Dan Evans (Heflin) is a rancher in the Arizona Territory of The Wild West sometime in the latter 19th century. His ranch is not doing very well, mostly due to a three-year drought that is slowly killing off his cattle. There are tensions at home, as his wife Alice, who came from money, is growing weary of their hardscrabble life.
While driving his remaining cattle back to his ranch, along with his sons, Dan encounters a stagecoach, and a gang of bandits led by notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Ford). Wade lets Evans and his boys go but does kill the stagecoach driver and abscond with the gold on the stagecoach. The gang rides to Bisbee, but Wade is captured when he lingers in the town to enjoy a roll in the hay with a barmaid. When a $200 reward is offered to whoever will take Wade onto the eponymous train to Yuma, Evans volunteers — but Wade's men are on the way back to free their leader.
- Affably Evil: For a thief and cold-blooded murderer, Wade is awfully charming and polite.
- The Alcoholic: Alex Potter is drunk in the morning, and asks for a jug of alcohol when he's guarding Wade at Evans's house. Evans later calls him "the town drunk."
- Being Good Sucks: Wade voices this opinion throughout the film. Noting that Evans works so hard for so little, barely able to provide for his family and forced to become a hero for only a meager increase in profit. Evans seems to agree that being good isn't necessarily rewarding, but he'll be good anyway.
- Blatant Lies: "I don't go around shooting people down," claims Wade, not more than a couple of hours after he shot two people in cold blood, one being his own man.
- Book-Ends: The Title Theme Tune sung by Frankie Lane plays at the beginning and again at the end.
- Breaking Out the Boss: Apparently there is honor among thieves, as Wade's men come back to the town to liberate their boss.
- Chekhov's Gunman: When the posse brings Wade to the hotel at Contention City to await the Yuma train, the desk clerk mentions that the only guest there is a drunk sleeping in the lobby. It's really Charlie Prince.
- Crazy-Prepared: The sheriff and his posse devise a careful plan in which they will send off a decoy stage to lure the bandits in the wrong direction while Dan and Alex take Wade to the Yuma train. Wade later reveals that it's standard procedure for his gang, if one is captured, to send scouts to everywhere their man might be taken, in order to find him and summon the rest of the gang. Charlie Prince is in Contention City, and he finds Wade.
- Determined Homesteader: Dan Evans, who's fighting to save his ranch despite years of drought that is killing off his cattle. He needs the $200 to buy water rights to a local stream that he can use for the cattle.
- Determined Homesteader's Wife: Zig-zagged in the case of Dan's wife Alice. At the beginning she isn't determined at all, and this trope is clearly averted. Alice complains about how hard life has been and how much they've had to struggle and pesters Dan to get a loan which might help bail them out of trouble. Later, when Dan is about to go out on what seems likely to be a fatal march with Ben Wade, this trope is played more straight. Alice intercepts Dan, begging him to stop, telling him not to risk his life over anything she said the day before. She insists that she's loved their life, even with the hardships and struggles.
- Dirty Coward: Bob Moons comes to kill Wade when Wade is alone and handcuffed in police custody, but when later asked to join the posse that's going to confront the bandit gang, Bob begs off. Then everyone in the posse except for Alex abandons Evans when the gang shows up.
- The Dragon: Charlie Prince, Wade's sidekick, who leads the gang back into town to free Wade and waits for them by feigning sleep on the lobby couch.
- Even Evil Has Standards: After murdering stagecoach driver Bill Moons, Wade insists that the stage carry Moons's corpse to Bisbee for a proper funeral.
- For Doom the Bell Tolls: The clanging of the clock as it chimes three evokes this, as Dan knows the bandits are waiting for him.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar:
"I spent $300 in one night on Velvet."
- Apparently Wade has indulged in expensive hookers.
"This is the Bridal Suite. Huh, I wonder how many brides have...well."
- Later Wade makes a snarky comment about the "Bridal Suite" room where he's being held.
- Happy Rain: At the end.
- Honor Before Reason: The rest of the posse has fled. Alex has been killed, leaving Evans alone. Mr. Butterfield, whose gold was stolen, says Evans is under no obligation, and even offers to pay him the $200 anyway. Dan's wife shows up and begs him to quit, telling him to forget about her prior complaining about their hard and poor life. Dan refuses to bail out, telling Alice that Alex Potter died so that people could live peacefully and decently, so he's honor bound to do the same.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Evans does some nice shooting, like the time he gets a guy on a rooftop across the street, with a pistol.
- In the Back: Poor Alex is shot in the back by Charlie Prince, who snuck up from behind. It doesn't kill him, though, and he lives long enough to be hanged by Wade's men.
- I Owe You My Life: Evans, through sheer bravery and some lucky breaks, makes it to the train station alive, with Wade. But Wade's gang finally corners him at the train tracks. As the train starts to pull away, Charlie Prince tells Wade to duck, so they can shoot Evans and free him. Instead Wade tells Evans to get on the train with him, and they both jump into a baggage car. As the train pulls away a shocked Evans asks Wade why. Worthy Opponent is clearly a factor here, but Wade also says that he saved Evans' life because Evans saved Wade's life when Ben Moons barged into the hotel room and tried to kill him. (Also, Wade remains confident that the gang will liberate him at some later date.)
- Sexy Discretion Shot: Wade and Emmy the barmaid share a passionate kiss. Cut to a scene with the good guys talking about how they might apprehend Wade. Cut back to Wade and Emmy coming out of the back room, with Emmy readjusting her hair.
- Shoot the Hostage: When the stagecoach driver grabs one of Wade's men and puts a gun to his head, Wade shoots and kills his man, then shoots and kills the stagecoach driver.
- A Storm Is Coming: Wade notes that the good people of Century City are all indoors, and muses "Guess they figure a storm is blowin' up, huh?" He's alluding to his gang on the way, but there is an actual storm coming.
- Sympathy for the Hero: Wade feels increasingly sympathetic to Evans, noting he's just a normal guy who works hard for little reward and risks his life and sticks his neck out long after others would quit. His sympathy for Evans, ultimately leads him to co-operate with his arrest and take the train ride to Yuma.
- Thunder Equals Downpour: Just as Wade and Evans are about to go on the climactic walk to the train with Evans's gang lying in wait, cracks of lightning and rolling thunder are heard. Eventually, the downpour comes—the rain that Evans has been desperately waiting for, that he needs to save his herd.
- Title Drop: The sheriff mentions the "3:10 to Yuma" train that they have to get Wade on before Wade's men come for him.
- Title Theme Tune: "There is a lonely train called the 3:10 to Yuma..."
- Vehicle Title: The eponymous "3:10 to Yuma" train.
- Worthy Opponent: Wade clearly feels this way about Evans by the end, helping save his life by voluntarily getting on the train. See also I Owe You My Life above.
- Yes-Man: Alex is this, irritating the sheriff by agreeing with everything he says."Alex, will you let me finish? Then you can agree."