“And you just remember that your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when nobody else would.”
There are many good westerns that are worth your time, but if I had to pick one above all others it would have to be 3:10 to Yuma. I like it for the acting; Russel Crowe, Christian Bale and Ben Foster are phenomenal. It has a high production value and a beautiful score. But what sets it apart, at least in my book, is the theme at its core. More than a story about a man who escorts a criminal to his jail-bound train, 3:10 to Yuma is about the struggle of faith. It’s about a son believing in his father, and a criminal wrestling with his own beliefs about the nature of God and mankind.
If you haven’t seen the film, please go ahead and do that. I strongly suggest that you read no further until you’ve seen it. That being said, if you have no intention of watching a western, or if you’ve seen it and forgotten much of the plot, here is a summary. Dan Evans (Bale) is a poor rancher who lost his leg in the Civil War. He struggles to maintain his ranch for his wife and two sons. To make matters worse, the local authorities are giving him a hard time about paying his bills. His barn is even burned down as a threat. Enter Ben Wade (Crowe) and his violent gang, whose second in command, Charlie Prince (Foster), views Wade as a father. They hijack a wagon full of money and then retreat to the nearby town. Wade is captured, but his gang rides away. A wealthy and powerful man named Butterfield rounds up a posse, which includes Dan,and later his oldest son. As they trek across the western wilderness they face many dangers, and some of the men die. The remaining group ends up in the town where the train stops. Wade’s gang rides in and bribes many townspeople to join them in killing anyone who attempts to bring Wade to the train. Seeing the odds stacked against them, everyone but Dan tries to back out. Dan makes a final deal with Butterfield that will ensure his family and ranch will be taken care of, if only he can deliver Wade to the train at 3:10. Wade willingly runs with Dan to the station as they dodge bullets. Right when Wade gets on the train, Dan is shot down by Charlie Prince. Filled with rage, Wade kills every one of his gang members. Then, Dan’s son points his gun at Wade, contemplating murder. In the end, Wade is allowed to live, and boards the train to Yuma prison.
There is a clear parallel between Dan’s son and Charlie Prince. Both of them are looking to their father figure as a way to form their own identities. In the case of Charlie Prince, he loves and respects Wade. There is no doubt that he is entirely devoted to his “boss” and father. He is willing to kill innocent people for him and also to protect him. In one scene he burns a man alive to torture him into giving up Wade’s location. Charlie Prince believes in his father figure, but he believes only in the worst side of him. That is why his identity is defined by violence and cruelty, because that’s what he believes his father expects of him. Dan’s son is a little more complicated. At the start of the film he views his father as a weak shameful fool. He does not respect Dan. Then, as he interacts with Wade on the way to the station, he seems to find his power and confidence attractive. Throughout the film, there is an unspoken tug of war for this boy’s soul. Here is some dialogue between Wade, and Dan’s son, who is named William by the way. I believe it captures the essence of this struggle to form an identity.
Ben Wade: They’re gonna kill you and your father, William. They’re gonna laugh while they do it. I think you know that.
William Evans: Call ’em off.
Ben Wade: Why should I?
William Evans: Because you’re not all bad.
Ben Wade: Yes, I am.
William Evans: You saved us from those Indians.
Ben Wade: I saved myself.
William Evans: You got us through the tunnels. You helped us get away.
Ben Wade: If I had a gun in them tunnels, I would have used it on you.
William Evans: I don’t believe you.
Ben Wade: Kid, I wouldn’t last five minutes leading an outfit like that if I wasn’t as rotten as hell.
So you see that Wade is “as rotten as hell” when he leads his gang. It is this hellish persona that Charlie Prince loves and respects, and it is the same tough persona that Dan’s son finds so appealing. But Dan’s son isn’t entirely convinced that Wade is all bad. He views certain actions as heroic and selfless, like helping him and his father escape deadly situations. His desire to see the good in Wade reveals that he has something that Charlie Prince doesn’t: a good man to look up to. And when Dan chooses to deliver Wade to the train station against impossible odds, his son finally views him with respect. Consider Dan’s words to his son.
Dan Evans: I’m gonna be a day behind you, William. Unless something happens, and if it does, I need a man at the ranch to run things, protect our family, and I know that you can do that because you’ve become a fine man, William. You’ve become a fine man. You got all the best parts of me. What few there are.
[Dan shakes William’s hand]
Dan Evans: And you just remember that your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when nobody else would.
Dan tells his son that he is a fine man who can protect his family. The father gives the son his identity. Dan believes that his son is good, and then he leaves him with an incredible image of courage, loyalty, and perseverance. Dan proves that he is a man of his word when he delivers on his promise to get Ben Wade to the station. Dan’s son can believe in him, and believe the good words that will certainly shape his identity as a man.
We have seen two young men who look up to their fathers embrace the identity that the father has given them. In an interesting twist, Ben Wade develops his own identity in the image of the one he views as a father. For most of the film, that father is evil. Wade shares a personal story with Dan in the minutes before their fateful journey to the train.
Ben Wade: You ever read the bible, Dan? I read it one time. I was eight years old. My daddy just got himself killed over a shot of whiskey and my mama said “we’re going back East to start over”. So she gave me a bible, sat me down in the train station, told me to read it. She was gonna get our tickets. Well, I did what she said. I read that bible from cover to cover. It took me three days. She never came back.
Wade read the bible from cover to cover. In the bible, Jesus dies and then comes back three days later. In Wade’s life, his father died and his mother abandoned him. She didn’t come back after three days, which must have caused him to either hate God or not believe in him at all. Believing the worst of both his earthly and heavenly parent, Wade turned to a life of death and pleasure-seeking. He took on the identity of the father he believed in. Then he crossed paths with Dan, and Dan showed him a better father to believe in. Not the kind of father who abandons, but the kind of father who will give his life for his family. He’s the kind of father who will even run alongside an unworthy criminal to see that justice is done. Please take a moment to watch this powerful scene. The song is called, “Bible Study.”
Ben Wade sketched Dan into the front of the bible. Dan showed him a good father, which I think made Wade start to believe in a good God. Why else would he help Dan as they run together? Wade now believes in Dan, and Dan believes in something greater than himself. Even if getting on the train to Yuma results in judgement for a life of evil, Wade is willing to go if it means running alongside a good man he can believe in.