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August 07, 2007

Farr West with Delmer Daves

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The Last Wagon
Delmer Daves - 1956
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

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3:10 to Yuma
Delmer Daves - 1957
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

In both The Last Wagon and 3:10 to Yuma, Delmer Daves often uses long shots of his characters dwarfed by their environment. Both films can be read as being about people living with nature. In The Last Wagon, Richard Widmark tell Felicia Farr about how he prefers to sleep under the stars rather than live in a permanent home. Van Heflin is motivated to escort prisoner Glenn Ford in order to purchase water rights following a three year drought. The long shots and overhead shots might be read as commenting on how puny man's efforts are in contrast with peaks and valleys. Certainly Daves mastered the art of wide screen composition.

As Daves champion, Bertrand Tavernier pointed out in Film Comment, "What first impresses the viewer is Daves' attention to landscape, to nature, expressed in shots that intimately and sometimes inextricably mingle lyricism and realism. He actually insisted on personally supervising the kind of material many Hollywood filmmakers would leave to second-unit directors - extreme long shots, transitional moments filmed at dawn or twilight."

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Daves also examines how fragile the family unit is, and how acting on behalf of one's family can have unexpected consequences. A group of young people go for a midnight swim in The Last Wagon. One of the boys accidentally is pulled by the river to death or at least injury in the rapids. In the course of being away from the main camp, the young people find that they saved themselves from an Indian massacre. In 3:10 to Yuma, Van Heflin is originally motivated by necessity for himself and his family, which by the end of the film is replaced by acting for the greater good of the community at large.

Both films have key scenes taking place during mealtimes. In the two films, Richard Widmark and Glenn Ford are prisoners. For Daves, dinner is not only a time for the family to get together, but a time to share in the sense of common humanity. In The Last Wagon, Felicia Farr and Tommy Rettig make sure Richard Widmark is fed, arguing with the sheriff that Widmark is a human being. In 3:10 to Yuma, Glenn Ford sits at the head of the table with Van Heflin and his family where he engages in friendly banter. The dinner scene in 3:10 to Yuma is played out for Ford to unbalance both Heflin's family and audience expectations about how an outlaw is suppose to behave.

Man's law, a staple of westerns, is part of both films. Richard Widmark acts according to Indian law which has put him in conflict with the laws of the U.S. government. In 3:10 to Yuma, the conflict concerns whether one is willing to sacrifice oneself on behalf of enforcing the law.

Both films also feature Felicia Farr. Farr plays a woman who brings out the more idealistic aspects of Widmark and Ford. I hesitate to say civilizing as that suggests in turn domesticating these two men who feel committed to a transient existence. In The Last Wagon, Farr inspires Widmark to lead the survivors of the massacre to a safe haven, in spite of the danger he may cause to himself. In 3:10 to Yuma, Farr is temporarily Ford's lover in the film's most wistful scene. It is during this scene that Ford sees himself not as a career criminal but as a gentleman who feels it his duty to treat a woman in the best possible fashion.

If 3:10 to Yuma is the greater film, it is because it is as much psychological drama as it is action film. Alone in the hotel room, waiting for the train, Glenn Ford tries to tempt Van Heflin with greater and greater sums of money than Heflin has known, while also reminding him of the odds he faces when Ford's gang returns, and the risk Heflin places on his family. Although the film is gorgeously photographed in stark black and white, Daves is interested in the shading of his characters. Ford's character of Ben Wade is not simply a robber and killer, but one who makes a point of being charming and likable. 3:10 to Yuma also benefits from a supporting cast of great character actors, especially Henry Jones as the town drunk who tries to redeem himself by also escorting Ford, Richard Jaeckel as a member of Ford's gang, and Leora Dana as Heflin's wife.

The scene of Ford alone in a bar with barmaid Felicia Farr is Daves at his most romantic and idealistic. Maybe one can attribute the emotional impact to the musical queues, but the scene anticipates Daves eventual sequeway to the romantic dramas that capped his career, especially A Summer Place. For Daves, the best romantic relationships provide a temporary haven from the hostility of the world at large. Men and men’s laws are transient, and people are all subject to nature and its laws. As Richard Widmark comments to Tommy Rettig in The Last Wagon, "Death's a path we're all on, son."

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 7, 2007 03:54 AM


Last week I was startled to notice posters up all over town for a remake of 3:10 to Yuma. The poster is good-looking but the remake still isn't very welcome to me.

Don't tell me you also harbor a certain fondness for A Summer Place?

Posted by: Campaspe at August 13, 2007 11:59 AM