The Enigmatic Ben Wade
Last month I spoke of grand plans for doing follow-up reviews of certain movies so that my initial reactions could go up faster. I still really like that idea, but it turns out that once I spill my guts, I’m usually eager to move on to the next movie. It’s harder to get up the motivation to work previously tilled soil I guess.
Anyway, I saw 3:10 to Yuma again this weekend and it’s stirred up my thinking all over again. Since I’d always planned to return to Yuma and since I’m currently gagging on a review of another western as we speak, the time feels right to go for a little freestyle writing. Maybe at least it’ll help me clear away some of the cobwebs and with a bit of luck it might even be interesting.
What follows is a loosely structured, free-form ramble going over some of the questions and answers I have about the movie. Consider it thinking out loud…with a keyboard. I’m not asserting any kind of an expert opinion here. This is not intended to be an air-tight, carefully worded and structured thesis paper. It’s like I’m having a conversation over coffee with friends…except I’m alone…and actually I’m drinking tea. Still, I encourage anyone and everyone to shoot me down or otherwise add their two cents, either in the comments or behind the scenes through the contact page.
I’m assuming you’ve seen the movie and what follows will probably be jam-packed with large, unidentified spoilers. If you haven’t seen it, well first of all you should because it’s pretty good, but most importantly you should stop reading. Right now. There is nothing interesting here if you aren’t already familiar with what happens in the movie. This will just ruin it for you. I’m serious. Nothing good can come of it. Scram. Beat it.
If you have seen it…well then, read on…
As I said in my initial review (is it bad form to continually refer to links on your own blog??), I had some significant problems with 3:10 to Yuma, especially relating to the behavior of Russell Crowe’s outlaw character Ben Wade. He was built up to be this wily criminal, but many of his actions were pretty foolish. They feel plot contrivances necessary to moving the story along, but not justified by what we know about the character. At the time I wrote the original review, I’d resolved most of my concerns, but now I’m not so sure. Frankly, I’m still not entirely satisfied. It’s kind of a big deal. It’s the difference between a 4-star review and 3-stars.
My first question, and I remember asking it while the movie was still playing is: Why didn’t Russell Crowe kill Christian Bale and his sons as soon as it was discovered the rancher had stumbled across their crime in progress? He’d just killed one of his own men so it’s not like he was the sentimental sort. Why go to all the trouble of taking their horses and then leaving them further down the road? Why leave living witnesses? This is the first action in a string of actions that seem to indicate Ben Wade isn’t a very smart criminal. Yet a dumb criminal isn’t a criminal for very long and Wade has clearly managed to make a career of it. Something else has to be at play here.
Next, how/why the hell did he let himself get caught so easily? He knew the law was going to show up sooner or later, yet he was content linger with the barmaid. It’s true, the barmaid was a certified hottie, but this isn’t the kind of behavior that keeps a career criminal out of trouble. Besides, Ben doesn’t seem like a man who’d have much trouble finding women to sleep with him. Also once the law finally shows up, he hardly puts up a fight. He almost gives up willingly. At the time I even remember thinking it was all part of some larger scheme yet to be revealed. When the end credits rolled, it didn’t seem like there was a master plan, but looking back now I think there was even if Ben Wade was sort of writing his script as he went along.
Let me back track a little here and examine the characters. I think it’s interesting to look at the outlaw Ben Wade and the rancher Dan Evans as two opposites. They’re not necessarily two sides of the same coin (maybe they are, I don’t know), but they’re definitely two men running on parallel tracks going in opposite directions. They’re both family men, Dan has his wife and kids and Ben has his gang to which he’s almost a father figure. Where Ben is surrounded by sycophants, Dan has little respect from himself and none from his family. “I’m tired of the way my boys look at me and I’m tired of the way you don’t,” he says to his wife at one point. Dan has been kicked around and is at his lowest point, staring the final failure of his ranch in the face. Ben has also had a hard life, but he’s at the top of his game. He’s the anti-Dan and what we have is story of the man with nothing to lose vs. the man with nothing left to gain.
