Have you Watched a Good Book Lately – Three-Ten to Yuma by Elmore Leonard

Welcome back to our blog series “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?” The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.

It was originally published in Dime Western Magazine

Today we’re going to be discussing “Three-Ten to Yuma,” a short story by Elmore Leonard that was published in Dime Western Magazine in 1953 and adapted in 2007 as “3:10 to Yuma” by screenwriters Halsted Welles and Michael Brandt and director James Mangold (“Girl, Interrupted,” “Walk the Line,” “Logan”). For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis of the short story (adapted from Wikipedia) and the film (adapted from Google):

“The story focuses on two men, one of whom is a deputy, the other a ruthless outlaw. The deputy agrees to take the outlaw to the Yuma Territorial Prison in Yuma, Arizona by train and overcomes the odds to get the outlaw to the train before its 3:10 departure time.”

“Outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) terrorizes 1800s Arizona, especially the Southern Railroad, until he is finally captured. Wade must be brought to trial, so Dan Evans (Christian Bale), the owner of a drought-stricken ranch, volunteers to escort him to the train. Along the trail, a grudging respect forms between the men, but danger looms at every turn, with Wade’s men in hot pursuit.”

NOTE: This story has been adapted twice for the big screen. For the purposes of this blog, we will be looking at the 2007 film version.

This article will look at the 2007 movie.

From the Source’s Mouth

Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? The story is quite short – about 20 paperback pages, so it was necessary for the filmmakers to restructure it to fill out the two-plus hours run time. The feel of the film, though, definitely fits the feel of Leonard’s story, especially in the way he portrays his characters. Leonard’s characters are complex – the hero is flawed and does not do everything for the greater good; the villain has a code of honor or some other redeeming quality. This makes each of them more interesting to read/watch; more relatable to us; and creates a more complex opposition, adding additional tension or drama.

Paul Scallan is a deputy marshal from Brisbee charged with transporting prisoner Jim Kidd to Yuma prison. They arrive in the small town of Contention, waiting for the 3:10 train headed to their final destination. Scallen approaches the hotel warily until he sees his contact in the doorway, a Mr. Timpey from Wells Fargo. “We’re ready for you,” Timpey tells the marshal proudly. “Two-oh-seven. A corner … fronts on Commercial.” But Scallan isn’t happy with the accommodations. “You might have got a back room, Mr. Timpey. One with no windows.” Timpey’s pride is wounded.

“Mr. Timpey it was your line this man robbed,” Scallen continues calmly. “You want to see him go all the way to Yuma, don’t you?”

“Certainly I do. But why all the melodrama? The man’s under arrest – already been sentenced.”

“But he’s not in jail till he walks through the gates at Yuma,” Scallen replies. “I’m only one man, Mr. Timpey, and I’ve got to get him there.”

This short exchange shows us a lot about the deputy marshal. He knows he’s the law in these parts, and he’s committed to his work, which now includes seeing Jim Kidd brought to full justice. In his estimation, that’s the only way this is going to go down. However, Kidd’s friends are likely to stage a rescue attempt, and Scallen has to be ready for all possibilities; windows complicate the situation. In fact, Brisbee’s marshal was so concerned about security that he took some of his men along with an army prisoner towards Yuma the night before as a decoy for Kidd’s men.

Outlaw and lawman settle down in the sparsely furnished room to wait for the train. Kidd makes one attempt to escape, but Scallen’s knee slamming into his face puts a quick stop to any more. “You don’t take any chances, do you?” Kidd asks the marshal. “Where’s your sporting blood?” “Down in Bisbee with my wife and the youngsters,” is Scallen’s curt response. Kidd becomes thoughtful: “How much do you make, Marshal?” “A hundred and fifty a month, some expenses. How much do you make?” Kidd grins at him. “Enough.” The silence returns.

After a while, Scallen looks out the window onto Commercial. A man stands next to a hitching post across the way, and he’s been there every time Scallen has looked out. Kidd identifies him as his right-hand man, Charlie Prince.

