Violence and Masculinity in the Cold War Western "3:10 to Yuma" by Delmer Daves

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 Introduction

2 Depiction of violence as Cold War criticism

3 Masculinity in 3:10 to Yuma

4 Résumé

5 Works Cited


In 1957 the Cold War had already been established. After the Allies defeated the Axis Powers in World War II, the Japanese had to give up the Korean occupation. A conflict flared up about the supremacy of the country which evolved into the first proxy war of the Cold War. North Korean troops began occupying southern parts, supported by the USSR and China. The United Nations responded just days after the first aggression and permitted the defense by UN forces whose majority was made up by American troops. They evacuated hundreds of American citizens out of the country and drove back the communist forces to the north, crossing the demarcation line at the 38th parallel. This border transgression prompted China to mobilize more troops. On this line, a positional warfare was being fought for several months which resulted in many casualties. Altogether, this war brought devastating destruction towards both the military and civilians. In July of 1953 a truce was declared which is still in effect to this day.

Four years later in July 1957, the movie 3:10 to Yuma directed by Delmer Daves was published. It is based on a short western story wrote by Elmore Leonard in 1953. The plot stars Van Helfin as the hard-working rancher Dan Evans, and Glenn Ford as Ben Wade, the infamous boss of an outlaw gang. Evans and his two boys witness how Wade’s gang rob a stagecoach and kill the driver. Evans remains passive as he is outnumbered, which his wife Alice (Leora Dana) condemns. Evans, not able to be the role model for his boys and the provider for his family he hopes to be, wants to restore his pride and prove himself to be a man. He commits to bring Wade to the train, which would then take the outlaw to a prison in Yuma. In return, he earns money that he desperately needs to save his drought-stricken farm and family. Both Evans and Wade change over the course of the movie. “Rather than delivering the dramatic showdown between the hero and the villain, Leonard softens the edges of this familiar dichotomy and puts the two men together throughout the story, even suggesting a bond between them” (MacCurdy 280). Simon Petch emphasizes that both men are the same age and intentionally have similar-sounding names: Dan and Ben (49). In the end, Evans restores his manhood and fulfills his task(s) while Wade “can’t help but admire his captor’s gumption” (Alleva 23) and jumps into the train of his own accord.

In this paper I want to describe how the Cold War shaped the depiction of violence, masculinity and society in 3:10 to Yuma. I will argue that this movie not only criticizes the Korean War and the Cold War in general, but I will also showcase how societal anxieties of an escalation, for example in the form of a nuclear strike, are processed. I will argue that the idealism of Cold War liberalism, which stands in stark contrast to communism, is shown in this movie and that it shapes the way masculinity is portrayed and favored. In this way, the movie can be analyzed as a mirror both of societal processes and anxieties, and perceptions of ideal masculinity of the American culture in the 1950s.

2 Depiction of violence as Cold War criticism

From the beginning of the twentieth century, violence is constituted in western films to be the appropriate solution to social and individual conflicts. Likewise, it is not possible to imagine contemporary westerns without physical and armed violence. This changes for a period in the mid­twentieth century: Since the early 1950's the topic of violence is handled with care. It is questioned whether violence is even necessary to solve conflicts. Even though the expectation and possibility that violence is deployed still remains a central subject of the plot, the ethic behind it is getting challenged (cf. Corkin 95). Movies of this time “approach gunplay with circumspection” (ibid. 95). Corkin argues that these Cold War westerns are a “commentary on the national mood and typically connected to positions identified with Cold War liberalism” (95) and show “national anxieties regarding war, both actual and potential” (ibid. 95). While in other periods of western film history the outlaw or villain is being killed without much thought, colts in films of this time are unholstered reluctantly. Criticism and debates concerning the Korean War, like the psychological ramifications of fighting on the battlefield for soldiers are showcased in these 1950s films: “Annihilating [disruptive elements] may be flawed; [...] characters will become psychically and morally marred beyond repair if they engage in gunplay.” (ibid. 95)

In 3:10 to Yuma, too, there is a very reluctant usage of firearms. It is conspicuous that every single gunshot that is fired in this movie is highly relevant and significant. The only exception are the three shots fired outside of Evans' home, just before leaving to Contention City, and those are rebuked by Dan. The first two gunshots in the movie are fired by Wade. These unleash the whole story in the first place, since as a result Bill Moons, the coachman of the Butterfield line gets killed. The robbery of the stagecoach itself would not have necessarily triggered the arrest of Ben Wade, since Emmy makes it clear that she is supposed to wake up the marshal from his siesta only in the event of a murder.

