- Delmer Daves
A stagecoach makes its way across the scorched desert as we hear Frankie Laine sing the theme song that will be repeated in many guises throughout the film (even whistled by the villain). It’s the Arizona Territory of the 1880s. The stagecoach is going from Contention City to Bisbee and is only a few miles from its destination. A group of men on horseback herd cattle to block the path of the stage. After it stops and the dust clears, we see that the men are a band of thieves, some with their guns drawn. The owner of the stage line, Mr. Butterfield (Robert Emhardt), is on board, and the target of the robbery is a gold shipment atop the stage. Small-time rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his two young sons, Mark (Jerry Hartleben) and Mathew (Barry Curtis), are on horseback looking for their errant cattle. Dan hears the cattle over the ridge, and they ride over to where they can see the robbery in progress. Dan waits for the dust to settle, but the robbers spot him, and their leader, Ben Wade (Glenn Ford), tells him to stay where he is–he’ll get his cattle back in five minutes.
As one of the robbers passes down the gold, the driver, Bill Moons (Boyd Stockman), draws his own gun and grabs the man as a shield. The gang leader draws and fires off two shots–one that kills his own man to clear the line of sight and one that kills Bill Moons. Mark asks his father if he isn’t going to do something, but Dan sees there’s nothing he can do without getting himself shot. He recognizes the robbers as Ben Wade and his gang. Wade has words with Mr. Butterfield and instructs him to return the driver’s body to Contention City where he lived. “Where a man lives, that’s where he should be buried.” Wade then confiscates Dan’s horses so he won’t ride to the marshal. He says he’ll turn them loose just this side of Bisbee. Taking the six horses from the stagecoach as well, Wade and his men depart. Dan and his boys go on foot to bring the cattle home, and Dan agrees to return with a horse for the stranded stage.
At home, Dan’s devoted wife Alice (Leora Dana) is shocked at her husband’s lack of outrage over the crime. He explains there were twelve of them and there was nothing he could do. People have to watch a lot of terrible things: “You just seem to expect somethin’ from me that I’m not.” Dan is defeated and distracted by the three-year drought that threatens his ranch. He has cattle dying of thirst, and he doesn’t have the 0 a neighboring rancher charges for six months’ water right to a stream that runs through his land–one that doesn’t run dry. Alice urges Dan to borrow the money in town, and he concedes, “I suppose I could try.”
At the saloon in Bisbee, Wade and his men, posing as cowhands, tell the pretty barmaid, Emmy (Felicia Farr), that they just witnessed the stage being robbed and its driver killed. The marshal (Ford Rainey) organizes a posse to ride out after the outlaws. Wade tells his men to scatter into the countryside, cross the border and meet that night in Nogales. His men ride out in one direction, and the posse rides out in the opposite direction, while Wade remains behind to romance Emmy.
Dan and Butterfield see the spot along the trail where the gang buried their man. The posse rides up, and Butterfield tells them the perpetrators went into Bisbee. Dan describes them and identifies them as Ben Wade and his gang. The marshal realizes he was duped. Alex Potter (Henry Jones), the town drunk, catches up and reveals that one of the gang is still back at the saloon. Surmising it must be Wade himself, they all ride back to town to capture him.
Dan approaches Wade in the saloon about being paid for the half a day’s time he lost finding his cattle and bringing them home. Wade pays him two dollars for his time (the rate for a full day’s work) and even adds two more for the boys’ time: “I used their time too, didn’t I?” Dan says it was tiring for the cattle, and Wade pays him two more for tired cattle. As Dan asks about two dollars extra “for makin’ me nervous,” the marshal sneaks up behind Wade and arrests him. Witnessing the arrest is Wade’s main henchman, Charlie Prince (Richard Jaeckel), who doubled back to check on the boss. He rides out to notify the others. Aware that the outlaws will return to free their leader, the marshal wants to get Wade out of town quickly.
The marshal tries to deputize Dan–”you’re the best shot we got … every man here is a deputy”–but Dan declines. He came into town on business, and he has dying cattle to take care of. Dan asks Mac (George Mitchell), posse member, proprietor of the saloon and small-time banker, for a 0 loan. Mac can’t help him but asks about the missus and the boys. Outside, the marshal asks for two volunteers to ride ahead with Dave Keene (Bill Hale). The marshal won’t reveal the exact nature and risk of the assignment, and the others are also reluctant–they don’t know if it’ll be safe. He answers their concern: “Who knows what’s safe? I know a man dropped dead from lookin’ at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for 60 years and then choked to death on lemon pie.” Butterfield offers 0 to each man, and Dan, just arriving from the saloon, jumps at the opportunity. The marshal gives him a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun to use. The only other taker is the inept Alex. The rest will follow with the prisoner in the coach. Dave Keene tells Dan: “Here’s the plan. We’re gonna transfer him at your house. … It’ll only take a minute.”
