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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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I watched 3:10 To Yuma this morning. The movie stars two Western greats: Van Heflin and Glenn Ford. It’s an obscure Western, overshadowed considerably by its predecessor High Noon with which it shared a similar story line.

3:10 To Yuma is a little different, though. It stars Heflin as a rancher who stumbles accidentally upon a stagecoach robbery conducted by Glenn Ford and his gang. The gang tells Heflin to come back in five minutes and that he can have his cattle. His sons, who are riding with him, are crestfallen but rationalize their father’s backing down as stepping away from an unfair fight. Heflin himself is torn between showing his courage and making the children orphans. He’s a practical man, however, so he consoles himself that he isn’t a law man. His ranch is hurting, though, so he decides to go into town to ask the bank for a loan to get him through the drought.

On his way into town, he comes across the posse sent to retrieve the gang and they solicit his help in catching Ford, who is still in town talking to a pretty lady. Heflin agrees, they capture Ford, and then are faced with a dilemma: how do you keep a villain like Ford since his gang will be back for him? They hit upon a scheme to fool the gang, while surreptitiously sneaking Ford onto a train bound for Yuma, the 3:10, where the territorial prison is located. The only thing missing is someone to conduct Ford to Contention City to meet the train.

Heflin is offered $200 for it (exactly the amount he needed to borrow from the bank) and accepts the commission. During the trip, he develops a sort of appreciation for Ford—not admiration, but respect. Ford offers Heflin a substantial sum of money to let him go; finding that this doesn’t work, he regales Heflin with the fate that awaits him as his gang re-assembles to secure his release. The viewer—at least this one—finds himself wondering why Heflin is going through with this. The answer comes when the stagecoach owner offers him the money to quit this job since it’s become too risky. Heflin has a strong sense of justice, but we also see that it’s a little more complex than that. Heflin has let Ford get under his skin and now he’s got to prove to himself that he’s strong and won’t back down. It ceases being about the money or courage and turns instead to that powerful motivator: pride.

It is in this psychological complexity that the difference between 3:10 To Yuma and High Noon lies. In High Noon, Kane plays a man who struggles with the task at hand but his motivation is utterly simple. 3:10 To Yuma shows us a man who has everything to lose and very little to gain, but presses on despite his tremendous inner conflict.

Heflin plays much the same character he did in Shane, a father who is torn by the conflict between family and honor, except that this time there was no gallant stranger to help him realize his inner value—this time he had to do it himself.

The cinematography and direction were also excellent. The chilling clastrophobia of the hotel room and the incessant droning of Ford heightened the story and gave resonance to Heflin’s turmoil. The sweeping panoramas added to the story and reinforced Heflin’s loneliness in the cause of justice, much like the empty streets of Hadleyville did in High Noon.

I would recommend this Western to anyone interested in the great awakening of Westerns during the late fifties and sixties—the time when the genre was revitalized and shorn of its stodgy conventions and clichés. It was a great genre and I’m glad we can still access it readily, even if there’s very little new releases.