The Myth of Redemptive Violence: 3:10 to Yuma (Part One)

{This two-part series examines the use of redemptive violence in some movie Westerns to present a message that violence brings healing. This post contrasts the choices made in the original and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Note these posts discuss movie endings and thus contain spoilers.}

Recently, the Trayvon Martin case in Florida has raised a number of complicated issues, including ones about the use of violence and when one should be able to use deadly force. Thus, it seems an appropriate time to consider portrayals of violence on the big screen. The original 1957 version and the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma, based upon an Elmore Leonard novel, show different treatments of violence, perhaps reflecting different views we have today than we had in the late 1950s.  The key difference is in how the movies end.

In both versions, an upstanding farmer, Dan Evans, shows his courage by taking the bad guy, Ben Wade, from a hotel in the town of Contention to a prison-bound train.  As they try to get to the train, Wade’s gang tries to kill the farmer and free Wade.

Also, in both versions, Evans believes that his family does not respect him.  His act of getting Wade on the train will not only give him payment to save his farm, but it will gain him respect from his wife and sons, who are children in the original version and young men in the 2007 version.  In the 2007 version, Evans is a Civil War veteran with a wooden leg, symbolizing that his family does not see him as a whole man.

The Original 1957 3:10 to Yuma

In the original 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma, the movie ends with Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and the farmer (Van Heflin) going through the streets of town as the gang shoots at them.  They get close to the train and the gang closes in.  Then, at the last minute Wade saves the farmer’s life by risking his life to stand between the farmer and the gang.

Wade’s act allows the farmer and him to board the train for the prison. As both Wade and the farmer ride off on the train, Wade says he saved the farmer because the farmer had saved him earlier when the brother of one of Wade’s victims tried to kill Wade. But the subtext is that Wade respects the farmer, who has inspired Wade to be a better man.  Wade also mentions that he has escaped from Yuma Prison before.  And the farmer replies that his only obligation was to get him on the train.  As the train goes out of town, the farmer’s wife sees that her husband is alive with Wade on the train.

The 2007 Remake

In the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma, Wade (Russell Crowe) also gains respect for the farmer (Christian Bale).  But throughout the 2007 film, Wade and his gang commit additional acts of violence that are not in the original. For example, the original does not have the gang burning alive a man to find out where Wade has been taken.  In the scene where the farmer is taking Wade to the train, they face not only the gang, but a number of townspeople who have been promised money by the gang if they kill the farmer.  This change in plot allows the farmer to shoot some people on the way to the train while leaving most of the gang members alive for the final scene.

As Wade and the farmer finally get near the train, the farmer explains he is doing what he is doing so his sons respect him.  And then, Wade begins to help the farmer get to the train.

Once they get to the train and Wade is just on the train, though, the farmer is mortally wounded by the gang members.  The gang members give Wade his guns back.  Wade, who had discussed the Bible in several earlier scenes, looks at the stock of his pistol, where there is a gold image of Christ on the cross.  Wade looks at the dying farmer, and he pulls out the gun and shoots all of the gang members.  After a few words, the farmer dies, and Wade gets on the train by himself.

The farmer’s sons are present to see that their father died getting Wade on the train.  Wade had earlier stated that he had escaped from Yuma Prison in the past.  And as the train takes off, he whistles and his horse follows the train, implying that he will not be on the train when it arrives in Yuma. (Embedding is disabled, but you may see Wade’s act of “redemption” here.)

In many ways the movies are very similar, and much of the dialogue in the original is used in the remake.  The remake is longer, though, and adds some more background on the farmer’s plight.  We learn more about Wade and some new characters on the trip to Contention.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

A key difference in the messages of the movies is the different endings.  In the original, the turning point and Wade’s redemption comes from Wade’s sacrifice for another.  Wade risks his life to save his captor and then gives himself up to get on the train to Yuma prison. It is redemption in the Christian meaning of self-sacrifice.

In the 2007 version, while Wade does similar acts and implies connections to Christianity in symbols, Wade’s redemption is not getting on the train at the end.  After he gets on the train, the movie leaves us with the promise of immediate escape.  The true moment of redemption, we are led to believe, is Wade’s act of shooting all of his former gang members. Wade’s act of killing is apparently motivated by vengeance for their killing the farmer, a man he now respects.

Thus, the 2007 film implies that killing is the character’s act of redemption.  To make sure the audience realizes it is a moment of redemption, Wade looks at the gold Jesus on his gun handle right before he does the killing. Apparently, Jesus now saves through acts of violence.

The 2007 ending of 3:10 to Yuma portrays what Prof. Walter Wink calls “The Myth of Redemptive Violence,” in the ways that media and popular culture teach us that violence provides redemption.  Wink describes the typical movie practice of featuring a fallen hero beset by various troubles who finally provides release for the audience in a final act of violent revenge. The ending of the original 3:10 to Yuma was not enough, apparently, for 2007 audiences.  We can only feel the release and satisfaction if the hero’s redemption comes with an act of violence.

The redemption is misleading, though.  Is Wade a new man if he kills all of his gang and then escapes from the train?  Are we to believe that he will no longer kill, and instead may go back to the farmer’s wife?  I don’t think so.  Because his redemption is violent, there is no hint that he will stop killing.  In the original, though, we might have some hope for Wade in that his redemption was an act of self-sacrifice to save another person.

I am not sure why the 2007 version preaches redemptive violence and the 1957 version does not. I do not believe the difference is merely a matter of the films being made in different eras.  Certainly, there are many old Westerns that perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence.  In Part Two of this discussion, Chimesfreedom will consider 3:10 to Yuma and its illustration of redemptive violence in the context of other classic Western films.

Why do you think the 2007 3:10 to Yuma changed the ending from the 1957 version of the film? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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