In previous eras, filmmakers and storytellers often used westerns to play out morality pieces. One of my favorite such tales is 3:10 to Yuma, the story of a good man’s temptation and a wicked man’s near-redemption.

Dan Evans is “a good man.” Solid, dependable, and willing to tough it out in a barren land to save his younger son’s life, since the climate is the only thing keeping his tuberculosis at bay. In the middle of a draught, he is almost without water, since another rancher blocked off the stream. He must let his cattle “range” for water where they can find it, and has to round them up to sell them, to save his property from being repossessed. In the process, he witnesses a brutal stagecoach robbery.

The infamous outlaw Ben Wade guns down his own man for his stupidity, but allows Dan and his two sons to survive as witnesses, agreeing to leave their horses up the road for them. One thing leads to another, and Dan winds up on the posse elected to transport Wade across Indian territory and put him on the 3:10 prison train to Yuma. He knows it might be a one-way trip, because Wade’s ruthless outlaw gang is tracking them, determined to free their boss, but persists in keeping his word, both for the reward money that can help his family and out of a sense of deep personal integrity. He feels a need to show his oldest son, who thinks him a “coward” for not acting on his principles much of the time, what being a man of honor looks like. Astounded by this, Wade agrees to help him elude his gang and climb on the prison train.

The two stories follow a similar plot, but have different endings and different villains. In the original, Wade is a mild-mannered gentleman and shows almost no violent tendencies; his most aggressive move is to attempt to get a gun off Evans in the hotel room while they wait for the train. He seems sincere in his assertion to Evans’ family that he hopes he can send their father back to them in one piece. That a man died in the stagecoach robbery falls aside beneath his charm, and his men are a threat but not as callous as in the remake. There, too, Wade is far more of a malicious, remorseless murderer, showing a far stronger contrast between his inner duel natures. He stabs the man to death who stole his gun and his horse and annoyed him by singing all night. Wade tosses another man off a cliff for insulting his mother (and for Wade’s contempt for his cruel actions “protecting settlers” from Apaches). He is also more philosophical and more menacing, and Evans knows from the start that he is “rotten to the core.” He warns others not to listen to him.

In the original’s ending, the two men bond and get on the train together. It pulls out during a rainstorm to end the draught and all of Evans’ problems. It’s a “happily ever after” ending. Not so in the remake where Wade’s gang guns down Evans the second Wade climbs onto the train. Shoots him in the back. In a rage because of his death, which he sees as a gang of soulless cretins slaughtering the only man of integrity he has ever known, Wade kills them all, gets back on the train to ensure Evans receives his reward money, and whistles to his horse, with the implication that he’ll soon get off and ride away.

Where the earlier film is more of a slow-burn that turns suspenseful, the remake has more nuanced character development. Wade is a moral complexity, a man who asserts he is “rotten as hell,” but who compared to his second-in-command, Charlie, is more moral than he thinks he is. But even Charlie is not without his “goodness”—in his absolute devotion and loyalty to his “boss,” he emulates good traits to contrast with his total ruthlessness. Wade is complex, a man who wonders at the mysteries of the universe and shows some men compassion (including Byron, at the start) but not others.

What I like about the remake is this contrast between good and evil, blurred into shades of grey. There are no moral absolutes—Evans has integrity, but can also be stubborn and proud. Wade is a murderer, but also spares people’s lives. But what I love about it is the symbolism. In the most “ancient” book in known history (Job), Satan walks into Heaven (as one does) and asks permission to torment God’s faithful servant, Job. Since Job is a good and righteous man, and God knows he will not turn away, he allows Satan to do so. As in most ancient myths, Job endures trials, but remains faithful to God… and in the end, God restores his wealth, power, and family to him.

Wade in the remake reminds me of the accepted understanding of Satan—a charming but malevolent force, aware of scripture and the follies of men (he often points out men’s sins along the way and notes their hypocrisies, judging them for their sinful and inconsistent natures, and making no effort to sanitize his own actions, and even calls his pistol “The Hand of God” to deal out judgment), and whom, perplexed by Evans, tries again and again to entice him into evil. Well aware of the threat his gang poses, he offers him “outs” that will save his life and give him the financial windfall he covets… but still Evans, a man who keeps his promises and his honor, says no. Impressed, Wade intends him to live, but exacts vengeance on those who bring about his death (which correlates to the belief that evil has no fondness for its own ranks, and it can and will turn on itself; rather like the demon “coming for” his minion at the end of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters).

The director said he wanted a different ending than the original, to give it “a biblical quality; a washing clean of the earth, both of the tragedy that had been Dan Evans’ life, and finding something redemptive in it, and the misguided venture that had been Ben Wade’s life.”

I appreciate the subtle foreshadowing throughout the film, which reveals the impending twist of Wade turning on his own men. He reveals his thoughts about shedding innocent blood when he condemns Byron for having shot Apache children in the back and pushed them still crying into a ditch to die; when Charlie kills Evans, he shoots him in the back (Wade looks into Charlie’s eyes as he kills him, to show the difference between cowardice and his own brand of “honor”). The script foreshadows Charlie’s death throughout, since his first action is to interrupt his boss’ drawing of a buzzard, a symbol of death. He does not know nor understand why his boss takes a deeper spiritual interest in nature, just as he does not care about men’s souls. And that damns him.

Eventually in their spiritual walk, everyone ponders whether Satan, if such a being exists or if that is the name we give the evil in ourselves, could find redemption. Could he renounce his rebellion and return to the fold? Or is he forever damned? I do not know the answer, but I doubt anyone is above redemption… even Ben Wade, who is not as rotten as he thought.

I wrote this post as part of Legends of Western Cinema Week. Please click below to find and read more entries!