Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
The Ox-Bow Incident is the story of a lynching that went right, but in the wrong way. Simple as an old man’s morality tale and painfully to the point, it covers a timeless debate concerning law, justice and the misconceptions they suffer in our hands and minds. William Wellman and Lamar Trotti’s film is frighteningly relevant and downright haunting at first sight.
Two regular cowboys, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) enter a shabby town somewhere in the wild west. Looking for a certain girl, whiskey and any kind of action they go to the only saloon around where they run into a couple of local ranchers and a general bad mood over the cattle-rustling raids that’s been plaguing the business lately. Carter and Croft are rare visitors therefore they amount to strangers when it comes to defending the community from outsiders. A man named Farnley makes it clear to them before engaging in a fight with Carter. Moments after that a hasty rider arrives with news of a rancher named Kinkaid having been killed by strangers, probably the same rustlers they all have been looking for. Despite the absence of the regular sheriff, the storekeeper’s plead to wait and do things by the name of the law and the judge’s demand to bring the suspects back for a fair trial, a triggerhappy posse is formed with a devious ex-military, Major Tetley, as the makeshift leader. As the peaceful-turned-vigilant townspeople ride into the night, Davies, the storekeeper, rides along while his assistant leaves to find the sheriff. Carter and Croft also follow, so that suspicion won’t fall on them. When the riders discover three men sleeping in the woods and a few of their pal’s livestock near them, a tragic farce begins in the name of justice…
Lamar Trotti’s script, based on the Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel by the same name, is extremely concise and never, but a few times, does it stray away from the point it wants to make. A point over the concept of law and justice, and the common man who hides personal responsibility behind that one of the mob or even the collective. When the three men, a young farmer named Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) and his hired hands, a cocky Mexican (Anthony Quinn) and a frightened old man, are captured and “properly” interrogated by Major Tetley the following conversation takes place: “You don’t believe me”, Martin concludes, making Tetley respond with a question, “Would you in my place?” “Well, i’d find out. I’d do a lot of finding out before hanging men who might be innocent.”, the soon to be executed replies in a raised, righteous voice. But the Major is rigid and pretty certain of his argument, “If it were only rustling maybe, but… but murder? No!” That’s exactly where the whole fault of the mob’s excuse and it’s misuse of the concept of justice lies. The law would do a lot more finding out for the same reason that these people don’t, and that’s the gravity of the accusation and the fatality of the consequent punishment.
But Major Tetley, despite of what happens in the end and the fact that he’s a figure despised by all his sudden peers alike, does not stand alone in misrepresenting justice for his own reasons. This is a mob and each and every one of its members has given consent to whatever happens and took refuge in the shadow of the collective responsibility. Farnley has probably the strongest reason to be angry as Kinkaid was his lifelong buddy, but the others either want action, to be part of a heroic justice keeping adventure the western fables rant about pompously or they have their own scores to settle. The Major for instance, who lends this lawless posse his big mouth and ambiguous military credentials, openly declares this as an opportunity to make a “man” out of his wimpy son which probably hides his eagerness to prove himself to a crowd that never thougth much of him or his blurred wartime background. Anyway, it’s more than clear in their selfishness and their self-assured swagger that these people don’t want justice, they want the taste of pure revenge, and never even having seen the dead body of the one they are getting it for, it makes their spine tickle even more.
In the middle of all this, a pretty unheroic hero is put, a man who’s as frustrated as the next, having lost his girlfriend to a slick big-city fellow but keeps that anger to himself or channels it through an honest fistfight now and then. Gil Carter, as he enters the saloon with his pal Art in the opening scene, sits at the bar and stares at the overhead painting. It features a woman lying on a bed while a man comes out of the shadow behind her, with eager eyes and his hand stretching out to her body. “Well..”, the bartender prompts for an order. “That guy’s awful slow getting there”, Gil remarks about the picture. Without looking up the barman adds, “I feel sorry for him. Always in reach, and never able to do anything about it.” “I got a feeling she could do better”, Gil replies with certainty only to get his claim rejected by the host, “You’re boastin’”. In this scene Trotti and Wellman introduce us to a character by the way he sees himself in a painting. The man emerging from the shadow is Carter himself, since as he, along with us, learns later in the film, lost the girl he was reaching out for and he lost her to someone better, in social terms. The reluctance that cost him his only love is the one that makes him numb, unable to reverse the outcome, in the farce-trial that follows. Henry Fonda is superb in this part, his eyes don’t just follow the action, they narrate it since he doesn’t talk much or even do what his swagger promises. It’s these eyes, that William Wellman hides in a much talked about last scene where Carter reads Martin’s letter to his wife aloud for the ashamed town’s people to hear, in the film’s only didactic moment –which nevertheless feels totally necessary.
There are a lot more things in the movie that one can recall, like a seemingly useless scene in the middle, where a carriage passes and misunderstands the posse for raiders. The driver shoots at them, almost killing Art before stopping and apologizing by throwing the fault at the night and their attacking stance. Or when Carter finds out about his girl and takes it out at Farnley, kicking him in the face with unprovoked strength. They all underline the main theme of misconceptions, rage and self-appointed righteousness conquering over the essence of justice. Besides Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews, who has the most dramatic role, all the other cast members are equally great in their characterizations, and typical as they maybe, they still are people we know and understand their part in the farce we’re watching. Wellman’s direction is firm and low-key, with a few added moments of great camera movement and ironic mise-en-scene. Having a small budget to work with, his sets are all constructed, but the lighting never lets that become a nuisance and even adds to the stark atmosphere that is required.
This western movie begins with two guys entering a town on horseback and ends with two guys riding away. Still it’s nothing like any cowboy you’ve ever seen, it transcends the genre using it to tell a tale that’s relevant to all genres, times and places. The Ox-Bow Incident is a hell of an old ass movie.