The western is a film genre that often gets a raw deal in the image stakes. And it’s not just a matter of waning box-office popularity in recent times. It’s rarely afforded the respect that other genres seem to court so easily and instead finds itself weighed down by the notion that it’s somehow unsophisticated. The term oater is applied in an affectionate way (I’ve used it myself), yet it carries a certain air of condescension when you stop and think about it. I guess the stereotype of uncouth figures riding horses, firing guns and chasing Indians is such a strong one that it’s managed to sideline the genre in the minds of many people. The paradox is that the western is actually one of the richest forms of cinema around. Leaving aside the frequently breathtaking visuals, the setting offers the opportunity to tell an almost unlimited range of stories and explore as many themes as it’s possible to imagine. The vast geographical expanses and the absence (or at best the bare rudiments) of civilization create a kind of nearly blank canvas onto which a skilled filmmaker can paint, with both bold and subtle strokes, whatever he likes. William Wellman was certainly highly skilled and his westerns are never less than interesting, and usually challenging too. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a powerful and memorable piece of work that stays with you and is one of those films that proves the western is capable of being not only an entertainment but an intellectual stimulant, as well.
The plot is a simple one and it’s that lack of complexity in the storytelling that’s one of its greatest strengths. The film has a moral point to impart and too much narrative trickery would only be a distraction and water down the central message. Events begin to unfold in a little backwater settlement where the neighbouring ranchers have been struggling with the perennial problem of cattle rustling. When a youngster comes racing into town to breathlessly announce that one of their own has been apparently murdered and his livestock taken, a tragic chain reaction is set in motion. The jaded and bitter populace experience disbelief and outrage and are teetering on the edge, poised to ride out and hunt down like animals the alleged killers of their friend. For a brief moment, it looks like reason and decency may prevail as the aged storekeeper Davies (Harry Davenport) appeals to their better nature. But this is not to be – ex-soldier Tetley (William Eythe) soon turns the townsfolk back to their base instincts, and a rag-tag posse is formed. Not wanting to draw the ire of the town upon themselves, two cowboys–Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan)–reluctantly join the eager hunting party. It’s not long before the posse cut the trail of three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford) who seem to fit the bill of the murderers. From this point on the movie becomes a kind of ethical struggle between the ineffectual Davies and the implacable Tetley for the souls of the posse members, with the fate of the three captives hanging in the balance.
The Ox-Bow Incident is based on the novel of the same name by Walt Van Tilburg Clark and, although it’s been quite a few years since I read the book, I recall it as being a pretty faithful adaptation. Wellman’s direction captures the heavy, moody and ultimately tragic tone of the novel very well. There aren’t many true exterior scenes, most of the film seeming to have been shot on sets, and this (along with the high contrast photography) helps to pile on the sense of claustrophobia and doom. While the outcome is fairly predictable, the director still maintains the tension and, crucially, that isn’t lost even with repeated viewings.
In fairness, a lot of that comes down to the performances too; Dana Andrews, as the leader of the suspected murderers, was billed below Henry Fonda but his work plays a large part in the success of the movie. His initial disbelief and growing desperation at the nightmare situation he finds himself in is built steadily. He did a fine job of conveying an awkward mix of fear and nobility that positively demands the sympathy of the viewer. In a sense, Fonda plays something of a supporting role in this one, only taking centre stage at a few points. Perhaps his best moment is in the saloon at the end when he reads Andrews’ letter to his illiterate friend. The letter itself is a powerful and emotive one that expertly outlines the author’s twinned concepts of justice and conscience. Fonda’s delivery of the words, as Wellman shot him in extreme close-up – partly obscured at first and then full face – is perfectly timed and enunciated to maximise their impact. However, for long stretches, he’s portraying the confused man in the middle, caught between the opposing ideals of Tetley and Davies. It’s this conflict that’s at the heart of the picture: how reasonable and civilized men can be browbeaten into submission, how the cult of personality can sway the masses and turn them into an unthinking mob, bereft of ethics and robbed of conscience. It’s both an indictment of the failings of the law – the sheriff has left town, the judge is a procrastinator, and the deputy is little more than a barbarian – and a warning that that same law is all we have to prevent our descent into inhumanity.
The DVD of The Ox-Bow Incident from Fox is an excellent presentation of the film; there’s hardly any damage to be seen, the detail level is fine, and the crisp image has the kind of strong contrast necessary for this type of movie. There’s also a fine selection of extras: a commentary track by William Wellman Jr and Dick Eulain, a biography of Fonda, and a gallery of images. As I said in the intro, The Ox-Bow Incident is a good example of a thinking man’s western, yet for all that, it never loses sight of the fact that it has to entertain and grip the viewer, too. A superb film.
Colin McGuigan is an avid movie fan who likes the idea of sharing his thoughts on the films, both good and not so good, that catch his attention. For more information, visit Riding the High Country.