Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Ox-Bow Incident (Fox, 1943)

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Grim, dark, stark, this film still has the power to shock

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Westerns that have little action, a lot of talking and are shot on studio sets, movies so static that they could be filmed plays, are by some movie-goers’ standards not proper Westerns at all. Yet sometimes a Western ‘play’ comes along that is a truly great film and The Ox-Bow Incident is one such.

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The picture also became a forerunner of the noir style which would mark out Westerns after the war, pictures such as Pursued (1947) or Blood on the Moon (1948), both with Robert Mitchum.  Ox-Bow contained many elements of noir and has been described as a “proto-noir”. Click here for our essay on the noir Western. Arthur C Miller’s cinematography, much of night-time scenes, deepens the pessimism and ominous, brooding gloom. There’s almost something gothic about it.
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The story is of a lynching, in 1885 Nevada, when some townspeople take it into their head to hang three men they believe (or want to believe) guilty of rustling and murder. In the only 75 minutes of its length (and it was a 309-page novel), it succeeds, thanks to the fine original book and the Lamar Trotti screenplay, as well as the excellent direction by William A Wellman (click the link for our assessment of him), in delineating and developing the characters. In 1943 the message of how easily justice and right may be perverted was one that struck home.
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In his biography of his father, Wild Bill Wellman, Hollywood Rebel, William Wellman Jr tells how the director was approached while on vacation with his wife by out-of-work producer Harold Hurley, who owned the movie rights to the Walter Van Tilburg Clark book. The dark, grim story greatly impressed Wellman, though bizarrely Hurley wanted to make it in color with Mae West. “When the posse and tired cowboys gather in the saloon,” he said, “Mae will cheer them up with song and dance.” Wellman passed.

 

Walter Van Tilburg Clark (Wellman would also later do another story by him, Track of the Cat)

 

But the story stayed with him and when he met Hurley again later, back in Hollywood, he offered the producer $500 more than he had paid for the story, which had been $6000. Wellman hawked the project round all the studios he had worked for but got a resounding no from everyone. It was wartime. They wanted escapist fare, not a dark film about lynching with little action and no romance. Finally, Darryl Zanuck, even though he and Wellman “weren’t talking”, after one too many ‘incidents’ (Wellman had a famously stormy relationship with studio execs), also read it and was also impressed. “It won’t make a dime,” he said, “but I want my name on it.” There were conditions. There would be only a low budget, it must be shot on the Fox lot in black & white (which was in fact better) and Wellman would have to direct two sight-unseen pictures without changes afterwards. He agreed.

 

The highly talented William Wellman

 

Of course the film has Henry Fonda in it and is therefore strong, tough and moving. His stand for justice is all the more effective because he is just an ordinary cowpoke, apt to drink and fight. Nebraska-born Fonda was fourteen years old when he observed a lynching. He watched a mob from the second floor window of his father’s print shop. “It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen… We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope.” Fonda made several films condemning the evil of lynching and questioning capital punishment in general.

 

 

But there are fine supporting actors too. Frank Conroy, as the leader of the mob, decked out in his Confederate uniform, is a swine, as despicable for his treatment of his own sensitive son (William Eythe) as he is for his perversion of justice. But the worst of the rabble is a fat woman, brilliantly played by Jane Darwell, very effectively cast against type, who jokes at the condemned men’s expense and sits with another odious member of the lynch mob and cackles as the victims are condemned. She is frankly chilling. What makes these members of the lynch mob so especially appalling is their total lack of respect for either human life or for justice. The preacher is pathetically ineffectual (as often happened in Westerns). Fonda and his cowpuncher friend Art (Harry Morgan, excellent), along with a decent store keeper, Harry Davenport, are observers and though they stand against it, they do not intervene. The men are hanged.

 

A classic Wellman shot, one actor prtially masked by another. Harry Morgan and Henry Fonda in the letter-reading scene.

 

Of the three victims, Dana Andrews is moving and the great Francis Ford full of pathos as the feeble-minded old man but Anthony Quinn is outstanding. It is extraordinary how Quinn could bring such power to a ‘minor’ role.

 

The movie observes the classical unities and is a tragedy in the true sense. It is a whole (notice how the two riders come in at the beginning and a dog crosses the street and you have a mirror image of this at the end).

 

While the film impressed some critics and even garnered an Academy Award nomination, it bombed at the box-office. Some viewers were respectful but few ‘entertained’. Harry Morgan was concerned about audience response at the première, but Orson Welles told him, “They don’t realize what they just saw”. Two years before, Welles himself had undergone similar reactions when Citizen Kane came out.

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Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, “William Wellman has directed the picture with a realism that is as sharp and as cold as a knife. The Ox-Bow Incident is not a picture which will brighten or cheer your day. But it is one which, for sheer, stark drama, is currently hard to beat.”

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At the turn of our own century, Japanese film critic Toshi Fujiwara called it “one of the most important westerns in the history of American cinema.” Clint Eastwood has repeatedly called Ox-Bow one of his favorite films.

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Grim, dark, stark, this film still has the power to shock.

 

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7 Responses

  1. Some movies are so good, that in their own ways, they transcend the genre that they are in. The Ox Bow Incident isn't a western to me. It's on some different level of greatness.

    I'm pretty desensitized by violence nowadays. So I was never really shocked. What this movie had the power to do to me though, was hold me in complete suspense. I kept wondering with anticipation what was going to happen next?

    I'm normally a little skittish when it comes to watching a movie this old, with this type of theme. I could easily have seen Henry Fonda's character being a milksop young man, fresh out of law school, preaching throughout the whole movie as it fell on deaf ears, then loudly crying and reading the letter in the bar at the end, while everyone else starts bawling. How wrong I was. The sub-human posse members pretty much stayed the same, and Henry's character came out maybe a little wiser, but probably damaged in such a way that I fear he would never be able to recover from. What a neat, rough, well written character.

    Also, what impressed me, was how uniquely grotesque they were able to make most of the individual lynch mob members. They would easily have been right at home, drinking with the other cast of degenerates in that bar that the marriage took place in during that scene from "Ride the High Country." Personally, the deputy gets my vote for the one I'd have personally liked to have seen get beaten to death.

    Anthony Quinn's character didn't do the other two victims any favors by being stuck with them. I kinda got the feeling that if he didn't do this crime, he was hung for something else he should have been caught for. Doesn't matter. Those fools were just plain bloodthirsty. And you are absolutely right about his performance. The amount of balls he showed at the end made you respect his character instead of just pitying him.

    I shouldn't have waited until reading your blog entry to have have watched this remarkable film. It did get it's own Criterion release afterall, so I have been aware of its existence. However, since it's your well respected opinion that finally coaxed me into a giving it a chance, a big thanks for that my good man! Also, reading that it was supposedly one of Robert Mitchum's favorite movies didn't hurt either.

  2. Jeff I am 99,99% sure that you had in your previous blog an article about William Wellman which is not listed in your index anymore. Am I wrong !?

  3. I love this movie. So much great acting in this. Fonda is fantastic (and sort of reprise of this role in ’12 Angry Men’-wonderful too). Great,great movie.

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