Patient. Conniving. Gentlemanly. Calculating. Charming. Deceitful. Truthful. Selfish. Efficient. Ruthless. Gentle. Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) in the original 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma is all of those, and more.
Ben Wade is such an enigmatic character. He has so many facets and layers. Other villains might have three or four of the attributes I listed for him, and we’d think of them as perfectly acceptable villains. But every time I watch this film, I see new things I hadn’t noticed. I hear a line of dialog in a new light.
The whole film is breathtakingly taut. Ben Wade is the ratchet at its center, turning up the tension a little more every minute he’s on screen. All the while, he lets us get a peek at some small corner of his complicated character to keep us fascinated, keep us sympathetic. It’s a spectacular performance by Glenn Ford, but quiet and understated, never showy or attention-seeking. That’s why Ben Wade one of the very few villains I’m willing to connect with the word “favorite.”
Ben Wade is a businessman. He’s efficient, careful, controlled. He’d be an excellent banker or CEO of a corporation. But the business he’s chosen is robbery. When we first see him, he’s led his gang of outlaws to a stagecoach carrying gold. Wade hangs back, letting his men follow his orders and his plan. The only time he gets involved is when one of his own men makes a mistake. He gets too close to the stagecoach driver, who grabs his gun and holds the outlaw hostage, saying if they don’t stop the robbery and let the stage and its gold go, he’ll shoot this outlaw.
Ben Wade saves him the trouble. He shoots his own gang member, and then the driver. Wade isn’t angry or upset about this; he’s crisp and careful. Ruthless, yes, but impersonally so. Before and after this shooting, he is courteous to the stage’s passengers and to the farmer and two boys who witnessed the robbery and shooting. He doesn’t kill witnesses to hide his lawless dealings; he doesn’t threaten them, he lets them go as long as they don’t interfere with his plans.
By the time his first scene is over, the audience thinks they have a clear sense of who and what Ben Wade is: cold, calculating, deadly. Then, he turns all that on its head. The next ten minutes he’s on screen, he’s flirty, romantic, and charming. He and his men celebrate their successful robbery with a drink or two at a middle-of-nowhere saloon. Sparks fly between him and Emmy, the woman tending bar. In fact, they find each other so mutually entrancing that Wade stays behind when his gang scatters to avoid a posse. His scenes with Emmy are sweet, soft, and gentle. This outlaw is a lot more complicated than we expect.
Ben Wade spends the bulk of the film in handcuffs, waiting to get shipped off on the train to the penitentiary in Yuma, Arizona. He also spends it manipulating everyone he comes into contact with, poking and prodding at them with his words to see if he can find the right opening that will set him free. That same farmer who witnessed the robbery, Dan Evans (Van Heflin), ends up outwitting and helping to capture Wade. They match wits, Wade trying to see if his cunning will outweigh Evans’s conviction that Wade needs to pay for his crimes. They’re both desperate men. Wade to get free, and Evans to earn the reward money promised him for delivering Wade to the train. Evans’s ranch is failing. He needs to stay alive and get that money if he’s going to provide for his wife and sons.
Wade does everything in his power to convince Evans he’ll die a failure if he tries to get Wade to the train. Wade’s gang has rallied around their leader. He’s sure they’ll gun Evans down and free him as soon as they can. He’d rather bribe Evans to let him go. That’s easier. More civilized. A win-win for them both. Trouble is, Evans can’t be bought. He’s too stubborn and too honorable. That causes Wade to acquire something unexpected: respect for Evans. Sure, Wade is more cunning, more clever, and more successful than Evans. But he can’t sway this upright farmer. And, despite himself, he even envies Evans his convictions, his wife and family, his honor.
Early in the film, when Wade is first in custody, he tells Evans’s wife, “I hope I can send him back to you all right.” He’s half sincere when he says it, and half pushing buttons to see what it’ll do to Evans. But by the time that train leaves the station at 3:10, he’s made good on that promise, despite himself. Wade and Evans, opposites, enemies, and opponents, have discovered they can respect and trust each other against both their better judgements. The only reason that’s believable for the audience is Ben Wade has shown us, slowly and gradually just what a jumble of contradictions he really is. Aren’t we all?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com