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3:10 TO YUMA

Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Films



By Melynda Nuss

SAN FRANCISCO, 18 SEPTEMBER 2007— Since Unforgiven, moviegoers have known that the men who won the West were very, very bad men. But who is the worst? Is it the railroad entrepreneur who dams creeks and burns barns to starve farmers into selling their land? His snide-jock bully enforcer? The Apache-killing bounty hunter who rides shotgun on the payroll stagecoach? The railroad foremen who use a dynamite plunger to torture the man who killed their sleazy card-sharp brother? The suave gunslinger mastermind Ben Wade? His swishy psychotic sidekick Charley Prince? The one-legged Civil War veteran too weak to defend his family? Or the kid who reads dime novels and dreams about them all?

Russell Crowe, Chad Brummett, Luce Rains, Peter Fonda, Christian Bale and Lennie Loftin in 3:10 to Yuma
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Films

It’s a rare movie that can mix action and serious moral speculation, but if that movie can exist, it’s 3:10 to Yuma . The agent of most of this speculation is the movie’s black-hat villain, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). When Wade lingers too long in the saloon after a heist, the law and the railroad men catch up with him. They assemble a posse to take him to the town of Confrontation, where they will put him on the 3:10 train to the federal prison in Yuma. They also draft a one-legged Union sharpshooter, a farmer down on his luck named Dan Evans (Christian Bale) who has come to town to beg the railroad man to give him time to save his farm, and who serves – if anyone can – as the movie’s traditional moral center.

Christian Bale and Gretchen Mol in 3:10 to Yuma
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Films

 On their long trip across the desert, Wade cajoles each of them with their moral inadequaces. How can the bounty hunter hold the moral high ground when he has pushed thirty two Apache women and children into a mass grave? Has Evans’ cowardice prevented him from giving his wife and children the life they deserve? Behind every rock, our lawmen in the desert confront grinning, smooth-talking Lucifer. It’s no wonder that the most commonly repeated phrase in the movie is "Don’t talk to him."

Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Films

Of course, Evans might just be affirming the valuelessness of a violent world, sketching the men he meets as accurately as he sketches the natural world in pencil drawings. But this is a movie with values. At first, they seem to be the traditional values of the Western: personal loyalty and individual pride. Charley Prince and his gang may be sadistic criminals, but they’ll stand by their master. Wade bears being captured and taken to prison quietly, but he’ll kill you if you’re not polite.

But this movie has something quite different in mind. Here, the world doesn’t belong to the proud, the loyal, the good or the violent: it belongs to the smart. As one after one of the violent men dies (as the Biblical reference might suggest) by the sword, the patsies remain standing. And they aren’t preserved by simple cowardice—or even good principles. Evans might seem to be holding on to principle, but in the end he’s only holding out for more money. And although there’s a dime-novel ending where the aspiring hero grasps his heroism and the bad man turns good, behind them there is always the world-turning force of technology and money. There is an unlikely survivor of the desert trip—contrary to all logic of weapons and street smarts—and at the end he’s left free to work his violence while his companions bleed. He may win by cowardice, but in the end he’s the last one standing. Make no mistake: the Man always wins.

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Assistant Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas – Pan American.

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