3:10 to Yuma told the story of a down and out rancher who gets pulled in to the effort to get an outlaw on a train to Yuma, Arizona where the territorial prison is located. The rancher witnesses the outlaw and his gang murder a man in a stage holdup and responds to an offer of money to get the outlaw on the train, as the gang intimidates the town and plots an ambush. The rancher desperately needs the money, and against his wife’s plea, and the outlaw’s attempted bribes, begins to feel it is his duty now to do the right thing, even as the townsfolk turn cowardly.
The movie was made in 1950’s, at a time when morality and courage were popular themes in movies as well as society. There were many films and television programs of the man who stood alone, drenched in danger, who had everything to lose and usually only one reason to keep fighting forward – to live with yourself or die trying.
The 3:10 train was a symbol of the day of reckoning. Miss the train, and the story changes for the worse. The train was also an opportunity, to stand tall in your own shoes and do right. Similar to the film High Noon, time is used to ratchet up the drama, as the hero realizes he has to stand alone and risks sacrificing everything. In High Noon, sheriff Will Kane awaits the arrival of a train (another train motif), where his nemesis will join up with his gang and gun-down the sheriff in revenge.
Few of us are faced with life-threatening decisions where it is solely up to us to risk our careers, values or lives to do the right thing. We may have difficult decisions or battles where it might be easier to take a different path, but we stick to our values and do what we know in our heart is the correct thing. We may feel the pressure of loved ones, friends or colleagues, to either stand our ground or to buckle under, depending on the risk or to mitigate conflict. Some issues are not black and white, compromise may be one of our options. Other people rationalize their decisions in order to save face, reverse blame or simply to re-frame the narrative. Doing the right thing in modern times is increasingly navigating your way through a barrage of alternate facts.
Life is not a movie, but sometimes fiction imitates life. Unfortunately, at the end of the film, when the lights come on, real-life conflicts continue.
Whether you are a whistle-blower, testifying before a legislative committee or you’ve come forward to hold someone accountable for criminal behavior, your reputation is on the line, your livelihood and in extreme cases, maybe even your life is at risk.
Like the rancher in 3:10 to Yuma, most people do not go looking for a crisis, it finds them. That film, make in black and white, used a lot of gray tones on the screen. While that might have been true of the cinematography, the decisions in the story were not in shades of gray. In today’s world, gray seems to be the color, it diffuses our view and allows a lot of hiding places. What isn’t sketchy is the sound of the whistle. As Johnny Cash sang, “I hear the train a comin’.”