Paying Dearly for Masculinity in 3:10 to Yuma

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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.

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