“How did you know you were going to be in Contention?” Scallen demands.

“You told that Wells Fargo man I had friends … and about the posses chasing around in the hills. Figure it out for yourself.” Scallen is adamant: “They’re not going to do you any good.” Kidd takes a moment to size Scallen up. “I don’t know any man who’d get himself killed for a hundred and fifty dollars. Especially a man with a wife and young ones …” It’s clear he’s underestimated Scallen in a major way.

An hour later, Charlie and another man call up to Kidd, asking if he’s okay. “We’ll be down shortly,” Kidd calls out, but Charlie won’t be pushed aside that easily. “What if you don’t come down? … Jim, you tell him what’ll happen if we hear a gun go off.” “He knows,” Kidd answers, and the standoff continues.

Time moves slowly. It’s 2:15 by Scallen’s watch when they hear a knock at the door and a heavyset man with a Colt in his hand, Bob Moons, pushes his way in. Kidd had killed his brother, and he was damned if he didn’t settle the debt himself. Scallen is adamant. “You pull that trigger, and you’ll hang for murder,” he tells Moons. “Like he did for killing Dick …” Moons’ question trails off into the tense air, but Scallen pushes onward. “A jury said he didn’t do it. And I’m dammed if I’m going to let you pass another sentence.” Moons averts his eyes for just a moment to look at Kidd, and in that moment Scallen brings out his own pistol and clocks Moons on the head with the butt. Interestingly, though, Kidd doesn’t even move during the exchange. “You know, you’re pretty good …” he tells the lawman. It’s clear he knows what he’s up against now.

At 2:55, Scallen motions Kidd toward the door, but Scallen’s apprehensive. Sitting here, he’s got the situation covered; on the street, with all of Kidd’s men surrounding him, things will be different. He keeps asking himself if it’s worth it, but he also keeps moving ahead. “You haven’t changed your mind?” Kidd asks bewilderedly. “I don’t understand you. You risk your neck to save my life, now you’ll risk it again to send me to prison.” Scallen presses his shotgun into his prisoner’s back in response.

Commercial is deserted. So is Stockman, which dead-ends at the train station, and where the 3:10 already waits on the platform. They’ve almost reached it when Kidd tells him, “Run like hell while you still can.” But Scallen only presses the gun harder into the man’s back as he sees six of Kidd’s men move into the open. Charlie suddenly shouts “Go down!” The next second seems interminable, but when time resumes its motion, Kidd is down, rolling onto the planking, and Scallen has a clear view of Charlie’s two pistols dead ahead. He squeezes both triggers of the scattergun, and Charlie falls. Whipping around, he draws his Colt and picks off two of the others. Then he grabs Kidd up by his collar, pushes the gun against him again, and urges him onward to the mail car. Gunfire bursts from the station shed, but Scallen and Kidd already have a good head start. They jump onto the slowly moving train, safely out of range. Kidd contemplates the lawman for some time then says, “You know, you really earn your hundred and a half.”

And that brings us to the movie, which follows the same basic premise of needing to get a prisoner on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. However, oddly enough, the characters seem almost more complex, more complete than those in the original story. Dan Evans is a small-time rancher who’s down on his luck. He lost one of his legs in the Civil War; there’s been a drought; his crops and cattle are failing. He also borrowed a substantial amount of money from a man named Hollander, whose land is upstream from his, meaning he can legally and very deliberately divert the water before it reaches Evans’ property. When Evans can’t raise enough money to pay him on time, he burns down his barn and promises that if he doesn’t pay up within a week, Hollander will take the land and sell it to the railroad coming through.

