Sometimes forgotten, unjustly so, on lists of favorite Westerns is to Yuma, by Delmer Daves from Halsted Welles’s adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story. Now being remade by James Mangold and supposedly starring Tom Cruise, the 1957 version runs at the impressive fourth annual “To Save and Project,” the Museum of Modern Art’s screening of national and international features and shorts preserved, restored or rediscovered by component entities of Brussels’ International Federation of Film Archives.
Overshadowed by brilliant High Noon, which it in many ways resembles, Daves’ film nevertheless is outstanding on its own and, except for scratchy seconds where reels meet, now meticulous on-screen. Although there is no Native American presence aside from a funeral drummer boy who may indeed be white, the director’s youthful years living among Hopis and Navajos is apparent in b&w (cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr.) love and respect for the difficult beautiful land and thematic emphasis on stoical acceptance.
“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” is a watchword of this country’s self-image and a given of the oater order, latterly even extended in revisionisms to First Americans but going back to earlier sports like Apache (1954). Responsible for wife Alice (Leora Dana) and proud young Gospel-named sons Mathew and Mark (Barry Curtis and Jerry Hartleben, both uncredited), Dan Evans (Van Heflin) watches his cattle farm going under because of drought and, poor but upright, is too proud to borrow to buy water. Rounding up their herd, father and sons witness a Butterfield (Robert Emhardt) Stage Express holdup, in the course of which a rash driver is gunned down.
The failing farmer does not care to become involved with the notorious Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) gang or anything else beyond his family, but time and tide suck him in when the charming merciless outlaw leader is captured while sweet-talking a Bisbee barmaid. Desperate for cash, he further allows his home to be used as an overnight blind and then will guard the prisoner in ContentionCity until the train can take him cross-state to Yuma’s prison.
Irony and menace lurk under Wade’s soft courtesy, but in the husband’s disconcertment at Alice’s response to the man, some critics find a first hint of the men’s mutual jealousy of what the other has.
Settled later into the Hotel Contention, Dan stands Ben’s guard from until the . Frankie Laine instead of High Noon’s Tex Ritter twangs a framing song, and again there is the tension of time and timetable, although neither so insistent nor in real time as for Gary Cooper’s marshal Will Kane; and in both cases, a town drunk (now Henry Jones, as Alex Potter) seeks to redeem himself, big-talking deputies disappear in the crunch when baddies take over the dusty emptied streets, everyone urges the hero to desert his post with honor, and a wife buggies in for her man.
The enjoyment here that outweighs the derivativeness -- which is not necessarily a bad thing, anyway -- comes in the dialogue and relationship developed between outlaw and rancher. Pleasant-faced clean-shaven Ben toys with his adversary, confident he will break from nerves if not greed. During their extended screen time alone in the hotel’s 207 bridal suite, the bandit sparkles with dry wit -- anticipated by an earlier handcuffed request that “you would [not] mind cutting the fat off [my meat], please” -- such as idly wondering about brides and the bed he lies on. But his pointed small talk invariably recurs to psyching the other into just a moment of conscious, even well-paid, dereliction of duty.
The extended central verbal sparring is invigorating, and one only wishes that Wade might not have been written to betray Charlie (Richard Jaeckel) and the other henchmen’s code -- which, after all, is the boss’, too -- but some male codes are truer than others. Besides, “I don’t like to owe favors,” and, anyway, prison won’t hold him, so he can contentedly watch as intermittent dry thunder turns drought-ending downpour. Farm, family and honor are safe.
(Released by Columbia Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)