The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a grim, low-budget Western masterpiece from director William A. Wellman - based upon the famed novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark of the same name. Produced and written for the screen by Lamar Trotti, this is an intense, blunt, and downbeat examination of frontier 'justice' with simple characters that represent various philosophical stances, opinions, or attitudes. It is an authoritative indictment of angry mob rule and violence that lead to a brutal lynching of three suspicious outsiders - all innocent of the trumped-up charges.
When seen by American audiences in the early 1940s during the progress of World War II, the implication was obvious that Hitler's evils in Europe could also inhabit the ethos of the sacred American/western frontier. In this film, Henry Fonda plays a more passive individual when compared to his portrayal of Juror # 8 in a jury room in 12 Angry Men (1957). Although Fonda was given top billing in the film (see poster to right), he worked for scale and his character role was underplayed within the ensemble cast. The film's making was a labor of love for all involved, and Fonda helped to raise funding for it.
Other classic films about lynch mob justice include Fritz Lang's Fury (1936) and They Won't Forget (1937). This film also shares similarities with the Oscar-winning short western film La Rivière du hibou (1962, Fr.) - aka Incident at Owl Creek - its title, its lighting and noirish atmosphere, and its nihilistic theme about the wrongful hanging of an innocent man.
Although produced two years earlier than its release date, it was kept out of circulation by the apprehensive studio for two years due to its pessimistic and somber message. The stark anti-Western, neither a war morale-booster or entertainment picture, was critically acclaimed (after it reached its audience through television viewings) for its honest and powerful portrayal and adaptation of the original novel, but it originally failed at the box-office.
It received only one Academy Award nomination - for Best Picture (a rarity among Best Picture nominees that usually receive multiple nominations). The dialogue-filled, set-bound picture lacks the action of a typical Western, with pretentious, cautionary, liberal-minded themes and dark, artificially-painted and phony exteriors serving as backdrops.
[Wellman had previously directed the early gangster film Public Enemy (1931), the Alaskan adventure epic Call of the Wild (1935), the black screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), the non-musical A Star is Born (1937), and the classic adventure tale Beau Geste (1939). He had made another Western film earlier in the mid-1930s: Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936).]The Story
The short film opens with a simple subtitle to identify the locale and time period:
Nevada - 1885
After a spring cattle drive roundup, two tired, roughneck cowboys, dirty-bearded Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry/Henry Morgan) ride into the dead little town of Bridger's Wells, Nevada, to the tune of a sad harmonica playing Red River Valley. A dog saunters across the dirt road in front of them. They head straight for Darby's Saloon and Hotel for a drink. While tying up their horses, Carter comments about how quiet it is:
Deader than a Piute's grave.
Before ordering from Darby (Victor Kilian) the bartender, Carter stares with his buddy at a painting of a reclining woman with a man slowly approaching her from the shadows. He makes a cynical comment about the slow progress of the man toward the enticing female:
Carter: That guy's awful slow gettin' there.
Bartender: I feel sorry for him. Always in reach and never able to do anything about it.
Carter: I got a feeling she could do better.
Bartender: You're a boaster.
Carter is unfriendly, dour and unsmiling due to the loss of his own "girl" (Rose Mapen) - according to the bartender, she immediately left town in the spring on the first stagecoach bound for San Francisco - to marry a rich Californian. The attractive, eligible lady ditched the cowboy although she had promised to wait for his return. She had left due to social pressure from the town's wives (according to the bartender):
It's my guess the married women run her out. Oh, no tar and feathers, no rails, they just righteously made her feel uncomfortable. Not that she ever did anything, but they just couldn't get over bein' afraid she might (he winks).
That leaves only five choices or alternatives for entertainment for the single, roving cowpokes in the Western town: "Eat, sleep, drink, play poker, or fight." Or they may "get in line" for the only unmarried woman in town, or shoot pool in the saloon's back room.
Slightly soused after a few drinks and "sore about Rose Mapen," Carter picks a fight with local ranch hand Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence) when he's taunted as an outsider or 'stranger' to the town (and possible cattle rustling suspect). The brawl is broken up when Darby hits Carter over the head with a whiskey bottle:
Darby: Looks happy, don't he?
Art: He just needed exercise. Whenever he gets low in spirits or confused in his mind, he doesn't feel right until he's had a fight. It doesn't matter whether he wins or not, he feels fine again afterwards.
A recent series of cattle thefts ("about six hundred head") has plagued the town. News arrives from a rider that cattle rustlers have probably committed a brutal murder - a popular and respected local rancher named Larry Kinkaid ("a short dark Irishman, didn't say very much, liked to sing a lot") has been "shot right through the head" and killed:
Down in the SE corner of the valley, about eight miles from his ranch...found him laying in a dry wash in the sun, shot right through the head...about two o'clock, but he must have been shot a lot earlier, 'cause they picked his horse up clear over near the ranch road.
Members of the town, including Kinkaid's loyal buddy Farnley, are enraged by the report and assemble to take action. They gather to possibly "lynch" the culprits - without the town's Sheriff Risley available. A white-haired, level-headed storekeeper Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport) ineffectually implores that they cautiously not take any extreme actions until the sheriff is notified about the alleged murder:
Wait, wait, Jeff, there's no rush. Even if they have got a five hour start, it's a good five hundred miles to the first border. Besides, there may be a bunch of 'em. It won't help Kinkaid now to get yourself killed...We're all with you about Kinkaid, you know that, son, only we ought to take our time and form this posse right...Wait a minute, men. Don't let's go off half-cocked and do something we'll be sorry for. We want to act in a reasoned and legitimate manner, not like a lawless mob...You mustn't do this thing. YOU MUST NOT!...If I can make this thing regular, that's all I ask.
