(Re)Visiting a Classic: “The Ox-Bow Incident”

The recent release of the West Memphis Three is a fitting excuse, if one is actually needed, to return to (or watch for the first time), the classic Hollywood Western, The Ox-Bow Incident. The film’s plot would no doubt seem more ludicrous were in not for real-life cases like the one mentioned above or the rapidity with which the public cries for violent reactions to violent crimes. As a result, The Ox-Bow Incident feels just as relevant today (and maybe more so) than when it was released in 1943.

In Nevada in 1885, two worn out cowboys, Gil (Henry Fonda) and Art (Harry Morgan), ride into Darby’s Saloon and Hotel looking for a drink. Shortly after their arrival, they learn that Mr. Kinkaid, a local resident, has been murdered and his cattle have been stolen. A mob soon forms to find and hang the murderer(s) and rustler(s). Yet local merchant Mr. Davies (Harry Davenport), Judge Tyler (Matt Briggs), Reverend Sparks (Leigh Whipper), and, to an extent, Gil and Art encourage them to wait until the Sheriff returns in order to bring the guilty parties back to justice. Despite their pleas, Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), Farnley (Marc Lawrence), and Ma Grier (Jane Darwell) champion the “quick justice” cause and lead the posse out of town.

The group stumbles upon three men, Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn), and Alva Hardwicke (Francis Ford), sleeping around a campfire in the Ox-Bow canyon. They rouse them up, take their weapons, and accuse them of killing Kinkaid and stealing his cattle. To be sure, Donald, something of the spokesperson for the three, has the cards stacked against him. He’s new to the area, he claims he purchased the cattle from Kinkaid but cannot produce a bill of sale, and his companion, Juan, possesses Kinkaid’s pistol, which he claims he found lying in a trail. Major Tetley and Farnley agree to give the men until sunrise to await the arrival of the Sheriff. During this time, those against the impending hanging try to convince Major Tetley and his cronies that the men are innocent or at least deserve a fair trial. Their pleas fall on deaf ears and the three men are eventually hanged. As the posse departs, they run into the Sheriff who tells them that Kinkaid has in fact not been killed but was merely injured and that the thieves who rustled his cattle have been captured. He departs telling the posse that those involved (all but seven) better pray for mercy because they won’t find any from him.

Juan (Quinn), Alva (Ford), and Donald (Andrews) (all left) await their hanging as Gil (Fonda) attempts to delay Major Tetley (Conroy).

First and foremost, The Ox-Bow Incident, is something of a master class in filmmaking. The film only takes place in five locations, outside the saloon, inside the saloon, in the judge’s house, on a ridge overlooking the Ox-Bow, around the campfire, and finally at Major Tetley’s house. Despite its setting among the vast American West, these limited locations and the sustained focus on the posse make it feel much more intimate than most westerns. The cinematography and lighting is nearly perfect, thanks in large part to sound stage and studio locations. The writing and dialogue is effective without being heavy handed, both of which are a result of the performances by the lead actors, especially Fonda, whose ease and gentleness perfectly offset his more violent, vigilant counterparts. In the end, however, it’s all handled with masterful direction by William Wellman who adapted the film from Walter Van Tilburg Clark‘s book. In a very small amount of time Wellman establishes and adds depth to the major characters and ratchets up the tension almost immediately, intensifies it at each stage of the posse’s journey to the Ox-Bow, sees it through the execution, and finally shatters it upon the posse’s encounter with the Sheriff.

The film, in the best sense of the word, preaches. As a result, it’s one of those great prophetic American films in the vein of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), Cool Hand Luke (1967), and Fury (1936), to name a few. Although the posse is composed of “white American males” (two clear exceptions here: Ma’s presence, even though she is presented as another one of the boys, and Nevada has yet to join the union), the film vilifies not a specific group of people, but a type of person and community. Better said, Wellman is concerned with the rapidity with which hatred and violence can consume a community and our individual tendencies toward violence that hasten the process. The film certainly makes the case for the necessity of a legal, governing, judging body to check these tendencies, but at the same time, we cannot ignore Farley’s repeated claims that justice is sometimes too slow and ineffectual when left to the authorities. Still, the film shows us that without these governing bodies, it is far more difficult for “good” people to stand up against a mob of people hell bent on obtaining justice (read revenge) at any cost.

Another highlight of The Ox-Bow Incident is its use of religion. While the religious character, Rev. Sparks, isn’t portrayed as positively as one would hope, this has less to do with his religious identity than it does his race. As an African American, the representation of Rev. Sparks is in keeping with much of Hollywood’s treatment of African Americans at that time. One could argue, that he actually fares better that his other black counterparts and functions more as a folksy minister. Rev. Sparks provides a religious critique of the mob mentality that is sorely needed, and the majority of the posse’s rejection of it is a not so subtle critique of American religiosity. Like many Westerns, the rough-and-tumble cowboys, lawmen, and villains view Christianity, or at least its teachings on peace, to be highly feminine at best and treasonous at worst (Art and Gil, though not specifically religious, aren’t as vehemently opposed to the mob as they could be for fear of violent retribution). Though most of these films are fiction, the constant presence of this religious tension surely points to experiences grounded in history.

Gil (Fonda) and Art (Morgan) reflect on the night's events at the Ox-Bow.

As you could imagine, notions of masculinity are at the forefront here as well, especially in the relationship between Major Tetley and his son Gerald (William Eythe). When Gerald tells him he won’t be part of the posse, Major Tetley accuses him of being weak and feminine (“I’ll have no female boys bearing my name”). Gerald begrudgingly tags along, but when he stands against the immediate hanging of the three, Major Tetley is visibly furious. When he eventually forces Gerald to participate in the actual hanging, Gerald resits, and Major Tetley pistol whips him. Towards the end of the film, after the posse has learned of its crime, Major Tetley and Gerald return home. When the Major locks Gerald out of the house, Gerald begins to berate him, accusing him of being a failure as a father and an evil man. As Gerald continues to yell through the closed door, the Major moves to another room in the house and shoots himself. The Major’s obsession with violence finally consumes him.

As if all of this isn’t enough, The Ox-Bow Incident raises a laundry list of themes with intense theological implications. What is justice? What is the nature of violence? What is or constitutes community? What is the role of law? How do we determine guilt or innocence? Moreover, are all of these things universal or are they relative? Do they change over time and in different places or are they always the same? In what ways do peaceful people counteract violence or are they simply unable to overcome it?

While the author of the book on which the film is based wanted to say something about the rise of Naziism, it had applications closer to home as well. The presence and ridicule of an African American character is telling. Yet its release in 1943 recall another dark time in American history, specifically the presence of Japanese internment camps in the midst of World War II. As time has gone by, we have seen countless ways in which American mobs have paralleled the incident at the Ox-Bow, particularly in McCarthyism, the treatment of gays and lesbians, and reactions to Arab Americans in a post-9/11 world.  As we continue to face situations that demand just responses, we would do well to (re)visit films like The Ox-Bow Incident in order to remind ourselves that our worst enemies aren’t necessarily the people we imagine have done us harm but, more often than not, us.

Here’s the scene of Gil reading the letter that Donald wrote to his wife before he died: