3:10 to Yuma demonstrated that Glenn Ford was as natural in Westerns as he was in any other film genre.
If the name of the film sounds familiar, it may be because 3:10 to Yuma was remade in 2007 with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.
I’ve never seen the remake, but I can’t imagine it’s as good as the original.
You can rent or purchase 3:10 to Yuma here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot.
3:10 to Yuma: The Plot
It’s the 1880s, Arizona territory. Our protagonist, struggling farmer Dan Evans (Van Heflin), and his two young sons are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They witness notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his gang rob a stagecoach, killing two men in the process.
It looks like Wade and his men will get away with the robbery and murders. But while making a stop in the next town for a drink and a quick seduction of a lonely barmaid (Felicia Farr, the soon-to-be Mrs. Jack Lemmon), the town marshal catches up with Wade, with farmer Dan’s help.
Wanted: Two Volunteers (With a Death Wish)
With Ben Wade in custody, the town marshal must now concoct a plan to transport Wade to Yuma for punishment. His plan: two volunteers will work together to secretly get Wade to Contention City, where they will then catch the 3:10 train to Yuma.
Since the whole town is fearful of Wade’s henchmen, who are still on the loose, volunteers are hard to come by. Undoubtedly, Wade’s men will make an attempt at breaking their boss free.
And whoever stands in their way will most likely, well, die.
Farmer Dan, for practical reasons, steps up to the challenge: he needs the $200 reward money for his drought-riddled farm. The other volunteer is the town drunk, Alex (Henry Jones).
On Their Own
Dan and Alex successfully get Wade to Contention City. But Wade’s right hand man discovers their location when he hears a gunshot from the hotel room where Dan has Wade in custody.
And then it’s on.
It’s a race against the clock to see what will happen first, the arrival of the 3:10 train to Yuma, or the regrouping and strategizing of Wade’s men in Contention City to set their boss free.
The local townspeople of Contention City are at first willing to form their own posse to help Dan and Alex fight off Wade’s men, and get Wade on the train. But then the volunteers realize that they’ll be outnumbered…and then Wade’s men arrive in town and they all have guns…and then the volunteers realize they could die…so one by one the townsmen desert.
It’s only Dan and Alex against Wade’s men.
A Tragic Morale Boost
Then Dan’s wife shows up.
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This determined woman comes all the way to Contention City alone to tell her husband that he doesn’t have to go through with this impossible task, that there’s nothing to prove to anyone.
But Dan is now fully committed to his task after Alex gives his life to save Dan from the bullets of Wade’s posse. He tells his wife:
“I heard Alex scream. The town drunk gave his life because he believed that people should be able to live in decency and peace together.”
Dan successfully gets Wade on the 3:10 to Yuma, and neither man gets shot in the process, leaving Wade’s henchmen in the dust, literally.
We know everything will be alright when Dan and Wade pass by Dan’s wife on her way home, and it starts raining.
And that’s the end of the film.
Ford Chooses the Villain in 3:10 to Yuma
By 1956, Glenn Ford was a huge star. He’d already made a name for himself in the Western genre, and there was never a shortage of film roles coming his way.
Initially, Ford was given his choice of characters to play in 3:10 to Yuma. It was kind of expected that he’d choose the protagonist role, that of good-guy farmer Dan Evans. But Glenn surprised everyone, and chose the role of the villainous Ben Wade instead.
3:10 to Yuma: A Different Type of Role for Glenn Ford
Glenn’s natural nice-guy looks and demeanor led to a career of playing, quite uniformly, good-guy roles. He’d played a few villains before, in The Man from Colorado (1949) and Lust for Gold (1949), but Ben Wade was Ford’s first chance to play a nuanced, layered villain: Ben Wade may be the bad guy in 3:10 to Yuma, but his actions in the film show us that Wade is somehow kind of a decent guy.
Case in point: when Wade and his men realize that Dan and his sons witnessed the stagecoach robbery and murders, rather than kill these innocent witnesses, Wade opts to take their horses, effectively keeping Dan and the boys from telling the town marshal what they saw. Dan and his boys may be stranded, but at least they’re alive, thanks to Wade. This, coupled with Wade’s insistence that the two men killed during the stagecoach robbery be transported to their hometowns for burial, informs us right away that, though an outlaw, Ben Wade does have a moral code. There’s something noble about this outlaw.
Glenn Ford's Layered Performance in 3:10 to Yuma
Glenn Ford expertly shows us these complicated layers to the Ben Wade character with just a flicker of rage, compassion, or admiration in his eyes. Sometimes it’s just the way Ford repositions the hat on his head. Whatever the prop—his eyes, facial expression, hat, or the upturning of his coat collar—Ford conveys to us everything Wade thinks and feels, while simultaneously appearing like a mysterious outlaw.
Age and experience were good to Glenn Ford. There’s not a moment in 3:10 to Yuma when he doesn’t make the Ben Wade character real and believable. By 1957, 20 years in to his screen career, Ford was nothing if not a seasoned pro, and it shows. He’s superb in the film.
Elvis and Glenn Ford
In his book on his father [aff. link], Peter Ford shares that in May of 1957, a few months before 3:10 to Yuma was released, Glenn took him to work one day on the MGM backlot.
To Meet Elvis.
Elvis and Glenn were both working at MGM at the time. On the day Peter met the rock n’ roll legend, Elvis was in the midst of filming Jailhouse Rock (1957). As Peter shared:
“Apparently, Elvis was a big Glenn Ford fan, and we had a nice visit with him and his ‘boys.’ A few weeks later Dad brought home an autographed photo and nearly every record that Elvis had made at that time…After that first meeting Dad went back to the studio a few times and had lunch alone with Elvis. He took a liking to him and told me he was a very warm and pleasant fellow.”
Glenn Ford and Elvis. BFF’s forever.
Peter further shared that:
“Dad wasn’t wild about Elvis’s music and didn’t know if as a singer he’d amount to anything more that a passing fad, but he thought that with diligence and determination Elvis could be a fine actor.”
Glenn was wrong about the whole Elvis-not-amounting-to-much-with-his-music-thing, but Glenn was on to something with his opinion that Elvis had great acting talent. Yes, Elvis Presley was a more than capable actor. (I’m not kidding.)
That's it for 3:10 to Yuma
That’s it for 3:10 to Yuma.
Join me next time for our last week with Glenn Ford in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961).