Monday, August 18, 2008

A Classic Western Tale, Part 1

The directing career of Delmer Daves lasted more than twenty years, from 1943 to 1965. The first movie he directed was the WW II submarine picture Destination Tokyo (1943). Other directing credits include several Westerns in the late 50's, a series of good-looking but slick and almost camp soap operas starring Troy Donahue (beginning with A Summer Place) in the early 60's, and the far-fetched film noir Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Agnes Moorehead, released in 1947. Earlier in his career he contributed to a number of screenplays for Warner Brothers, including the musicals Dames and Flirtation Walk (both 1934) and the gangster melodrama Petrified Forest (1936). His most notable writing contribution was to Leo McCarey's delightful sentimental romance Love Affair (1939).

Daves's directing career was dismissed by Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema as one of "stylistic conviction in an intellectual vacuum." However, one Western Daves made in mid-career, 3:10 to Yuma (1957), based on a story by Elmore Leonard, belies this assessment. Tightly structured and psychologically probing, it stands as one of the best Westerns ever made.

In the movie Van Heflin plays Dan Evans, a homesteader and cattle rancher who lives with his wife and two young sons in Arizona. While out with his sons one day looking for a missing herd of cattle, Evans finds that the cattle have been "borrowed" by outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his gang of outlaws to use as a diversion while holding up a stagecoach carrying gold.

When Wade is later captured in a nearby town, Evans, an expert marksman, is offered a reward of $200 to make sure that Wade is delivered to the train that will take him to the prison in Yuma, where he will be jailed until he stands trial. Evans agrees because he desperately needs the money to buy water for his cattle, for there has been a drought in the region for several years and Evans is in real danger of losing his herd and his ranch, everything he has worked to get.

To conceal their plans from Wade's gang, his captors stage an elaborate ruse, in which Wade is secretly removed from the stagecoach transporting him, and another man is substituted for him while his gang looks on from a distance. Wade is then hidden out at Evans's ranch until he can be transferred at night to the nearby town of Contention to wait for the train to Yuma the next afternoon.

This plan requires Evans and Wade to spend several hours, most of them alone, secreted in a hotel room in Contention until the train arrives. During this part of the movie—and this section occupies roughly the entire second half of the film—Wade uses all of his considerably persuasive psychological skills to pressure Evans to let him escape. Evans resists and does eventually succeed in delivering his adversary to the train and earns his $200, as thunder rumbles in the distance and rain begins at last to fall.

This synopsis sounds like a relatively straightforward plot of a righteous man resisting the blandishments of a villain and being rewarded for it. But, as they say, the devil is in the details, and in its details 3:10 to Yuma is far more complex than this synopsis would indicate.

The first indication that the morality of the tale is not as simple as it seems comes during the stage holdup. Instead of attempting any kind of intervention, Evans and his sons observe passively from a nearby hillside. Evans is not about to risk dangerous heroics for devotion to any abstract notion of justice, even after the stagecoach driver has been coldly murdered by the gang. Practicality trumps idealism. When Evans's wife hears of this she is clearly displeased with what she sees as behavior bordering on cowardice, but his choice of non-intervention doesn't seem to disturb Evans at all.

Later, the supposed villain of the story, Ben Wade, turns out to be a far more complex and ambiguous character than in the conventional Western. He is no Robin Hood; his criminal motivation is strictly for his own gain and his anti-social behavior is without moral compunction. But he seems at times to be almost a gentleman outlaw with a definite veneer of gracious nobility and a genuine respect for the feelings of others.

Nowhere is this more evident than during the evening he spends with Evans and his family while waiting for darkness to fall so that the two men can leave for Contention. Most of this time is spent at the dinner table. As in the films of John Ford, the act of dining with others is treated almost as a quasi-sacred ritual steeped in the humanistic symbolism of civilization and fellowship. During the meal Wade's behavior is subdued, polite, and considerate, the very opposite of villainous.

He tolerates with bemused equanimity the taunts of the younger son, who is chided by his parents for being impolite. When this son observes that Wade has begun eating before his mother has said grace, the mother tells him that it is discourteous to impose one's beliefs on others, whereupon Wade stops eating and invites the mother to say grace anyway. During this entire sequence it is clear that Wade is captivated by the easy intimacy and civility of the family.

The next day in the hotel room in Contention, it is Evans's turn to reveal unexpected subtleties of character, during the intensive psychological cat-and-mouse game Wade plays with him there. As the clock ticks closer to 3:10 (shades of High Noon?) Wade begins to revert to his coolly manipulative villainy, exerting every inducement in his arsenal in his attempts to persuade Evans to let him escape.

First he tries outright bribery, offering Evans far more money than he has already been promised. But Evans, having admitted that he accepted the job only for the money, is nonetheless not a greedy man, nor is he a materialist. In fact, Daves explicitly condemns materialism when from the second-story window of the hotel, the men watch the funeral cortege of the slain stagecoach driver. Butterfield, the owner of the stage line and the man who has hired Evans, does not even attend the funeral but stays with Evans and Wade in the hotel and watches with them from a distance because he is too eager to ensure that he gets his revenge on Wade and possibly his gold back. For this pursuit of the capitalist ideal at the expense of his humanity, Butterfield is condemned by the slain driver's enraged brother, and in a dramatically confrontational scene in the hotel room Evans manages to thwart the brother's attempt to shoot Butterfield.

Next Wade appeals to Evans's feelings for his wife, and by implication to his sexual urges, by tempting him with all the things he could buy for his wife with the money. But Evans is a family man for whom love suffices. Even the promise of wealth for his sons fails to entice him.

Finally, Wade tries reasoning and an appeal to Evans's sense of self-preservation, by pointing out that his gang is certain to attempt to rescue him and that Evans stands little chance against a dozen or so outlaws. This tactic again fails, not because of nobility on Evans's part, but because he has accepted a job and is determined to honor his contract, even though by this point he has been released from it by Butterfield, who has seen the futility of his objective.

By the time Evans and Wade must leave for the train station, Wade's gang has arrived, and to get to the station they must run the armed gauntlet of the outlaws. This would seem a doomed undertaking, but again Wade's moral ambivalence kicks in and after initially resisting Evans's tactics to hurry him along, Wade begins to co-operate and willingly runs along with Evans. It is clear that somewhere along the way Wade has developed a respect for Evans, not because of any nobility or idealism in Evans, but in recognition of the man's simple decency, his transparent and modest ambitions, his lack of ego, and the skill at problem-solving that in Wade has been transformed into self-serving, criminal guile.

A fraternal bond has occurred between the two men, for each has come to find in the other qualities that he can recognize and admire. Evans was never a hero, but he is in the end an ordinary man with some heroic traits. And Wade is not the thorough villain that he at first appeared, but has found within himself some measure of respect for the ordinary life and values of Evans.

Next week I will be writing about director James Mangold's 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma.

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