3:10 to Salt Lake City

June 26, 2008 | 23 comments
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They still make Westerns because the harsh, unforgiving West of the 19th century was a land of stark moral choices. 3:10 to Yuma is just the latest example.

It’s not just horses and gunplay that make Westerns so appealing, it’s the fact that characters can be so easily thrust into scenarios where clearly identifiable Right and Wrong share the stage with Life and Death. The thematic context is so well defined that the characters don’t even need names. Now one can certainly argue that once upon a time in the West — the real West — there were large swaths of grey hanging over the moral landscape. There were pale riders as well as white hats and black hats, and many lawmen had been outlaws of some stripe earlier in life (generally in a different state). The stereotypical duel at high noon between young guns is largely a creation of Hollywood.

But it’s an effective creation. Should Dan Evans take a fistful of dollars and go home, or should he do the right thing and put Ben Wade on the train to Yuma? If lawmen, purported upholders of the law, walk away from their sworn duty, what duty remains for unsworn citizens like Dan? Why are outlaws like Ben always depicted more sympathetically than either the lawmen or the average citizens scurrying around the boardwalks? What will they write on your tombstone? “Got Ben Wade on the 3:10 to Yuma.” Or not. Stark choices.

So what’s the Mo app? The LDS lifestyle necessarily presents clear moral choices. Don’t drink. Go on a mission. Plop down in a pew every Sunday. And so forth. I don’t get the impression that many other denominations enforce such clear expectations. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with a warm and fuzzy “love your neighbor” sermon, but no one calls you at the end of the month to ask you whether you loved your neighbor or not. Home teaching, on the other hand, creates a record. Either you did or you didn’t. Like Westerns, Mormonism presents clear choices that define one’s life.

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23 Responses to 3:10 to Salt Lake City

  1. Adam Greenwood on June 26, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    Now we know why Mormons like genre fiction so much. They have a genre theology!

    :)

  2. Adam Greenwood on June 26, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    The old 3:10 to Yuma is pretty good, by the way. I recommend it.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050086/

  3. Ardis Parshall on June 26, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Maybe that’s why the few spectacular lapses are so dramatic. People yawn if you mention the countless massacres of Indians by 19th century American troops, or the slaughter of blacks in the Tulsa riots of, um, 1920? 21? thereabouts. Yet everybody salivates at the mention of Mountain Meadows. There’s no expectation that the general public or the representatives of that general public will act any differently. Yet Mormons should be different, better, with an eye always on those “clear choices that define one’s life.” When any of us fails, nobody forgets.

  4. brandt on June 26, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    As a preface, I JUST saw 3:10 last night, and find myself thinking more and more about it today as the day goes on.

    I think the religious line between good and bad is very prevalent in the LDS church. If one doesn’t go on a mission they MUST have been bad. That’s the stigma that some people have in their mind.

    Perhaps the good and bad line is becoming skewed with more responsibility put on the individual rather than the Church dictating what is “good” and what is “bad”…

    Like Dan Evans, after the sherrif had left, chose to do the right thing…and perhaps Ben Wade wasn’t all bad….

  5. Dave on June 26, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    Glad you liked the movie, brandt. I do want to put out a quick caveat that the clear choices the Church lays out don’t support “good people” and “bad people” labels. That’s not what I’m saying. We’re all good people.

  6. JT on June 26, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    I like the home teaching analogy. Obviously, there is a wide spectrum in the quality of home teaching, but “making the visit” is, more or less, black and white (perhaps with some small shades of gray). Ok, my current list is mostly shades of gray, but our efforts to contact them are black and white. HT is one of those seemingly small things that can be easy to ignore and sufficiently inconvenient that it really tests the inward commitment of a priesthood holder (or VT). A general authority visiting a district conference (in an area where many struggled with HT – that is, more so than average) discovered that many thought it was just too difficult – too inconvenient. One man in particular said that he simply did not have the time during the month to do it. The general authority responded by telling the man that he had recently deposited $500 in 4 different banks around town. The money would be his if he just went to the banks to pick it up. The man sat silently. The general authority then said: “I think you can find the time to make these visits.” I imagine that, in some millenial day, we will be more motivated by charity (love) than $ (or other vain pursuits). After all, only then would something like the United Order or “all things common”-type living be possible. In any case, questions like the general authority’s or comments like Ben Wade’s “your son isn’t looking any more” give me a sobering and sometimes painful look at what my true motivations are.

    As for the movie, I love Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Please tell me the new one didn’t disappoint, b/c I honestly think those two are the best male actors in modern popular film.

  7. jrl on June 26, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    Ah, yes. Clear choices, like whether to watch R rated movies…

  8. Adam Greenwood on June 26, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    JRl, the old 3:10 to Yuma is not R-rated. People who have seen both say its superior. I liked it a lot.

    http://www.jamesbowman.net/reviewDetail.asp?pubID=1866

  9. Jim T on June 26, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Gosh, it only took 275 dead bodies along the way to get to those great moral choices. What a victory for movie artistry! I guess the old movie with Glenn Ford didn’t teach any values, since it had no needless gore that I can recall.

