In this remake of a 1957 Western, Dan Evans is not a hero. At least not yet. The pressing question of 3:10 to Yuma is whether he will become one. At the outset, Dan's just a guy trying to make a life for his family in the hills of Arizona. But the cards are stacked against him. He's down one leg. His son Mark suffers from chronic respiratory problems. His ranch is languishing because it hasn't rained in months. And to top things off, the banker who owns the note on his property is looking to turn a buck by repossessing and selling it to the railroad.
Enter Ben Wade, the most dastardly dude west of the Mississippi. His modus operandi is to hold up coaches as they pass through Arizona's deserted canyons—especially coaches carrying large sums of money. He kills anyone who stands between him and the riches he seeks. And sometimes he kills people just for looking at him sideways. But one day he makes the mistake of messing with Dan Evans' herd of cattle while he's gunning for a big haul. Dan not only becomes instrumental in Ben's arrest, but subsequently volunteers to help deliver the bad guy to Contention, Ariz., where he'll be put on the prison train to Yuma.
On the treacherous trek to meet the 3:10 train, Ben does everything he can to best his captors. He messes with their minds, and he even manages to kill a few of them. But it's through Dan's interaction with Ben that the audience learns what kind of man the rancher really is.
Dan is a believable, no-frills kind of guy who refuses to embellish or play games to make people respect him. He just tells it like it is and lets people make their own judgments. Though at first Dan's son William disrespects him, the unfolding of events gives Dad a chance to prove himself to his boy—and vice versa. In the end, Dan lets William know that he trusts him to run the ranch and lead the family should something go badly wrong on his journey to Contention. And William sees his father for the honorable man that he is.
Along the dangerous road, some significant conversations are had about the nature of men and their crimes. The overall effect is to communicate that men who don't value human life are warped and evil.
[Spoiler Warning] Dan initially joins the prisoner escort to earn $200 to save his family's ranch. That's noble enough. Then, when he's eventually faced with multiple opportunities to earn much more money for letting Ben go free, he chooses to risk his life anyway—just to see that justice is done—and ends up making the ultimate sacrifice in the process.
Reacting to his difficult situation, Dan says, "I've been standing on one leg for three d--n years waiting for God to do me a favor and He ain't listening." (He uses that reasoning to partially justify risking his life to save his ranch and his family.) At dinner, just before Dan leaves on the escort, Mark wonders aloud, "Aren't we supposed to say grace for murderers, too?" Dan's wife, Alice, offers up the prayer.
One of the unnerving things about Ben is that he regularly quotes Scripture (he's especially fond of Proverbs). In combination with his habit of killing people, his Bible thumping just makes him seem creepy. He confronts one of his captors, challenging that the man reads nothing but the Bible, yet has no problem killing Apache women and children ("Apparently, he figured Jesus wouldn't mind"). That man, for his part, twice tells Ben to "go to hell." The first time, his words feel like a figure of speech; the second time, they're more directly damning in a spiritual sense.
Ben's gun, meanwhile, is named "the hand of God." It bears a gold carving of a crucifix on the stock, and Ben says it's cursed. He tells his captors that his men will come to rescue him, "as sure as God's vengeance." He mockingly tells Dan that when a man does a good deed for someone else, and sees the look of gratitude given in return, it makes him "feel like Christ Hisself."
It turns out that Ben knows the Bible so well because his mother gave him one and told him to read it just before she abandoned him at a train station.
Dan makes a subtle reference to the strained sexual relationship he has with his wife due to the hard times they're going through. Ben seduces a barmaid and takes her upstairs to a bedroom. The audience sees her naked back and backside as he draws her figure in his sketchbook. Ben is also shown kissing her. Later, he makes a suggestive comment about brides in a bridal suite and tries to tempt William with talk of "women who will do things to you that you'll never forget." (Another man counters with, "... and give you diseases you'll never forget, too.")
Ben's bloody track record is the primary evidence presented to show that he is a thoroughly bad man. To date, he's held up 22 coaches and killed their crews. Not surprisingly, then, gunfighting is the backbone of 3:10 to Yuma. Men shoot each other from a distance with rifles and up close with revolvers. There's even a Gatling gun on one of the coaches Ben robs.
Sometimes railroaders and constables and criminals kill each other in the frenzy of a large fight. Sometimes they stare each other in the eye and shoot each other point-blank. Sometimes one shot is not enough and a man must be shot four or five times, just so he'll know that the guy who killed him really doesn't like him. More than once, Ben shoots one of his own men to teach others a lesson.
Blood spurts and seeps from head wounds, abdominal wounds and out of men's mouths from internal wounds. A doctor removes a bullet from a man's abdomen without anesthesia. Men are choked, stabbed, tortured with electricity, thrown off cliffs, burned alive and hit in the head with shovels. William suggests that his dad should just shoot the dishonest man who holds the mortgage on their ranch instead of reasoning with him.
Drug and Alcohol Content
After a holdup, Ben walks into a bar and orders whiskey for all his men, who down multiple shots. Later, Ben's number-two gangster throws back another slug. A man rolls a cigarette.
With Christian Bale or Russell Crowe onscreen for nearly every scene, you know that 3:10 to Yuma is a well-acted film. Better yet, the story shifts midstream from being plot-driven to being character-driven—a well-timed creative decision on the part of the filmmakers. (Yuma is directed by Walk the Line's James Mangold.) Also, growing respect between a father and his son makes for a moral core, so there are some significant things to like here.
But don't start handing out white Stetsons at the theater quite yet. Though the film generally does a good job of lauding honorable men and bringing bad ones to justice, the end holds just enough of a twist to turn white into gray. Edging even closer to black is—of course—the movie's perpetual gun violence. Though some may argue that it's a convention of Westerns and should be largely ignored, that's hard to do for discerning moviegoers who'll feel pretty beat up by the end of the movie. I certainly did. (Yuma may be a remake, but it does not hold to 1950s-style violence.) And the foul language and Proverbs-prattling antagonist don't help matters, either.
Can't make the 3:10? It's just as well. There've been plenty of Westerns made before now. And there'll be more made in the future. And maybe, just maybe, the next train'll travel down a safer track.