Saturday, January 12, 2013

Movie – The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident, both novel and movie, made large impacts when they came out.  The novel was the first book published by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, a man born in Maine and who was well-traveled by the time it was published.  He was an educator by trade and this novel was hailed as “real” writing – a reaction books in the western genre had never received before.  Because of the subject matter in the novel, though, it was a difficult path to getting the movie made.  Even when completed it sat for months because the studio didn’t know how to market it.  When it finally did come out it received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  It is also one of two films from the early part of his career (The Grapes of Wrath being the other) that Henry Fonda has said he is really proud of.

Clark’s novel was published in 1940 and the movie rights were soon scooped up, but the first man who got them wanted to change a lot of the story.  The rights ended up being re-purchased by director William Wellman, but he had a tough time convincing the head of the studio to make this “different kind of western.”  The lead role was initially offered to Gary Cooper, who turned it down, so Wellman next brought it to Fonda.  The studio head – Darryl Zanuck – then underfunded the film, forcing them to shoot on backlots and even re-use set materials.  Then the Hays Office got involved because of the controversial nature of the plot.

The movie opens with Gil Carter (Fonda) and Art Croft (a young Harry Morgan who decades later would play Col. Potter on the TV show MASH) riding into a small western town.  There has been a lot of cattle stolen in the area recently, so anyone who is not seen that much is immediately under suspicion, including the two of them.  After Gil and Art arrive another man comes to the saloon they are at and announces that a rancher named Larry Kinkaid has been murdered and his cattle taken.  Many of the people in the bar are all for immediately riding after them, catching whoever did it, and lynching them.

The local judge tells them that that is illegal; that they must bring these men back alive to face justice in his court.  In a false show of making their actions legal, the posse is deputized to go after the killers.  This is just for show because the sheriff is out of town and it’s the deputy who does this – something only the sheriff has the authority to do.

Both Gil and Art are opposed to the idea of the posse, but they pretty much have to join the rest to avoid being suspected of being the killers themselves.  Another townsman, Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport), argues vehemently against mob rule, but once he sees he will not be able to stop the posse, he joins it, too.  Notable, especially for a movie of its time, is the presence of both a woman, Jenny Grier (Jane Darwell), and a black man, Sparks (Leigh Whipper), among the posse of about two dozen people.

Darwell had won an Oscar for playing the upright Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (which Fonda played her son in).  She plays a much different character here –one that is almost more vicious than the men in wanting justice.   Whipper actually gets to play a character who is in some ways another voice of conscience in the film.  Considering how Hollywood treated people of his race at the time, this was doubly remarkable.  Whipper was a veteran of the screen and had even appeared in the 1920 film Within Our Gates, which is the oldest surviving film with an all black cast, crew, and director.

The posse does find three men camped out with some of Kinkaid’s cattle with them.  A man named Donald Martin (Dana Andrews – The Best Years of Our Lives) claims that he bought the cattle from Kinkaid.  When asked why he doesn’t have a bill of sale to prove it, he says that the sale happened out on the range and they didn’t have any paper.  Needless to say, no one really believes him.

Adding to his problem is the two men with him.  The first is a Mexican (Anthony Quinn) who claims to be one man, but is soon found out to be another.  The third one in the group is an old man who seems to be out of his mind.  He is played by veteran character actor and prodigious silent film director Francis Ford.  He was the older brother of John Ford.  Both Ford brothers were born in Maine, Francis went to Hollywood to make pictures, and John followed him a little later.

The posse decides they don’t want to take the chance that these men will be released by the judge, so they will hang the three men at dawn.  Martin asks Gil if he can deliver a letter to Martin’s widow after he is dead.  Gil agrees, but reads the letter when Martin gives it to him.  What he sees convinces him that Martin cannot be a killer.  He tries to sway the posse by reading them Martin’s letter, but when the Mexican tries to escape and is discovered with Kinkaid’s gun on him, this pretty much seals their fate.

The posse takes another vote and only seven of the two dozen vote to bring the men back to town alive to face justice.  It’s one thing to decide to kill a man; it’s another to actually go through with it.  When it comes time to knock the horses out from under the three men so they will be hanged, only two of the posse step forward – Darwell’s character and a former military man who had been the most vocal about carrying out the lynching.  They need a third volunteer, but no one seems ready to actually go through with it.

What will happen to the three condemned men?  What will happen to the people who condemned them?  Will mob rule win out, or will reason prevail?  Therein lies what makes this film so special.  It wasn’t your standard “bad guys have kidnapped someone and the heroes ride out to save the day” film.  What if the heroes who ride out turn out to be flawed humans just like everyone else?  What if there is some doubt that the bad guys are actually bad guys?  What would you do if you were in the posse?

Even if you hate westerns you should really see this film.  Some people have referred to it as “the western for people who don’t like westerns”.  This doesn’t mean that people who love westerns will hate it; it just means that a generic western film is filled with clichés and stereotypes and The Ox-Bow Incident shatters all of those.  Unless you hate these kinds of moral questions, I highly recommend you see this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Same here. This is a moral tale in Western clothing rather than a Western with a moral.

    1. "This is a moral tale in Western clothing rather than a Western with a moral."

      Agreed. One of the reasons I like science fiction (as opposed to sci-fi) is that it sometimes does the same thing. By placing common actions in an uncommon setting it can make people think about them and ask themselves what they would do.

  2. Interesting back story to the film, Chip. Sometimes I wonder if limiting the budget is what it takes to make great films. It forces the director and crew to think creatively and focus on acting and dialogue. Yet despite all the limitations they actually managed to gather a very strong ensemble for this one. Good review.