Monday, February 7, 2011

3:10 to Yuma by Elmore Leonard

dime magazine cover

Musical Notes: "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" (more than a little literal, but it works)


This short story is what the movies 3:10 to Yuma (one in 1957 starring Glenn Ford, the other from 2007 starring Russell Crowe) were based on, although the only character the movies retained was the awesomesauce Charlie Prince.

Marshall Paul Scallen is bringing in the outlaw, Jim Kidd, to meet the 3:10 train to Yuma and a 5-year prison sentence. As they sit in a Contention hotel room, a certain understanding develops between the two men (if Jim can really be called a man--he's described as looking like a teenager). Yet despite the fact that Scallen doesn't have anything against Kidd--his words--and Kidd is offering him money to let him go, and Charlie Prince and six other men are waiting outside the hotel to gun him down, Scallen still delivers Kidd to the Yuma train.

Why? Because that's his job. And real men do their jobs, yo.

This story is written in a very straight-forward, journalistic style, similar to Earnest Hemingway. That's probably why I got a post-war feeling from it right away. Supposedly the story is set in Ye Olde West, but honestly it could just easily be set in the 1950s, especially with the characters acting like characters from a 1950s movie. I couldn't help but picture Kidd as James Dean in a leather jacket, and Scallen as a so-sober-he's-sarcastic Humphrey Bogart.

The story itself is as straight-forward as the language used to tell it. There is a sense of amorality or existential nihilism in the characters: Scallen is delivering Kidd to the train, not because he believes Kidd deserves to be punished, but basically because that's his job and he needs to be paid. When they talk, he refers to Kidd's "profession" and asks him how much he makes from it, as if Kidd's career as an outlaw is on the same status as Scallen's career as a Marshall. Kidd is almost a more sympathetic character, seeing as how his goal is motivated by more than money (self-preservation, but still) and he evinces more emotion during the course of the narrative.

Now that I've read this short story, I'm even more impressed with the 2007 film (I've yet to see the '57 version). Mangold took this ho-hum tale about Mr. Doesn't Talk Much Marshall fighting a quick gun battle in order to get a pointless job done, and turned it into an epic story of death and Manifest Destiny and really the entire Westward movement. So you can imagine that I was a bit taken aback when I read on Leonard's website that he doesn't like the 2007 film. The short story and the movie really have very little to do with each other, aside from Charlie Prince and a few lines of dialog, but honestly if I was Leonard I would write Mangold a thank you note for taking my work and turning into something freaking brilliant.

So basically, the story's okay, but nothing to hunt down, and certainly nothing compared to the film.

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