Butterfield’s rescued stagecoach arrives, drawn by two replacement horses. Butterfield tells the passengers they’ll have to stay the night, and Bill Moons’s body is removed for shipment back to Contention City on another coach that evening. Two more horses are hitched up to make a “four-up”–this coach has been reserved for the first leg of Wade’s journey. From a hill overlooking the trail, Charlie Prince and one of his cohorts watch the coach’s progress. In a staged deception, the driver runs the right rear wheel off the edge of a small bridge into a ditch. The men with the coach struggle to free it. The marshal makes a show of enlisting help from the nearby ranch house (Dan’s), thereby removing Wade and replacing him with imposter Dave Keene. The outlaws on the hill apparently fall for the ruse.
Wade is then held at Dan’s ranch. Alice serves a fine supper to the family and their “guest,” and Dan thinks she shows a little too much interest in the prisoner’s conversation–”all big-eyed and listenin’ to him.” Dan explains the rest of the plan to her. The two outlaws who were tricked by the transfer will have to round up their men first before catching up with the coach and discovering that their leader is not on it. By then it should be at least noon of the following day, and they won’t have enough time to reach Contention City before the train to Yuma comes through. Meanwhile, Dan and Alex will escort Wade to Contention City and wait there to put him on the 3:10 to Yuma–out of his gang’s reach. (The territorial prison is in Yuma.)
After supper, Dan and Alex escort Wade under cover of darkness to Contention City, where they arrive at daybreak. Butterfield meets them at the edge of town by the train station. He says the plan to stay in a house by the station has changed–the owner’s afraid–and all he could arrange was a room at the hotel. There’s a drunk sleeping it off under a newspaper in the hotel lobby. Alex goes to keep watch at the edge of town while Dan guards Wade in the bridal suite upstairs in the front. Dan threatens to shoot if Wade tries to escape, but when Wade tries to jump him, Dan spares his life. Butterfield reads the Contention City Weekly in the lobby, getting up to ask the desk clerk (Guy Wilkerson)–also the hotel’s bartender and proprietor–about the sleeping man: “Sure is some sleeper.”
The clock strikes eleven. Wade offers Dan 0 to let him escape–double what Butterfield is paying. An approaching drumbeat is heard. Out the window, they see Moons’s funeral procession pass in the street below, prompting Wade to assert that he shot the driver in self-defense. The driver drew first, he says, conveniently leaving out that it was during the armed robbery already in progress.
The man sleeping under the newspaper in the lobby wakes up–it’s Charlie Prince. He sees the time (11:07), asks if any strangers have come into town (“not since you went to sleep, sir”), and goes outside. Wade offers to be Dan’s silent partner with money–,000. The funeral procession returns and breaks up outside the hotel. The men enter for drinks. Moons’s brother Bob (Sheridan Comerate) sees Butterfield and denounces him for not attending the funeral, throwing a drink in his face. Wade increases his offer to ,000. There’s a knock, and Butterfield says he’s got a pot of coffee. Dan unlocks the door, and Bob barges in with his gun drawn. Butterfield explains: “I couldn’t help it. He found out and pulled a gun. He’s been drinking.” Bent on revenge, Bob threatens to kill Wade–and Dan too if he tries to stop him. Dan protects Wade, but in the ensuing scuffle Bob’s gun goes off, alerting Charlie Prince in the street below (on his horse now). Dan confiscates Bob’s revolver. Butterfield asks, “What if somebody heard that shot?” Dan sees Charlie looking up from below and backs away from the window, but Wade and Charlie see each other and exchange smiles. Charlie gallops off to get the others; Alex sees him go.
Wade claims the same thing would have happened in Benson or Huachuca–his men are in all the places they might have taken him. “We send one man ahead to each of those places–to wait, and watch.” Wade wonders aloud if Bob will stay to help Dan put him on the train. He predicts that Butterfield will not, but Butterfield gives Dan his word: “I’ll walk with you every step of the way to that station.” Alex calls up that he saw a fellow ride out fast. Butterfield says they know and tells him to go back and keep watching. Dan tells Butterfield to get the sheriff and have him get as many deputies as he can, but Bob tells them the sheriff is out of town–he took a prisoner to Tucson. Bob refuses to get involved and bails out. (Wade’s got a big, tough outfit–it’s not a fair fight. He has to think of his mother–she just buried one son.) Butterfield goes to look for any five men to help.
At 2:30 Butterfield returns and says he has five men in the lobby for a total of eight. Dan says not to let them start anything unless the outlaws come into the hotel. Wade rattles Dan by rambling on about Dan’s wife: “I’d treat her a whole lot better than you do. … I wouldn’t make her work so hard. … I bet she was a real beautiful girl before she met you.”