Evans coincidentally crosses paths with notorious outlaw Ben Wade. As he and his sons try to round up their cattle, which were disturbed by Hollander, they inadvertently block the path of the incoming Pinkerton stagecoach, allowing Wade and his men to rob the coach and to kill most of the people riding with it. Wade, though savage, shows a degree of reasonableness and generosity toward Evans when he says he has no interest in his cattle and won’t prevent him from taking them back home. However, he does need his three horses to get into town, and he rides off with them. Wade’s reputation precedes him, and the marshal arrests him while he’s camped out at the Bisbee saloon; Evans finds his horses there waiting for him out front, unharmed. The Pinkerton representative wants volunteers to ensure Wake makes it safely to Yuma for his trial, and Evans quickly steps up, as long as he’s paid $200 to do it. The group moves to Evans’ ranch to hole up while a decoy coach proceeds along the trail to the train station. Charlie Prince intercepts the decoy and sets it afire, telling the man trapped inside that he’ll let him free only if he tells him where and when the posse is taking Wade. Out of options, the man spills the information about stopping in Contention before making it to the train; Prince smiles and carelessly walks away, leaving him to burn.

While Charlie is a rather straightforward villain, Wade is a much more complex character. He is cocky and self-assured, especially since he knows his posse is loyal and will find him, and he has a penchant for saying whatever comes into his mind, no matter who he hurts or offends in the process. Clearly he has no guilt over the $400,000+ he’s stolen from Pinkerton or the dozens of men he’s killed in the process – he wears those like a badge of honor. Still, he demonstrates that he is an educated and talented man, always quoting scripture, talking about reading books for knowledge, or sketching beautiful images of people and wildlife. It makes you wonder how he got where he is at this moment. Alone with Evans, he repeatedly questions him on why he’s joining the posse, and he seems genuinely interested in how he lost his leg (which we’ll see later is a part of Evans’ complexity). His answer to Wade, and to his wife who also questions him, is that he feels compelled to bring a bad man to justice, but that he also needs to do this to make his life right (again, complexity), to have his boys respect him, and to be able to keep his land.

Most of the film’s remainder generally follows the original story, with Wade attempting to escape; the posse and Wade finally making it to Contention; and Evans, Wade, and the Pinkerton people waiting it out in a hotel room. When seven of Wade’s men show up, everyone except Evans – even the Pinkerton man – gets cold feet and backs out of the plan; Charlie and the gang kill every last one of them when they try to surrender. Still, Evans is determined to go on, but, afraid, he confides in Wade that he wasn’t the valiant sharpshooter in his regiment during the war; instead, he was part of a militia that never saw action. Forced to retreat from Washington, in the ensuing chaos he was hit by friendly fire, losing his leg. He made up the story because he couldn’t face his boys (and himself) with the truth – a lie of convenience which now weighs on him and could bring them both down. Wade opens up a tad, sharing that he’s not afraid of Yuma – he’s already escaped from there twice. It’s clear he means to make it three times.

Evans, though, is not deterred, and, shortly before 3:00, he heads out of the hotel with Wade toward the train station. Wade’s men are waiting along the path and at the station, and a shootout ensues, but Evans takes every precaution to make sure Wade gets to the train safely. He finally gets Wade to the train car, but Charlie shoots Evans down before being taken out by his son William. William is ready to kill Wade, but he is not like the outlaws – he can’t just kill someone in cold blood. Instead, he goes to his father as he’s dying, telling him he did it – he got Wade on the train. Watching this, Wade comes to a surprising decision, hopping into the car as the train heads off for Yuma. A moment later, though, we hear him whistle to one of his horses, which trots alongside of the train until it’s out of view. We imagine what lively adventure will ensue.

Non-Standard Deviations

While clearly the film ends somewhat differently than the story, the main plot remains intact, and most of the differences between the two versions come from character development, not character assassinations. Each version also seems appropriate for the time in which it was written or filmed.

A picture of an old fashioned projector
Will we see you at the movies, or the library?

The Final Cut

So, how did “3:10 to Yuma” as a movie fare as a short story adaptation overall? Though perhaps more violent than the original story, the film actually enhanced the characters and overall storytelling. I’d give it a solid A for its nuance and vision.

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.

– Miriam Ruff, Content Creator, PoetsIN

DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.

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