Perhaps more than any other classic American genre, the western may have the most obvious symbolic binary: black hats signify the outlaws, white ones are worn by the lawmen. Delmer Daves’ big screen adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s pulp story “Three-Ten to Yuma,” (screenplay by Halsted Welles) subverts this. It pulls certain lines of dialog verbatim, and uses the original source material overall as a framework for the film’s climax, but several other aspects of the narrative are altered significantly to achieve its desired effect. The starkest and most obvious change to me, was the choice to change one of the protagonists’ occupations (as well as both of their names – the movie changes most all the names in fact). In the film, outlaw Ben Wade (Jim Kidd in the original source material) is brought to Contention by rancher Dan Evans. In the short story, Dan Evans is a lawman who goes by the name Paul Scallen; he has brought Kidd to Contention to be brought to justice, because it is his duty. The movie makes the deliberate choice of removing career obligation with its new interpretation of Evans’ character. In Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Evans volunteers. It appears this choice was made in the adaptation to allow for a more nuanced examination of many stale and tired tropes within the genre and the American West.
For years, the outlaw was often the clichéd antagonist of the western formula, in contrast to the lawman. In this picture, Daves uses the criminal Ben Wade (played by the rough, yet charismatic, always utterly enthralling, Glenn Ford), and his relation to Evans (a verbally understated, but emotionally reactionary Van Heflin), to examine why the archetype might be misunderstood. By making Evans – who would normally be your standard town Marshall – a rancher, the movie adds a shared dimension to our two protagonists’ relationship; one of survival that morphs from monetary necessity and professional respect, into raw empathy and moral duty. The film brings the circumstances surrounding – what would normally be diametrically opposed templates – into a new light, and out of shadows; by bringing the basic human and financial needs of the two lead characters closer together.
“How much do you make, Marshall?”, Kidd (Wade in the story) asks Scallen (Evans). “I don’t think it’s any of your business,” he responds. But that’s just it; Kidd believes it is his business. Kidd/Wade has turned to the life he has order to survive, a lawman paid a hundred and fifty dollars a month cannot comprehend that. But Daves seemed to understand that this value gap was perhaps worth exploring. By rewriting the lawman as an everyman, both Evans and the audience can empathize with the clichéd archetype of Wade’s murderous outlaw more.
By contrast, early in the film, Dan Evans confronts the Ben Wade character after his cattle are briefly stolen from him, by Wade’s gang. “You got em’ back didn’t you,” Wade says, taking a drag of his cigarette. “Took me half-a- days’ time,” Evans responds. “What’s half-a- days’ time worth to you?” Wade then offers to pay Evans double for the inconvenience he has caused him. This could certainly be read as a diversion tactic, an outlaw simply buying off a man he hopes is dishonest, but when one looks closer at how Ben Wade views people throughout the film, his motivation becomes more clear. He may rob stagecoaches to keep on living, but deep down he has a raw respect for the hard working folk who built the West. I think it is no accident, that the scene I just described above, occurs just after Wade has revealed another side of his personal code; he values and respects hard working women greatly as well. Daves shows us a compassionate aspect of Wade’s persona; he’s not just a criminal, he’s a criminal who cares about his values so much that it gets him arrested.
“You ever work for a blind Irishmen in Dodge City?” Wade asks the character Emmy, after she has served his men some drinks. She smiles.
“Best time I ever had in my life,” she says.
“Well, what made you quit?” he asks.
It is quite telling that the first thing Wade asks this woman about is the work she has done. Emmy is then far more easily able to open herself up to him after learning they share some history in common. As with Evan’s character alteration, the movie consistently makes a point to bring each character’s circumstances closer to the outlaw’s than they have been in previous iterations of the genre – breathing new empathy into the genre. This theme is echoed inversely near the end of the film.
The movie adds to the proceedings, the trope of the town drunk (In the recent 2007 version this character was changed to the town doctor, another western character archetype). The drunk, a man named Alex Potter, is the only other person besides Evans to volunteer to bring Ben Wade to justice. Close to the end of the picture, Potter loses his life while lending his aid. At this point in the movie, Wade has been trying to bribe Evans into letting him go, in their hotel room, believing that money is his primary motivation, which it might have been at first. But Evans does not turn Wade over to his gang, instead he proclaims; “The town drunk gave his life because he believed that people should be able to live in decency and peace together. You think I can do less?” Most of the short story takes place in and around the hotel when Evans makes this claim.
Both the film and the original narrative, use the chamber aspect of the setting, and the interaction between the two lead characters, to examine their differences and similarities. Ultimately, Wade realizes that Evans’ loyalty is out of duty to his family. While sitting alone together in the hotel room, Wade offers to double the money Evans is being paid to put him on the train; mirroring the scene I described previously. Wade paid Evans double for the inconvenience of losing a half-a- days’ work earlier Now the sentiment is echoed – offering to him the chance to provide even more money, money he desperately needs, for his family. However, Evans duty as a family man overshadows his financial circumstances. Wade tries to bait him ever further, still…
“I’d treat [your wife] a hell of a lot better than you do,” he tells Evans. (His says this after expressing that he is envious of Evans’ family.)
“Must be real nice… a woman like that, every night… must be nice…”
Wade just wants to settle down with a hardworking woman like Emmy. If he were able to he would, but he is a wanted man now.
Still… he sees the same basic human need in Dan Evans, and he identifies with that. He sees a man who just wants to be able to give others what he cannot always provide himself… and understands. Upon realizing this, Wade decides that maybe Evans’ duty has earned him the money he was promised to see Wade put safely on that train after all.
Both film adaptations and the original short story end with the outlaw in route to prison on the 3:10 to Yuma. The emotional impact of the journey is vastly improved in the original film, however. By bringing the circumstances of the two leads closer together by threading a subtle growth of empathy, Daves paints a more nuanced, and understanding portrait of the genre’s classic black and white dichotomy. (Also beautifully expressed through the luscious high contrast cinematography) He provides a criminal with a code and a more relatable version of the genre’s heroic archetype, both infinitely more complex than your normal stereotypes. At the end of the short story Kidd (Wade) tells Scallen (Evans), “You know, you really earn your hundred and a half.” Daves’ film takes this line, and beautifully renders a more emotionally effective narrative pay-off with it. The original silver screen adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s short story truly earns the respect its two leads have for one other, a respect exemplifying both the dirty duties and hard work ethic that built the West… before black and white hats mythologized it…