The gang rides into town at a full gallop. The five recruits are having drinks at the bar in the hotel lobby. Alex calls up from the street that they’re coming and goes inside to help Butterfield and the recruits, who take cover behind the furnishings. When the riders reach the hotel, Wade asks Dan, “When shall I tell ‘em you’re gonna let me go?” Dan replies testily, “Tell them you’ll write ‘em a letter every day from Yuma.” Wade calls down from the window: “Charlie, go buy the boys a drink. We’ll be down soon.” The outlaws spread out. Wade makes another pitch for Dan to let him go. Dan considers it for a moment: “Are you sure that no one would ever know?” But when Wade asks him why he’s squeezing the watch–it “ain’t gonna stop time”–Dan throws it across the room in a rage.
The recruits counted seven riders. They didn’t figure on a big shootout, and they disperse. Butterfield follows them into the street and offers them each to stay, to no avail. The hotelier also retreats. Wade tells Dan again that Butterfield will walk out on him in the end: “He’s gonna leave you all alone. Now what do you figure you’re gonna die for, huh? Because Butterfield lost his gold shipment? Or because some fool driver got what he deserved?”
Butterfield tells Alex he’s going up to talk to Dan and tells him to watch from the street in front of the hotel. When Alex sees a sniper on the roof opposite, he draws his gun, but Charlie sneaks up from behind and forces him to drop it. Alex shouts, “Dan, the roof!” The sniper shoots twice at Dan in the hotel window but misses. Dan fires the revolver once with precision, and the sniper falls into the street below. Charlie shoots Alex in the back, and his partners drag Alex inside. Butterfield enters Dan’s room (207), and Dan hears Alex cry out to him in his death throes. Dan says if there’s one more shot he’ll shoot Wade. Wade calls down, “Hey Charlie, you’ve got one more shot; make it good.” Charlie replies, “Tell ‘em we’ll use it on the way to the station.” Dan tells Butterfield to go see what they did to Alex. Butterfield steps out of the room and sees Alex’s body hanging from the lobby chandelier. Panicked, he returns and releases Dan from his obligation.
A thunderclap is heard as Alice drives her carriage up to the hotel. She enters, passes Alex’s hanging corpse, and climbs the stairs. Dan hands off the shotgun to Butterfield and goes out to meet her. She runs to his arms and urges him not to be stubborn. She assures him she loves every minute of her life with him, even if it’s a hard life. Butterfield says he’ll pay the 0 anyway. Alice implores Dan not to go through with it: “I don’t want a hero; I want you.” But Dan is committed: “I’ve got to, that’s all. … If I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t. But I heard Alex scream. The town drunk gave his life because he believed that people should be able to live in decency and peace together. You think I can do less?”
The clock strikes three. As they go down the stairs, Dan asks Butterfield to stay behind with Alice and drive her out of town as fast as he can once they get near the cattle pens. He tells Alice not to worry: “As soon as I get him to Yuma, I’ll be right back.” He escorts Wade out the back door, and we hear another thunderclap, then a third. Another sniper on the roof fires and misses. “Tell him one more shot and I’ll cut you in two,” Dan reiterates. Wade calls: “I told you you had just one more shot. Next time you better make it good.”
The train whistle blows–right on time. Cattle come by, and Dan uses them as cover to cross the street. The gang members mount their horses and dash to the station. The train arrives. Dan unhitches a horse and uses it as cover to walk across the last open stretch to the station. The whistle blows again and spooks the horse–they run the rest of the way. The train starts to pull out, and Dan walks Wade to the moving train under cover of the steam shooting from the side of the locomotive. The gang emerges on the other side of the billowing steam–six of them. Charlie shouts for Wade to drop down to allow him a clear shot at Dan, but Wade doesn’t do it. He unexpectedly complies with Dan’s order to jump into the passing baggage car, the last car before the caboose, and they make the jump together. Wade: “Let’s us get outta here.” Dan: “Us? How do I know you’ll jump?” Wade: “You’ll have to trust me on this one. Jump!” The others run alongside after them, and Charlie shoots at Dan but misses. Dan shoots back twice with the revolver, hitting Charlie, who falls to the stony ground.
Then Wade explains that he doesn’t like owing anybody any favors, and Dan saved his life back at the hotel. “It’s all right,” he says, “I’ve broken out of Yuma before.” Dan replies, “My job’s finished when I get you there.” The train passes Alice outside of town, where she’s waiting in her carriage with Butterfield standing alongside. Dan waves to her and it begins to rain. Alice and Butterfield wave back through the deluge as we hear Frankie Laine sing a third and final verse of the theme song.
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