But he is ignored by the popular sentiment and told that the men will take the law into their own hands with a "neck-tie party" because local criminal justice is too slow and imperfect: "One good fast job without no legal papers and that's all there is to it." Others express their opinions: "Remember, this ain't just rustlin', it's murder," and "Down in Texas where I come from, we just go out and get a man and string him up." Another man affirms the mob's reasoning:
I say stretch him. It ain't just a rustler we're after. It's a murderer. Larry Kinkaid - one of the finest, most God-fearing men that ever lived, is lying out there right now with a bullet hole in his head. If you let this go by, there won't be nothing safe around here, our cattle, our homes, not even our women folks. I'm with ya, Farnley. I'm gonna get me a gun and some rope and I'll be right back. And if nobody else'll do it, me and you will do it ourselves.
Carter visits the home of indecisive Judge Daniel Tyler (Matt Briggs) to summon him for Mr. Davies and ask him to bestow his "blessing" on the mob. They are greeted by his bossy housekeeper (Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of The Wizard of Oz (1939)). In the privacy of his study, the widower judge denies all authority or responsibility: "The Sheriff's not here. Today of all days...That's not my job. I haven't any police authority...Dowg-gonnit, this is the Sheriff's job, not mine." The Judge breathlessly rushes to the posse and hesitantly speaks to the assembled group on horseback who are itching to leave ("Aw judge, before you get ready to act, them rustlers will be clear down over the Rio"), but without his courtroom surroundings and judicial robes, he is powerless:
I understand how it is, men. My old friend Larry Kinkaid, one of the finest and noblest...Of course, you can't flinch from what you believe to be your duty. But certainly you don't want to act hastily in the same spirit of lawlessness that begot this foul crime....This business is going to be taken care of.
To forestall their departure and caution the townsfolk, Davies suggests that Sheriff Risley is already at Kinkaid's ranch taking care of the situation ("So you see, probably everything is being attended to right now legally. All you'll get out of it is a long, hard ride. It'll be dark before long, and mighty cold. My advice is to come inside, have a drink and let's wait till we hear from the Sheriff"). But the revenge-minded Farnley objects to being ordered by the Judge to remain in town where "this business is going to be taken care of":
I know who's gonna take care of it - me. I tell you now, whoever shot Larry Kinkaid ain't comin' back here for you to fuddle with your lawyer's tricks for six months and then be let off because Davies, or some other whining old woman, claim he ain't bad at heart. Kinkaid didn't have six months to decide if he wanted to die.
A posse, more like a self-appointed "lawless lynching mob" with blind hatred, soon forms under the leadership of "Butch" Mapes and stern-faced Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), a pompous, power-hungry, vocal ex-Confederate officer wearing his rebel hat and uniform (who lives in a white-columned mansion at the end of the main street). From information provided by Poncho (Chris-Pin Martin), Tetley informs them that the three bandits fled eastward by Bridger's Pass through the mountains over the old stage road, an 8,000 foot altitude, herding cattle branded with Kinkaid's "mark."
[Although his authority was dubious during the war itself, Tetley's wearing of the Confederate symbols helps to reinstate his military position. According to Carter, his service in the South was "fishy" and without credentials: "He never even saw the South until after the war. Then only long enough to marry that kid's mother and get run out of the place by her folks...Why do you suppose he's livin' in this neck of the woods if he didn't have something to hide."]
Davies begs for a promise of fairness: "Major Tetley, you mustn't let this be a lynching...Promise me you'll bring 'em in for a fair trial...Tetley, you bring those men in alive." But there are no promises ("I promise I'll abide by the majority will"), and the twenty-eight men are illegally deputized (to duly take the law into their own hands) by the insolent Mapes, the deputy sheriff, against the Judge's orders. They ride off, joined by Carter, sidekick Croft, and Davies who also tag along with the angry mob as a means of self-preservation, accompanied by:
- Tetley's weak-willed, sensitive son Gerald (William Eythe), brought along by the Major to prove and toughen his manhood ("Perhaps this will do what I've obviously failed to do, make a man of you")
- an iron-willed, heartless, cackling, blood-thirsty, robust Jenny "Ma" Grier (Jane Darwell in an atypical role) who runs a boarding house, and wants to be fulfill her civic duty
- a bearded, drunken town bum and redneck Monty Smith (Paul Hurst) who is bored with inactivity and wants some excitement and adventure on the frontier ("It ain't every day we have a hangin' in a town as dead as this one")
- a power-hungry, sadistic bully Mapes (Dick Rich), also called "Butch," made Deputy while the sheriff is out of town and itching to prove himself
- a mild-mannered old black man Sparks (Leigh Whipper), the unofficial town preacher and singer of hymns who feels sympathetic toward anyone who might be victimized by a vengeful lynch mob because he once saw his own brother ("a little fella") lynched (While ridiculing Sparks as he sits on porch steps and whittles, Smith encourages him to join the mob: "You won't have to do nothin'. All the real work's signed up. I just thought we ought to have a Reverend along 'cause there's gonna be some prayin' done...Davies will loan you his Bible so all the readin' will be done right at the burial"