Leave it to director William Wellman to direct the most compelling social justice movie of the 1940s. Taken from a bestselling novel, it’s a wrenching examination of the workings of a natural American phenomenon, the Lynch Mob.
The Ox-Bow Incident
KL Studio Classics
1942 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 75 min. / Street Date July 12, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Anthony Quinn,
William Eythe, Harry Morgan, Jane Darwell, Matt Briggs, Harry Davenport, Frank Conroy, Marc Lawrence
Cinematography Arthur Miller
Art Direction James Basevi, Richard Day
Film Editor Allen McNeil
Original Music Cyril J. Mockridge
Written and Produced by Lamar Trotti from a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Directed by William A. Wellman
In the first scene of this grim feature, Henry Fonda stumbles out of a saloon street and throws up in the street. Apparently that was the reaction shared by Fox executives in 1942… they were not impressed by William Wellman’s harrowing movie experience. There’s no love interest, and hardly any women at all. Jeez, the handsome young Dana Andrews is so distraught, he cries. The response no doubt made director Wellman feel vindicated. He had made a movie worth making.
The Ox-Bow Incident is better than almost all of the social consciousness issue movies of the 1940s, including the famous ‘breakthrough’ pictures of its producer, Darryl F. Zanuck. It’s faithful to the book and uncompromised by cutting or interference, the unjust fate that befell John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage nine years later. It doesn’t oversell its message, yet becomes emotionally overpowering. Zanuck knew it wouldn’t be a hit. The studio’s big draw of the year was the cute Betty Grable showing off her legs. Were audiences looking for a good time supposed to line up to see the feel-bad movie of the year? Ox-Bow spends seventy-five minutes proving that People Are No Damn Good, that it’s always been that way, and that exceptional America rates no special dispensation. The final blow to audience appeal must have been that the movie is a western. Westerns make noble justice their main subject matter. Fans watching William Wellman’s movie must not have enjoyed being told that things in the old West weren’t any more civilized than they are now. John Ford’s ‘garden in the desert?’ Phooey.
The social issue movie gets a western workout in this austere and uncompromising story of a pitiless lynch mob, based on the Walter Van Tilburg Clark best seller. With only a couple of nods to Henry Fonda’s star image, William Wellman’s little film utterly avoids the Hollywood soft sell. The tone is as sour as anything made post- Leone or Peckinpah. Saddle tramps Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Henry Morgan) drift into town just as a posse gets up to find the killers of a well-liked rancher. Out for blood are the victim’s best friend Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence) and the bigoted local big shot ‘Major’ Tetley (Frank Conroy), who sees a vigilante killing as a way of imposing manliness on his cowardly son Gerald (William Eythe). Bitter over losing his girl to a Frisco heel, Gil goes along with the mob, partly to keep them from suspecting him. The illegal posse has no logic but its own worst motives, a chemistry that becomes perfectly clear when they ‘apprehend’ three cowpokes (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford) found asleep on the trail. The trio is just plain SOOL: victimized by circumstantial evidence, presumed guilt, and blood lust.
The Ox-Bow Incident was known as Strange Incident in England, perhaps because the idea of a lynch mob just never happened over there. They must have their own forms of lawless mob violence, I suppose. Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s grim tale of the breakdown of civil order is an open indictment of an American mentality we all recognize. Most everybody in the crummy little town pictured is an embittered, bored jerk easily led by self-appointed leaders eager to find somebody to punish, for a crime nobody bothers to verify really happened. In Nicholas Ray’s superb Johnny Guitar, Sterling Hayden says that posses are like a wild animal. They ride and ride and get tired out, and after a while they don’t care who they hang.
Nobody’s minding the store, and with the only authority away, the sensible voices of the storekeeper (Harry Davenport) and a pompous judge (Matt Briggs) are ignored.
Previous ventures into the idea of lynch mobs were few and far between. As soon as he came to America Fritz Lang began to concern himself with our country’s often laughable ideas of justice. A famous incident in California in 1933 inspired Lang’s 1936 Fury, an excellent movie that blends German expressionism with American hysteria. The same Depression-era lynching would later be used for Cy Endfield’s 1950 noir classic Try and Get Me! (The Sound of Fury), which preaches outright that prejudice, fear and journalistic greed can produce a perfect storm of mob lawlessness. There’s also Mervyn LeRoy’s 1937 They Won’t Forget, a creepy Warners social protest against the extrajudicial hanging of a Northerner suspected of murder in Georgia.
The Ox-Bow Incident is a pure civics lesson that proved that certain talents in Hollywood were indeed interested in civil justice. Trotta and Wellman place a black character conspicuously in their tale. I’m not sure if he was part of the original story. It’s the closest they can come to the untold truth — that the overwhelming number of lynchings in kill-crazy America were racial attacks against minorities, mostly blacks.
The rest of The Ox-Bow Incident is liberal issue work at its best. The film has no heroes. Henry Fonda’s Gil has a good heart but doesn’t see himself as a defender of virtue. The script does give him a moment of resistance just before the lynching, but he’s no more effectual than Harry Davenport’s grocer, the only man in the group not to abandon human decency. The mob feeds on its own stupidity, but also on an unspoken masculine prerogative: anybody who backs down from the brutal task at hand is a spineless wimp, a quitter (take that, Mister Dunson). After committing themselves to their violent aim, pride and pigheadedness are too strong to let doubt or sanity intervene. Only seven out of perhaps 25 men vote to wait for authority to take control; the rest are too eager to exercise their too-eagerly seized power to play executioner. The emotional instigator of the posse (given sympathy by Marc Lawrence) is the only killer with anything like an excuse. Most of the others act as if they’re at a party, and impatient to get on with it so they can get back to drinking. They just plain want to kill somebody.
