obligations. He desires to discover their problems, failures and transgressions in order to manipulate them—even kill them. For Wade, language and storytelling are performative acts of self-determination, a way of creating action and drama. Though Wade’s portentous attention to details, superior concentration and aesthetic sensitivity allow him to use the power of language to hold his gang together, these characteristics also make him vulnerable when he shifts from speaking to listening. Early in the film, the quiet but direct Evans converses with Wade in an empty hotel saloon. Wade, so caught up in Evans’ decency, determination and desperation, is distracted long enough to be captured.
It is within this context in which 3:10 to Yuma investigates the power of orality to bridge binaries. The film views oral communication as a social activity that transcends class, gender and morality. Given the barrenness of the Old West, oral communication is presented as a binding social activity even when people spar and argue. Though this thematic point is conventional, 3:10 to Yuma makes a larger point about the function of memories in narratives. As these men speak from their memories, the distance between them narrows. And when Evans’ oldest boy shows up to join the escort, the context for their dueling changes when Wade develops an empathic understanding of Evans. Later on, we discover that Wade, as a young boy, was abandoned by his mother after his father was killed.
The more Wade is around Evans, the nature of his stories becomes more introspective, more ego-centric, more identity-related. In general, the film argues compellingly that stories with a tidy narrative structure (with a beginning, middle and end), and storytelling, with its exegesis and dynamism, has the power to move and influence personal choices. Furthermore, the film argues that narratives are not only a feature of our linguistic capacity, but they also fulfill an important psychological desire because people want to fit their lives into dramatic plots.
In an important scene, Evans is offered more money by his Pinkerton employer not to go through with the job—to walk away and let Wade go—because everybody realizes their plans will fail. Evans, sensing a better footing to take care of his family, negotiates for even more money and benefits, deciding to escort Wade through the dangerous town alone. However, underlying this choice, we discover, is his desire to live a life worthy of retelling, particularly to his sons, so he could “be the only man to walk Ben Wade to the train when no one else would.” The film portrays this peculiar masculine desire for dramatic heroism as a powerful trope that illustrates the close kinship between living as a historical being and the desire to be a part of living history.
Though Evans is influenced by the power of heroic narratives, he represents the hardships of a practical frontier life. Wade is more than just the constant antithesis to Evans, however. Though he is aroused by his own criminal infractions, he is, at least temporarily, an agent of change. The film is quite clear in portraying Wade as a character who traverses boundaries, especially boundaries he creates for himself. His commitment to enact an appropriate ending for this bleak episode (to impose order in a chaotic world he helped create) compels him to act out his incarceration for the benefit of Evans’ son, an act that comes at the expense of those who are loyal to Wade. For some, Wade’s penultimate action may seem out of character. But this betrayal fits well within the context of his transgressions because he is a criminal who is not indifferent to morality.
In this moral world, heroes aren’t heroes; they are ordinary people, and because people are inscribed by the stories they hear and read, they often act out the very narratives that have shaped their identities. 3:10 to Yuma argues that aesthetic practices (such as narratives and storytelling) are necessary and valuable processes in the formation of character, for they impact our personal associations and influence our everyday choices.
In the end, Wade decides that familial relationships are worth more than other kinds of social relationships, particularly those based on criminal enterprises, and that his lawless way of living requires a cathartic release. More importantly, in this masculine culture, Evans’ fate illustrates the deep irony that there is great social promise, yet much personal danger, when a man keeps his word and when his word constitutes his bond.