  10. Steve Evans on June 26, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    Both versions are pretty great.

  11. brandt on June 26, 2008 at 8:58 pm

    I’m going to put the original on my “to-watch” list for next week if it keeps getting good reviews from you all

  12. Zillah on June 27, 2008 at 12:18 am

    I was actually rather disappointed by the new one, particularly in contrast to the old. I also preferred The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford…

  13. Tony on June 27, 2008 at 10:08 am

    “Ah, yes. Clear choices, like whether to watch R rated movies… ” (jrl)

    Oh brother…I hereby grant you Eternal Membership in the Get A Life Club.

  14. Nat Whilk on June 27, 2008 at 10:36 am

    People who have time to tell other people to get a life should probably get a life themselves. Except for me.

  15. Adam Greenwood on June 27, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Oh brother…I hereby grant you Eternal Membership in the Get A Life Club.

    As founder and President of the club, I suppose you have that power.

  16. Tony on June 27, 2008 at 11:11 am

    Trust me, Mr. Greenwood, you’d be first on my list if I had that power…

  17. NorthboundZax on June 27, 2008 at 11:12 am

    “I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with a warm and fuzzy “love your neighbor” sermon, but no one calls you at the end of the month to ask you whether you loved your neighbor or not.”

    I guess Jesus wasn’t much of a westerns fan. The Sermon on the Mount would have been a great opportunity to start an accountable home teaching program. Too bad he squandered it on ‘fuzzies’.

  18. Adam Greenwood on June 27, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Oh, did you resign? Well, no worries. We can form a new group and mutually appoint each other, like Joseph and Oliver with baptism. If you can’t trust anonymous internet commenters, who can you trust? And I know you trust me, or at least my six-shooter.

  19. WillF on June 27, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Well NorthBoundZax, as Obama said, “Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?”

    Sounds like a Western in there somewhere.

  20. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 27, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    #17 (NBZax): I beg to differ concerning the Sermon on the Mount. The truth is that it lays out a list of very specific expectations for behavior that are very exacting in many ways. The fact that few people have read it recently is the only reason Mr. Obama can get away with claiming that it offers a basis for accepting gay marriage (for example). Actually, the sermon condemns not only adultery (sexual relations outside marriage, which by definition includes homosexual as well as heterosexual relations), but even lookikng at a woman and thinking about adultery with her.

    The part of the Sermon that most people remember is the opening section, the Beatitudes. Most readers think they are “fuzzy” promises of blessings to people in one of a list of categories, such as “the poor” “the meek” “the peacemakers”, etc., and for each category you can write yourself into, you get another blessing. We LDS are fortunate to have an expanded understanding of the Sermon on the Mount because of the Sermon at the Temple in 3 Nephi.

    In 3 Nephi 12, the sermon is introduced by the statement of Jesus that specific blessings come to those who receive baptism at the hands of his ordained disciples among the Nephites. The list of blessings then expands into the blessings recited in Matthew 5, with added clarifications. Basically, this makes it clear that the Sermon does not offer generic blessings to various generic categories of people, but rather that it is offering specific blessings to specifically those who are baptized into Christ’s Church. It is they who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” and are “filled with the Holy Ghost.” It is they who are “meek” and “will inherit the earth” (when it is remade into a Celestial world). It is they who are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” and receive the Kingdom of Heaven. The entire Sermon is a call to discipleship in a real discipline that takes commitment and sacrifice.

    Those who commit to do righteous acts are always moving against the grain of modern life. It takes courage to do the hard thing that the world does not want you to do, because the world does not want to be shown for a coward. So yes, they are heroes, in the same sense that the good guys in Westerns are heroes.

    Much of science fiction (e.g. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game books) and fantasy (e.g. David Farland’s [nee Wolverton's] Rune Lords books) is driven by challenging moral choices that matter to the characters. That may be one reason Mormons give a lot of their time to those genres. The hallmark of academic literature has been to specifically eschew the reality of moral choice, that there are consequences from decisions made.

    That is not to say that Mormons are not familiar with flawed characters. To the contrary, some of the greatest heroes are men who initially failed in their moral choices, as in Alma 1, Alma 2, Ammon, Amulek, Zeezrom, Corianton, Lamoni, etc.

    Imagine the difficulty of being Mormon and Moroni, leading your people into battle, knowing they will be exterminated because of their embrace of wickedness. Why does Mormon go back, after resigning his commission in disgust at his troops’ behavior? Is he helping them to go to their deaths with discipline rather than in chaos? Is he trying to hasten their deaths so the agony is not prolonged? Is he trying to restrain them so they don’t commit atrocities on the Lamanites (such as by keeping them in a defensive position rather than attacking Lamanite homes and villages? Perhaps he was hoping they might repent before the end, and when they did not, he had to play out his role anyway. These were not morally simple roles.

  21. Kaimi Wenger on June 27, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    I win! I win! But just barely.

    I put my nickel on the 15-20 slot, for the “how many comments will it take before this too turns into a gay marriage discussion?” pool.

  22. Doc on June 27, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    NBZ (#17),
    I agree. Ghandi is my favorite Western.

  23. Smart Alec on June 30, 2008 at 12:01 am

    #22. Ghandi is my favorite Western.

    Yeah, but Gandhi was even better! :-)