A classic western I have been meaning to see for quite sometime, part of Richard Slotkin’s lecture series on the genre which I first picked up during the last few months at art-school. It really started to broaden my mind as to what the genre was about, the history and starting to pull apart the myth. I’ve just about seen all the films on the list and this was one of the last ones still up there I couldn’t listen until I caught The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). You could say this was well overdue essential viewing for me.
Running at just over 70 minutes you can’t expect too much from the film. There’s not a lot of action on the screen. Beginning with a drunken Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) drowning his sorrows, all he has hoped for is gone, a drifter venting at the wrong time when there is more important things at hand. We see a town consumed by the news of a rancher who apparently has been killed by rustlers. Its angers the men of the ghost town that becomes more populated as the news spreads and a posse forms. All against the wishes of the oldest member of the town Arthur Davis (Harry Davenport) who is fighting a losing battle against the young men who after this emotive news allows the anger they feel grows. It has to be legal, to find the men who have left.
There’s an internal fight to do things right from the start, I couldn’t help but think ahead to 12 Angry Men (1957) as one man tries to convince the majority to change their minds. Reasonable doubts is something that doesn’t really exist in the west, or this film, its all black and white. Literally as it is here allowing you to hopefully see the greys in between what we see. The audience is left shouting at the screen as the men and single woman Jenny Grier (Jane Darwell) who is more man than woman, a mean match to any of the men who she rides with. Making Darwells part all the more engaging, more used to seeing a softer woman on-screen, the mother figure. All that is lost here as she is more masculine than some of the men.
Figures such as the Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) is a throwback to the confederacy, a man of principle and ashamed of his son, a coward unlike himself. Living on past glories to sustain himself. Influencing Jack Palance‘s Captain Quincey Whitmore in Chato’s Land (1972) wearing his uniform once more with pride as he hunts for the infamous Chato (Charles Bronson). It’s all about having one more chance at glory, to have a victory after the surrender. Also we have the preacher portrayed as an old and feeble, a judge fat and loud who gives into the demands of the posse who will leave at any time.
Once they leave the town, around 30 riders leave the back-lot for the sound-stage where the real drama and suspicion unfolds as the close in on the men they believe to have killed the much-loved rancher. A group of three men led by Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) who wants only to support his family. Is that not honorable enough? They are back into a corner as nooses are already being tied, horses positioned under a hanging tree. With little chance of interrogating they are fighting a losing battle reason against assumption.
The people’s trial before lynching takes place in the comfort of the sound studio which maybe a budgetary constraint with such a big cast, that makes the scenes all the more claustrophobic as these three men innocent or not are. I do have my doubts about Juan Martínez (Anthony Quinn) a Mexican with a colourful past. Our own prejudices are tested on-screen, is one of the group guilty and are they covering for one another. How can they with the sincerity of Martin who pleads to for reason, a fair trial, all the things they aren’t getting out there around their camp for their last night of life.
It’s a western of words and few actions which speak louder than any firing of a gun. Loud ones confused and angry deafening out those of quiet reason. You want to shout at the screen along with Fonda one of the few to stand up and speak his own mind as the night goes on. Teaching us not to be led by our assumptions and to not forget the systems in place by society to ensure we are all treated fairly. It could easily be applied to a racial killing today, as people easily turn against innocent muslims when act of terrorism’s committed. It’s easy to do when you’re blinded by anger and hate which can consume you, leaving you later on with guilt and remorse as the consequences of that night dawn upon them. The act of lynching is seen from below, probably a mechanism to get around censorship at the time, working better for dramatic purposes we know they are up there, would seeing them make it any better for us, even a boot off the top of the screen? The lack of bodies allows the audiences imagination to run wild, what have this posse done, how could they let it happen so fast. We all know why it did.
- Walter von Tilburg Clark’s Ox-Bow Incident & William Wellman’s film adaptation (ellenandjim.wordpress.com)
- The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) – Directed by William Wellman (filmsworthwatching.blogspot.co.uk)
- Reeling Backward: “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943) (captaincritic.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) (filmnomenon2.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Ox-Bow Incident (Fox, 1943) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) (catchingtheclassics.blogspot.co.uk)
- 100 Days, 100 Movies: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) (flickchickcanada.blogspot.co.uk)