It’s an ugly bunch in a West desperately in need of a female influence. Only three women are on view: Margaret Hamilton’s dried-up crone, the two-timing gold digger (Mary Beth Hughes) that upsets Henry Fonda, and Jane Darwell’s wretched character. Taken right from the book, she is a wicked turnabout from Darwell’s salt-of-the-Earth The Grapes of Wrath image. Darwell must have had fun doing something different, but she makes the West of The Ox-Bow Incident seem especially bleak and hateful. Everybody’s good in the picture, with William Eythe fully effective as the Major’s reluctant son. Paul Hurst’s disgusting town drunk has fun taunting the victims, like a lynching cheerleader. An actor named Leigh Whipper is the lone black man Sparks, who counsels for justice as he whittles a stick in the dirt.
The three victims are unforgettable. They’re unlucky, but not saints. Was this picture a break for young Dana Andrews? I don’t think he was a star yet. He exudes character and honesty. The vaquero played by Anthony Quinn shows a prideful contempt for his captors. The sad sack old-timer played by Francis Ford tries to weasel his way out by shifting blame to his friends. Ford was a silent movie director who got his more famous brother John into the biz. We’re forced to watch the trio suffer accusations, insults and blows. One tries to escape. It wouldn’t matter who they were or how they behaved. The mob wants blood. All it takes is a leader sufficiently cruel to harness their twisted idea of justice.
After a grim final scene that refuses to let anyone off the hook, The Ox-Bow Incident ends in a markedly non-Hollywood manner. The rotten Major Tetley doesn’t jump on his sword as he did in the book: here it’s implied that his soldier act may be phony. Fonda and the wounded Harry Morgan (Hollywood’s most consistent sidekick) limp out of town, passing the same draggy dog that had dragged by when they rode in. William Wellman adds a masterly wrinkle to the sentimental scene of Fonda reading Andrew’s final letter by obscuring Fonda’s eyes with Morgan’s hat brim. Wellman did this often when he wanted audiences to focus on a message. The words stop being personal and become universal.
At the finale Fonda appears to be heading off in the direction of Dana Andrews’ widow, an idea similar to the conclusion of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, released six years later. There are the aforementioned nods toward protecting Henry Fonda’s star image, but as I remember, the book ends with a bleak, pessimistic scene of Gil and Art aiming to get drunk and forget all about the whole miserable experience. But for fidelity to an un-commercial book adaptation, The Ox-Bow Incident must have been a revelation for 1942 Hollywood.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Ox-Bow Incident is a polished restoration of this gold-standard example of Hollywood message filmmaking. The old DVD looked fine, but Kino’s encoding pulls out every nuance of a film shot mostly on sound stages and a forlorn back lot street set.
Carried over from the DVD is a Biography rundown on Henry Fonda that touches lightly on the main points of the actor’s life. Fonda’s domestic failings are de-emphasized. The testimony of children Jane and Peter backs up the idea that the actor didn’t have the personality to be a great husband or father, despite coming across in films as supremely sensitive and loving. The film alludes to Fonda’s liberal leanings without mentioning his controversial effort in Walter Wanger’s Blockade. We also see no mention of his late-career triumph in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. The way Fonda’s Gil walks in Ox-Bow reminds me just enough of his ‘Frank’ in the Sergio Leone movie to be disturbing. Do you suppose the murderous Frank was ever a nice guy?
Also brought back is a commentary by scholar Dick Eulain, interspersed with the thoughts of William Wellman Jr. Eulain gives us a good rundown on Clark and his novel (which came out in 1940), but his speaking style makes me think I’m a college freshman again, being lectured down- to. Just the same, the content is good. Director Wellman’s son shares information and anecdotes about his father and the production. Darryl Zanuck let Wellman make Ox-Bow only if he would direct two other more commercial pictures, sight unseen, of Zanuck’s choosing. The brutal Major in the movie was made a Union veteran, not a Confederate. The script does make the posse a little more resistant to the lynching than the book, but not by much. Henry Fonda’s Gil looks morally perturbed, where in the book Gil offers only a token resistance. The reading of the letter at the finish is not in the book, a major change that makes the ending less awful without compromising Clark’s intentions. William Wellman Jr. and Dick Eulain share in these revelations. Wellman admits that his father was a rough customer and made enemies in Hollywood, Anthony Quinn among them. I reviewed Wellman’s docu on his famous father and it’s very good.
Don’t be too rough on commentator Eulain for repeatedly referring to Quinn’s character as ‘The Mexican,’ while using the given names of his fellow lynching victims. Eulain is talking about the book, in which author Clark refers to the victims the same way the members of the posse do.
Last note: look close at the lynch mob and you’ll catch sight of the famous Rondo Hatton.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Ox-Bow Incident
Supplements: Commentary with Dick Eulain and William Wellman Jr., trailer, featurette on Henry Fonda, restoration demo.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 21, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson