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The Ox-Bow Incident: A Film Ahead of Its Time
by Jon Schuller

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Gil and Art

Gil and Art
The year 1943 sees America embedded in World War II in two theatres of war, Europe and the Pacific. Resources at home are stretched thin and all industries are producing almost exclusively for war. Everything domestically is rationed and most people have jobs in manufacturing. What little money they have extra is spent carefully, especially on entertainment. The cheapest, of course, is the movies. Many films are made with their propaganda value in mind, be it comedies to help boost morale, or serious dramas fighting the enemies. Westerns are a staple for movie-goers and their plots and actions are predictable and repeated often. Director William Wellman takes a popular novel 1940 novel, The Ox-Bow Incident (written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark), and turns it into a movie. It was nominated for an Academy Award. It was unlike any Western seen before.

Wellman gathered a group of great actors and secondary players to form a virtual acting company (albeit for one film) because of the very nature of the book and how he would present it. It takes place in 1885 Nevada and the Western "look" is certainly there in the opening scene. A familiar small town, built on one street, with not too many people in sight. Why? Most of them are men and they're gathered inside the local saloon discussing the recent spate of cattle-rustling from local ranches. Henry Fonda (Gil) and his partner Harry Morgan (Art) know
The Major

The Major
these men and there are some suspicions and accusations that Fonda and Morgan may be the rustlers.
A fight ensues and suddenly a man bursts in with the news that a prominent rancher has been shot and his cattle stolen. Everyone is immediately aroused with shouts of forming a posse to capture the villains responsible. Now we begin to see the delineations among the characters as arguments about how to proceed, as a legal entity, mean waiting for the sheriff to return to deputize the men. But the hotheads win out, led by Farnley (Marc Lawrence) as Mr. Davies (veteran actor Harry Davenport) pleads for calm, rational action against mob rule. I see Mr. Davies as the intelligent influence among the men. We see "Major" Tetley (Frank Conroy), still sporting his experiences as a Confederate officer thirty years later, taking charge and giving orders to get on their horses and ride out of town. They as yet have no actual idea what's happened, who caused it and why. They're running on adrenaline and seizing the chance to break out of their dull, humdrum lives.

Later, in the evening, they enter the Ox-Bow Canyon and discover three men asleep on the ground, with a herd of cattle near-by. The angry posse instantly assumes they're the rustlers and proceeds to tie them up. Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) explains that Larry Kincaid sold them the cattle without a bill of sale because they were far from
Any last words?

Any last words?
his ranch. No one believes this. The men talk to another man, Juan Martinez (played by Anthony Quinn who had already appeared in thirty-five films before this one), a Mexican who appears to speak no English. He is immediately deemed guilty. The last man, an old delusional man, is Alva Hardwicke (Francis Ford, brother to famous director John Ford); he understands nothing of what is going on.

We know what is going to happen. No one can prevent it Fonda's character tries but is stopped and there are a few moments where the accused have a moment for prayer and reflection. Donald Martin writes a letter to his wife which he gives to Mr. Davies. Juan Martinez tries to escape and we find out he's a multi-lingual gambler named Francisco Morez. The old man mumbles to himself but we can see the fear lurking behind the confusion.

The men are hanged from horse-back. Major Tetley's son, forced to join the mob, cannot do what's asked at the last minute as the Major slaps him across the face with his gloves. The entire group slowly rides out and we see the Sheriff stop them with news that Larry Kincaid has not died and the real rustlers have been captured. The Sheriff asks Mr. Davies to identify those who participated in the lynching. "All but seven," he says. They all ride back into town to commiserate with each other in the same saloon where the film began. The camera pans across each man as
He said he had a wife, didn't he?

He said he had a wife, didn't he?
they come face-to-face with the horrendous act they've just committed. Major Tetley locks himself in a room as his son harangues him for what he's done to innocent men. The Major shoots himself. Fonda reads the letter to Martin's wife aloud as the others listen. It is eloquent and terribly truthful. It is one of my favorite scenes from the movies.

In the world of 1943 I believe Wellman's movie is a statement against the actual realities of the times. Americans of Japanese descent, born in America, had been systematically interned in camps in California soon after 1941 ended. Regardless of whatever they were in life their Japanese ancestry immediately made them suspect as spies or loyal to Japan, the new enemy. In the South lynchings of African-American men, after hours of torture, were a regular occurrence, usually on Sunday after church; suspected of crimes, real or imagined, mob rule without benefit of law decided their fates. No one stopped this desecration of human life until many years later. To judge people or situations simply on one's perception of those is dangerous and leads to the suspension of laws and individual liberties. We have seen this happen many times in American history with disastrous results. This is my take on this classic movie. What happens when men take the law into their own hands without waiting for the slow but steady pace of justice to develop and render a verdict.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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