Dan Evans, like Wade, also uses his shotgun only two times. The first time occurs, when a sniper of Wade's gang tries to shoot and kill him from the roof of a house across the street; he immediately fires back. The sniper drops dead on the street. Dan only survives, because Alex Potter warns him by shouting, giving Evans the chance to get out of the line of fire. Potter has to pay for it immediately after this: Charlie Prince, Ben's right-hand, shoots him in the back and lets him be hung on the chandelier of the hotel. This is important to note, since the second gunshot Dan fires, kills Prince towards the end of the movie. Each time he pulls the trigger, it is not without reason: The first shot at the sniper was self-defense; and because Prince fires at Evans first, who is already in the train, Evans fires back: self-defense as well. But this time the motive is also revenge for Potter's death, which Prince is responsible for. It is conspicuous that both, protagonist and antagonist are each firing only twice in the whole movie. Furthermore, Dan needs to defend himself when Wade tries to overbear him the moment Dan wants to open the window. This scene is one out of only two times in the movie in which physical violence is shown.

One shot is merely fired accidentally: Bob Moons, the brother of the coachman Bill, forces himself into the hotel room where Dan and Ben are waiting for the train and desires to take the law in his own hands by shooting Wade. Risking his life, Evans prevents Bob from pulling the trigger (cf. Gerigk 277). This is the other instance of physical violence: Evans disables Bob by hitting him on the head. Thereby, the gun is unintentionally fired. Although nobody is hit, this shot again is significant, if not to say, fatal: Only because of this accident Prince figures out where his boss is kept hidden and is then able to mobilize the gang.

It became apparent that the usage of firearms or any kind of violence is carefully applied in the movie. Every single gunshot could be analyzed and interpreted in greater detail. This matches the time of Cold War westerns in which “alternatives to Cold War xenophobia and militarism” (Corkin 96) are searched for after the cruelties of World War II. However, Alex Potter's death shows that violence might be necessary, because the lack of defense preparedness caused by idealized pacifism could have fatal consequences. Corkin argues that even though in these westerns violence is used reluctantly, “ultimately all show that such [violent] impulses cannot be discounted and suggest that any excess of idealism may be fatally misconceived” (ibid. 96). On the one hand, there was anxiety amongst the American people in regards to using nuclear weapons again after Hiroshima, while at the same time there was hope for reconciliation of a divided world. On the other hand, resentment and suspiciousness against the Eastern bloc was aroused by Mao's success in China, the communist expansion and their military achievements and last but not least by the anti-communist US-propaganda (ibid. 96-97).

This resulted in an increase of a threat perception in the American society, both justified and exaggerated. As I stated earlier, Evans uses his weapon twice. By saying ‘use’ I meant ‘fire’. Actually, he uses his shotgun for the majority of the film: to control his opponent. With the prospect of a new - nuclear - war, the military and technological achievements of the communist countries began to influence the mood within America. The result was the arms race to keep a balance of power between east and west. Evans is only able to keep such a balance by threatening Wade with his weapon, due to Wade’s multiple attempts to overcome Evans or to reach for a gun. This latent, but always present and reciprocal danger, especially because of the second strike capability, was characteristic for the Cold War. A conflict, then, was solved preferably in a peaceful manner to avoid an escalation. An escalation would be nuclear and because of the second strike capability, fatal for both parties.

Two scenes in the movie picture this dilemma: When the sniper tries to shoot and kill Evans from the rooftop, it is important to note that the sniper on the roof, Evans at the window and Wade lying on the bed form one line. In this way, the sniper could have unintentionally killed Wade instead of Evans by firing into the hotel room. This would have meant self-destruction, an ever­present cultural anxiety of the Cold War. Likewise, the walk to the station is dangerous for both, Dan and Ben. Both can be hit by a bullet fired by a gang member. Not only does Wade not resist, he even cooperates with Evans, so both can reach the inside of the train safely.

The movie suggests that a peaceful solution is possible, as long as the Americans live by their principles and strive for integrity and justice: Evans does not abandon his principles at any given time in the movie. Even when Butterfield releases him of his obligation to bring Wade to the station while still being willing to pay the money (which was Evans’ reason for taking the job in the first place), Evans wants to finish his task. Over the course of the movie, Wade is more and more impressed by Evans’ steadfastness and integrity. He admires and envies Evans’ role of being a family man. After staying at his home, which is an intrusion of Evans’ most domestic and intimate space, and having supper with his family, Wade begins to respect him. He repeatedly tells Evans that one day he would like to have a wife as well: “Must be real nice, having a couple of boys like that to ride out with every morning. And then a woman like that, every night, real close.” All of Ben’s attempts to bribe Dan fail. As Richard Alleva expresses it: “And Wade, just as determined to escape, can’t help but admire his captor’s gumption” (23). It seems, as if the close and constant togetherness develops a kind of bond and even a certain level of trust between the two. In the end, Wade jumps into the train self-initiated instead of dropping to the ground, and spares Evans’ life.