Ben Wade is the latter and I now believe that his driving motivation is boredom or the avoidance thereof. His life is no longer a challenge. He’d rather sit around drawing pictures of birds than rob another stage coach (he’s doing just that and is visibly annoyed when the former is interrupted by the latter in the form of partner Charlie Prince at the beginning of the movie). It’s a criminal life that Dan has created for himself and it’s a criminal life that he’s sort of trapped in. He has to go ahead with the robbery. If he shows weakness, the gang will turn on him, but already I think he wants out. He just has to find a way.
In the mean time, the best he can do is to try and keep the challenge interesting. He has to keep raising the bar, increasing the level of difficulty. It’s a way to make work fun again. It’s true, the smart play would’ve been just to kill Dan Evans and be done with it, but I think there’s something interesting to Ben about this lowly rancher. In a way, Dan is a twisted reflection of Ben himself and maybe he sees that. Or maybe he’s just fascinated by this stubborn man who is brave enough or foolish enough to look a killer in the eye and ask for his cattle back. Either way, letting the rancher live makes the game a bigger challenge and it turns out Ben Wade really is just playing a game. He isn’t fighting for survival, he’s fighting off boredom. Plus he’s an artist and in this game, style points count.
That also explains for me why he essentially allows himself to be caught. Making love to the beautiful barmaid is another way of stopping to smell the roses or study the birds. He’s allowed an opportunity to stop and enjoy life and, in the process, he ups the ante on the game he’s playing. Besides, he knows full well his gang will spring him anyway. Getting caught isn’t that big of a deal. He also knows if he gives up quietly he won’t be killed on the spot for, as McElroy observes: “everyone in this shit piss little town will be dead by morning.”
Also, looking back, I don’t think Ben ever kills a man for pure survival. It’s almost always out of anger or annoyance. First he kills his own man for not doing his job. True, he also kills the Pinkerton man, but that was just business. Next he stabs Tucker in the throat with a dinner fork. It’s not a bid to escape, it’s out of revenge because the guy is an asshole chump who stole Ben’s horse and then won’t shut up. Next he kills McElroy which does turn into an escape, but it also happens at a moment when McElroy is needling him about his mother. Again it’s as much about revenge as survival and again it’s about style points. The escape is simply a bonus reward.
I need to backtrack again and shift gears. In the course of the movie I think Ben’s interest in Dan starts as curiosity and curiosity blooms into fascination. Ultimately, Ben is challenging Dan as much as he’s challenging himself. He’s giving Dan the opportunity to redeem himself in his son’s eyes, but he’s going to make him work like hell for it. That’s partly why Ben doesn’t call off his gang at the end. First he tests Dan with money and now he wants to see if he’ll stand up to a hail of bullets. Finally, when Dan passes the test, I think Ben actually admires him a little and is maybe even envious of Dan’s new father/son relationship. It shows how hollow Ben’s own relationship with Charlie Prince really is. In a way, the fortunes of the two men have been reversed. Dan is now on top and Ben is at the bottom.
Another word about why Ben didn’t just surrender. He’d already said at one point in the movie that in order to hold reign over his gang of outlaws, he’s always got to be the toughest, meanest sonofabitch in town. Standing down would be a weakness and would probably spell his doom. Ben may have grown to admire his opposite, but he’s still an outlaw. He’s still trapped in the life he’s made. Throwing up his hands and surrendering isn’t really an option.
Ok, so why does Ben murder his own gang at the end? That’s a good question. Have you ever done a puzzle and you think you’ve got all the pieces in their proper places only to find the last one doesn’t fit and you realize you took a wrong turn somewhere? That’s kind of where I stand with the finale of 3:10 to Yuma. I think I can put the last piece in place, but I’ll admit right now I’m not completely satisfied.
Essentially, I think Ben kills his own gang partly out of pure temper. He’s already tired of his life with these men and the senseless killing of Dan, the first man he’s ever had any respect for, pushes him over the edge. It’s not the first time in the movie he acts rashly out of anger. Stabbing Tucker in the throat for example merely earned him a beating and the loss of a weapon he could’ve later used to make a real escape. So the murder of his gang wasn’t calculated and it wasn’t smart, but it kind of fits with his character.
I don’t know. In the end I find myself going back and forth over a movie that maybe isn’t intended to be thought about too carefully. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Ultimately, the movie entertained the hell out of me and sometimes maybe that should be enough, even for a 4-star movie.