Teasing Threads – Three classical Westerns: 1. Delmer Daves’ ‘3.10 to Yuma’

The first of Chris Palazzolo’s Three Classical Westerns is 3.10 to Yuma, directed by Delmer Daves, 1957

After a provincial revolt led Britain to just vote itself out of the European Union, the possibility that provincial discontent in the US will sweep a demagogue into the White House, and all the nastiness and smearing taking place in the blogoworld beneath Australia’s apparently civilised political discourse, I just can’t get traction on anything new at the moment. Sometimes I think it pays to step back from all the swirling angry contemporariness of things. Focus on distant things for a while. When I feel like this over the next few months I’m going to look at one of three classical westerns. Not because I wish to make some point about provinciality (though readers are welcome to read them that way) but because I think they’re beautiful movies.

The first western I wish to look at is 3.10 to Yuma. The narrative of this film hinges on the interplay of two distinct schemes of time. The first time scheme is the epic time of the classical western. Epic time is a kind of cyclical timelessness because its elements are in a play of eternal balances. The epic time of the Old West is the organic union of Law and Nature – families, businesses, law-enforcers and outlaws, are all in balance, so if one element becomes too strong the other elements are thrown out of kilter. At the start of the movie the lands of the struggling cattlemen are stricken with drought and plundered by bandits who seem to be able to get away with any crime because the good folk are too intimidated to stand up to them. When the lead bandit (Glen Ford) is captured and successfully put on the train to Yuma by the brave farmer (Van Heflin), the drought breaks and the rain falls. The hard labour of enforcing the Law brings all the elements into balance again. The bandit is not gone for good, he’s part of the organic whole (there would be no moral toughness if he didn’t exist). The labour is a constant one of vigilance and civic duty in order to keep the criminal in his place and the cycles of Nature in balance.

The second time scheme, which occurs as a single blip of the epic time (but for us is the actual movie) is entirely modern. It is the time of train schedules. When Glen Ford is captured he needs to be hidden from his heavily armed gang until 3:10 the next day when the train to Yuma arrives to take him to the only prison in the district. This means being guarded in a hotel room by a man with enough debts to make him willing to do the job and risk his life for the reward. The financial inducement here is entirely honourable. It is his exhausting vigil that is laying down the Law, a process as labour intensive as laying down a rail line. The second act is a long sequence set almost entirely in the hotel room – Van Heflin with the gun, trying to keep awake after 20 hours without sleep, and Glen Ford, handcuffed, tempting him with promises of greater rewards if he’s let go. Remarkably it’s a quick filmic intelligence that stretches the sequence; dangerous moments (Heflin opening a window while keeping his gun trained on Ford) in clusters of complex montage (arrhythmic editing, close-ups and angles). All the while Ford’s wheedling rap punctuated by Heflin’s angry threats is a tightening rhythm pulling everything closer, closer… The seconds tick by, the closer we get to success – the arrival of the train – and to failure – the arrival of the gang. The convergence has a ‘real time’ effect because three unresolved ‘happenings’ (one on-screen and two inferential) are competing for every second.

3.10 to Yuma is an example of epic time borrowing modern time (cinema) to represent, or visualise a moment during its cycles when a rogue element needs to be corrected. But the train that rolls into town comes from a time that is no longer epic. It is altogether modern – a time of industries and expanding cities. It projects into the districts where this brief eternity of the American epic holds sway the modernity that will make them suburbs and provinces of her cities.

– Chris Palazzolo


Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

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