Wade is depicted as a charming and reasonable man, far from being a savage. As is his gang: They are all disciplined and the hierarchies are clear. Wade's threat potential results from the collectiveness of his gang, which stands in stark contrast to the individualism of Evans. When Emmy has served the drinks in the saloon, Prince proposes a toast to the boss who had to kill one of the members in their outfit for the collective benefit. But still, the enemies here are not depicted as savages. If Wade and his gang represent the communist threat, the movie criticizes the suspicion raised by American anti-communist propaganda by portraying the communists as evil and savage (cf. Mexal 76). The film showcases the hope of reconciliation and criticizes premature policy and decision making, especially when it includes violence. The movie even suggests that it is possible to find creative and unconventional solutions which do not involve casualties. Namely, Dan is only a farmer. He takes on the role of the deputy half voluntarily, half forced, for two reasons: No one else would risk the job and he desperately needs the money. This suggests (like the film “Bridge of Spies”) that in some occasions non-political and non-military agents might suit the job of problem solving or negotiating better than what is seen as conventional distribution of roles. Additionally, the way they catch Ben in the saloon and trick the gang by substituting Wade in the stagecoach for somebody else are due to unconventional problem solving.

It seems as if Delmer Daves, the director of the movie, wanted to say: The Korean War could have been prevented if in the previous years, in the time after World War II, the West had acted upon higher standards. This is not to say that Daves had a pacifistic point of view. As explained earlier, to maintain a balance of power it was necessary to arm. The prospect of no resistance could have tempted communist countries to attack. The second strike capability ironically was the insurance that no one would start a nuclear war. Daves does not go without weapons in 3:10 to Yuma. Without guns, Wade would have been able to escape, and justice could not have been achieved.

The criticism of this movie, thus, does not concern the question, whether the USA need to take action, but rather the method of acting. When Dan enters the scene of the holdup, one of his boys urges him to catch their cattle. But Dan replies: “Let's let the dust settle first, son”. He first wants to get a good look at what is happening in the distance before he decides what to do. In general, Evans seems to always think through his plans first and criticizes premature acting such as Potter's unnecessary gunshots outside Dan's farm. Americans in the 1950s are in agreement that the United States need to remain active (after World War II) to ensure order and security in the world and to stop communist expansion. This approach manifests in the containment policy. As in 3:10 to Yuma a man must leave his domestic space to a different city to save the peace and order of the community, America needs to leave its domestic space to a different country to achieve the same thing.

3 Masculinity in 3:10 to Yuma

In the last chapter it became apparent that the movie 3:10 to Yuma is influenced by the political circumstances of that time. The movie cannot only be analyzed in respect to violence and criticism of war. It is also interesting to see how Cold War liberalism shaped the way masculinity was portrayed in this movie. Cold War liberalism was one of the most influential movements of the American post-war era.

Liberalism is older, though. John Locke is seen as the founder of the modern liberalism. This philosophy begins from the premise of a God given personal freedom for every human being. Independent and autonomous living, and therefore a state that does intervene as little as possible in every day life, is seen as the best form of community. Since everyone is the owner of their own body, the fruits of the work executed by this body is also owned by the individual. That is why property can be gained. The right to property, freedom of thought and speech, and the derivation of legitimacy for the government by the individuals are all important parts of this philosophy and stand in stark contrast to the anti-capitalist and socialist thinking of communism (cf. ibid. 72-73). Mexal sees the origin of the American liberalism both in the foundational phase of the nation and the westward expansion, which are strongly connected to the idea of American Exceptionalism and the individualism of the Self-made Man (cf. ibid. 74). He argues that in 3:10 to Yuma this liberalism is best expressed in the figure of Dan Evans. However, his behavior changes from an atomistic, individualistic liberalism to a civic liberalism (cf. ibid. 77). This development and its implications for masculinity are described hereafter.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Violence and Masculinity in the Cold War Western "3:10 to Yuma" by Delmer Daves
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Seminar "West in Fiction"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Cold War Western, Delmer Daves, Elmore Leonard, Glenn Ford, Van Helfin
Quote paper
Michael Simon (Author), 2016, Violence and Masculinity in the Cold War Western "3:10 to Yuma" by Delmer Daves, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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