Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Marc Lawrence, Frank Conroy

Directed by William A. Wellman

Written by Lamar Trotti, adapted from the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

There is no film genre as American as the Western, and no member of our country’s rich history as iconic as the cowboy. John Ford and John Wayne teamed up throughout the years to bring the two together, using the unforgettable vistas of Monument Valley as their backdrop.

During the same period, known as the Golden Age of the Western Film (1939-1950), big studio names like Michael Curtiz (Dodge City, which along with Ford’s Stagecoach made the Western a legitimate film genre in 1939 ) and Howard Hawks (1948’s Red River) made their marks on the genre. In later years it would go through Italian director Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Western” phase as well as several periods of revisionism, from the bloody nihilism of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) to the cultural sensitivity and anti-expansionism of Dances with Wolves (1990).

But well back in the proclaimed Golden Age, somewhere in the wastes of celluloid’s myriad sprawling sepia panoramas is a hidden gem of the genre that came out to virtually no box-office in Spring of 1943: The Ox-Bow Incident.

In plain words it concerns the wrongful lynching of three men by a posse of town vigilantes, accused of the crime of murder from mere hearsay But more than that, it’s a parable unlike any Western before or since; an all-too-realistic look into a world that wasn’t all stagecoach chasing and saloon brawls, but a vicious, lawless and racist world, and a moral indictment of the reprehensible lynchings of black Americans the film alludes to – which by the mid-Forties weren’t too hard to remember for most Americans.

Henry Fonda, iconic in his own right, plays the main cowboy, who along with a buddy came into the town of Bridger’s Wells looking for a drink, but instead gets caught up in a frenzied hunt for the murderer(s) of a local rancher.

With the sheriff out of town, the growing posse is told to wait until he comes back, but the deputy sheriff – eager for a break from the boredom – illegally deputizes every posse member and they set off under the leadership of “Major” Tetley, who loves the excuse to wear his old Confederate uniform, and additionally plans to make his son into a man by showing him a good hanging.

As the posse descends on the Ox-Bow Valley, three cowpokes who happen to be camping out in the wrong place at the wrong time are violently roused from sleep and made to start talking. A few slip-ups in their stories here, a piece of supposed evidence there, and the trio begin to dig their own figurative graves. By morning, the majority of the posse proceed with the heinous crime, despite the efforts of Fonda – who, besides maybe James Stewart, could be a more believable voice of good? – to stop it.

For its day, The Ox-Bow Incident is a brutal movie. One of the accused trio is a senile old man, perpetually confused and bewildered as the terrible scene happens around him. When the noose is moments from his neck, he moans “I don’t want to die.” Dana Andrews, who is the main speaker of the trio, has the best performance of the movie. At times both tearful and righteous in his innocence, his acceptance in realizing that his appeals are useless, that nothing he can say will prove himself innocent, is heartbreaking, as is his anger when he finds out that someone read the letter – his last on earth- that he wrote for his wife.

And by the film’s end, when the sheriff returns and confronts the posse with the truth, the palpable grief and despair reaches out of the screen. While Fonda’s reading of Dana Andrews’ letter in the final scene is a bit heavy-handed – would you waste room on a your last letter writing about the world’s ills? – the meaning of the film is clear well before that.

It’s a study of different, conflicting characters, each demonstrating how easy it is to be swept up in mob mentality. Some people want to be in charge of a large group, some because they’re just bored, and others, unthinkably in this case, simply because they want to have a good time. Those who are the voice of reason or justice – in this film interchangeable – are all-too-quickly drowned out among these contrasting voices, or are perhaps too afraid to speak out against the majority.

To have a meaningful, thought-provoking essay on the evils of murderous disorder that’s also a Western is too good to pass up. Add to that the film’s uncharacteristic and powerful moral message, whose chief spokesman is one of the most beloved actors of his age, and unhheralded The Ox-Bow Incident clearly deserves a place among its peers.

Images courtesy of moviemail-online.co.uk and dvdbeaver.com, respectively.

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