Strip away the gunplay and violence in 3:15 to Yuma and what we have is a buddy movie, a road movie with a flanking of Greek Choruses on both sides of what might be the Good Guys and what might be the Bad Guys.
Whats so interesting to our modern sensibility is the moral relativism in how the two lead characters are presented. Outlaw Ben Wade as played by Russell Crowe is both endearing and alarming. Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is both vulnerable and resolute. Its the relationship between the two men and how they draw out under-used and perhaps even unknown qualities that makes the story so interesting. Seeing the movie makes me wants to see the original with Glenn Ford, but more, it makes me want to read the original Elmore Leonards short story.
Its the presence of the 14-year-old son, though, thats at the heart of the movie and at the heart of the redemption and character changes we witness in both Bad Guy Wade and Good Guy Evans (the boys father). Its a triangle, see?
The active ingredients in the yeasty plot are the son William, and what he evokes in both men. Dan Evans wants to protect and provide for his family, of course, but more than anything else he is driven to have his son look on him with pride and respect as a man of courage and worth. Ben Wade, on his side, needs to heal a boyhood memory that still rips inside him.
Many critics say they don’t find the last 10 minutes of the movie believable, but I do. I also find the last ten minutes the most fascinating in terms of character revelation. Is the ending surreal? Yes, but also real in psychological terms. You could make a whole movie out of the last 10 minutes in which characters make a series of choices at astonishing speeds.
The crucial moment in 3:15 to Yuma (the train that would take the prisoner to Federal Court) is the story Wade tells Evans of a gripping childhood event. When Ben was eight, he saw his father shot and his mother told him to go to the train station and wait while she bought tickets for their passage back East. She sent him off with a Bible and he read it cover to cover for three days. His mother never came.
We can guess this was the incident that set Wade off on his own and down a life of twisted crime and torture, albeit mixed with the sensitivity of sketching and courting. Whats important here is that Wade sees his younger self in William. When Dan reveals the true nature of the wound that led to the amputation of his leg, and his wish for his son to see him as a full man, something clicks in Ben and they become accomplices on getting him on the train. Its not about the money anymore. Its about the boy.
Its also a new game for Wade, who loves challenges. Its a game that is won and lost and won and lost and won again in the last 10 minutes of the film. The winning and losing is all in your point of view, of course.
Dan, the sensitive man who would be strong, gets his man by way of winning his heart. Its a kind of love story. The two men reach into one another and complement each others missing qualities. Ben, the accomplished criminal turned accomplice to his own apparent capture, knows that, like Bogey, all he has to do is whistle (for his horse). And the boy? The boy goes home a man, having lived a lifetime in hardly any time at all.
Visit Janet Grace Riehl’s blog “Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century” at http://www.riehlife.com for more thoughts and information about making connections through the arts, across cultures, generations, and within the family. You can also read sample poems and other background information from “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” on Janet’s website.