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The Ox Bow Incident

by Dave Gourdoux

Of all the genres one can divide films into, the genre most associated with America is the Western. The Western is uniquely American because of its setting: the vast and wild territory west of the Mississippi in the frontier days. An American mythology rose from the dime novels of Zane Grey and Max Brand and the white-hatted good guys and the black-hatted bad guys of early films and serials. These books and films were morally unambiguous and simplistic stories where good always triumphed over evil, and the hero always rode off into the sunset. These myths were personified by the likes of the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers.

The mythology that popular art created around the West defined the best and the core values of the American character and created a romantic vision that most Americans embrace to this day. This mythology was created to not only give us heroes to aspire to, it was also used to sublimate the truth of our history, that the actual conquest of the West was morally questionable, that it was dominated by the ugly exploitation of people and land, and that our "manifest destiny" to tame the region included brutal violence and genocide among its means.

From the era of silent films through the 1960s, the number of Westerns that came out of Hollywood was staggering. It was inevitable that out of all of these movies, some great art and artists would emerge. John Ford established himself as the master of the genre, making films that mostly celebrated the Western myths in an often poetic and lyrical manner. Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh made outstanding films that helped critics recognize the genre as a serious art form.

Eventually, filmmakers emerged that would create films that challenged and stretched the myths. Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1951) and George Stevens' Shane (1953) both presented protagonists based upon the white hat wearing hero of the myth, then deconstructed other parts of the myth and explored how the hero would react. Even John Ford, in the brilliant The Searchers (1956) and the inferior, condescending Cheyenne Autumn (1964) attempted to deconstruct many of the very myths he helped create.

In the '50s, led by the director Anthony Mann, a new sub genre emerged: the "Psychological Western." These films usually featured a flawed protagonist who had to overcome internal demons to deal with story lines that abandoned the simplistic black and white hats of the myths and replaced them with shades of grey. It also provided an opportunity to use the grand and mythic setting of the Western as a backdrop to explore more complex themes that actually had nothing to do with the West. High Noon, for example, used the mythic figure of Gary Cooper and the traditional town under siege by bad guys to explore the black listing and McCarthyism that was going on at the time.

The psychological Western is by its nature darker than the mythic Western, and is often made even darker by cross pollinating with the genre of film noir. Noir told dark and claustrophobic urban stories about the underbelly of society; the setting of the Western was the magnificent and sprawling American West. Where noir was often about characters who'd been discarded or left behind by society, the West was about characters who were leading the way to a new world. More often than not, the Western was optimistic, while noir was, at its core, cynical.

With films like Mann's Winchester '73 (1950), The Far Country (1953)The Naked Spur (1953), Arthur Penn's The Left Handed Gun (1958), all the way through to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) and Jim Jamusch's Dead Man (1995), the psychological Western has been one of the most pervasive and enduring genres.

I'd make the case that the genre of psychological Western was created in 1943, nearly a decade before Mann's films and High Noon and Shane, when William "Wild Bill" Wellman made the film The Ox Bow Incident. Not only was it the first of the genre, now, seventy years after it was made, it remains one of the best.

The Ox Bow Incident is dark, possibly the darkest Western ever made; certainly the darkest Western ever made in the Production Code era. It uses the Western as a vehicle to explore vigilantism, mob violence, and sadism. Wellman was such an efficient director that he was able to create one of film's enduring classics in only thirty days of shooting. The film is only 75 minutes long, yet covers more ground than say The Shawshank Redemption, which lumbers along for almost twice as long without having anything profound to say.

Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan
Henry Fonda plays the lead character and Harry Morgan (who is best remembered for playing Colonel Sherman Potter in the television series "M*A*S*H"), his dim witted partner. The two seem to drift in and out of the Nevada town that is the film's home base. There's a strange relationship between the pair and the town - they seem to know everyone and everyone knows them - but they remain outsiders, and they seem to be suspects in a recent wave of cattle rustling. This is the first element of noir - the protagonist as outsider, and the murky and complex relationship between the protagonist and society.

Fonda and Morgan are drinking in the town's saloon when news comes that a rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen. Despite the fact that the sheriff is out of town, a posse is formed, counting among its members Fonda and Morgan, who reluctantly join to fend off suspicions of them as cattle rustlers. Other members of the group include the judge (the familiar character actor Harry Davenport), and the blowhard "Major" Tetley (Frank Conroy), who joins dressed in his full confederate army uniform, and his misfit and nervous son Gerald (William Eythe). The conflict between the Major and Gerald is central to the film, as the Major views Gerald as weak and views the posse as a way to make a man out of his son.

The posse comes upon three men who are sleeping on the prairie and have the dead rancher's cattle. The men claim they purchased the cattle legally but are unable to produce a bill of sale as proof of the transaction. The posse acts as judge, jury and executioner, putting the three men through hell before executing their sentence. The three men are led by a young man with a wife and children back home (Dana Andrews, in a great performance), and include a fiery and angry young Mexican (a very young Anthony Quinn), and a senile old man (Francis Ford, real-life brother of John Ford).

The posse becomes increasingly sadistic and blood thirsty as the night goes on. A small number of the group, led by the judge and including Fonda and Morgan, try to talk reason into the pro-execution majority, led by the Major. But the blood lust of Tetley's group is too great. The only concession Tetley makes is to delay the hanging until dawn, in order to give the men time to write a farewell letter, eat a meal, and to pray.

Without revealing exactly what happens, suffice to say that the sadism of Major Tetley is exposed. In an attempt to "make a man" out of his son, Tetley insists that Gerald play a a major role in the proceedings. Once they are back in town, in a powerful scene, Gerald finds the courage to tell the Major what he really thinks of him. Eythe's performance as Gerald is filled with facial tics and sideways glances; it's one of the most memorable aspects of a film that's filled with moments that once seen, stay with you.

The movie ends with a somber scene with the posse at the saloon, where Fonda reads the letter that Andrews wrote. I'm always a little uneasy when this plot device is used, especially in older production code era films, because the letter always sounds like it was written by the screenwriter, and sums up the points the movie was trying to make for those who are too thick to get it. The Ox Bow Incident, like John Huston's great The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), which also has the reading of a dead man's letter, is too good to have to resort to this gimmick.

Wellman, a veteran director who started his career in silent films, was one of the best and most efficient directors of the time. A master of many genres, the list of his films includes Public Enemy, The Story of G.I. Joe, and Battleground. The Ox-Bow Incident is my favorite of all the Wellman films I've seen, and it deserves serious consideration on any all-time greatest films list.

The greatness of The Ox Bow Incident is amazing when one goes back to the fact that Wellman shot the movie in only thirty days. One of the flaws of the movie is that it was all shot in the studio, and while that contributes to the dark noir feel of the film, it's sometimes distracting, in that it's obviously taking place on a sound stage.

(Spoiler alert - watch the following clip at your own risk!)

The Ox Bow Incident was considered too dark and downbeat for World War II audiences, who the studios assumed needed optimistic and lighter fare, and its release was delayed for two years. In fact, Harry Morgan told the story how, while on the way out from a premiere viewing for industry insiders, he ran into Orson Welles, who said of the lukewarm response the audience gave the film, "They don't know what they just saw."

As usual, Orson was right.