So many movies are forgettable. The Ox-Bow Incident has haunted me ever since I’ve seen it. I first saw it some seven years ago and since then I have watched it twenty times, easily.
Try as I might I’ve never been able to shake William A. Wellman’s low budget meditation on justice, mob rule, misogyny, and the nature of the justice and the rule of law. It may seem odd or impossible that a film barely an hour and twenty minutes could be about so many things and still be as succinct, tight, and clear as The Ox-Bow Incident. The danger of ignoring classic Hollywood films is we more easily buy into the lie of modern movies being “better” or “more complex”.
Wellman and his screenwriter, Lamar Trotti, adapted the screenplay from Walter Van Tilburg’s book of the same name. Perhaps it is because the story has such a clear and specific aim that it succeeds at the other aims, as well. It has a point and though it touches on other themes, it never forgets that at its heart a story about a bunch of men getting together to murder someone.
Of the many oddities of the movie is the size of the ensemble cast. Old Hollywood movies were no strangers to ensemble movies but with The Ox-Bow Incident, the size of the cast is never clear. Sometimes it feels as if there are only a dozen characters, while other times it appears to be filled with thirty or forty characters. The fluctuating appearance of the number of people involves helps drive home the mounting tensions between them. Sometimes it feels as if just you and a handful of other people. Yet, there are times when you feel as if it’s you against the world.
As I said before the story itself is simple. It is about the lynching of three men. Though the reason why they are lynched, the murder of a man named Larry Kincaid is never seen or heard from. Everything we know about Kincaid comes from how the other characters talk about him. Trotti does this on purpose because the point is not Kincaid; the point is the three men about to be hanged.
While the film’s runtime may be scant, Trotti’s script takes its time. It meticulously takes its time setting up characters so we can recognize them later on. Henry Fonda’s Gil Carter and Harry Morgan’s Art, ride into a small nameless Nevada town in 1888. Listening to their conversations with the bartender, Darby (Victor Kilian) we find out that they are cattle ranchers.
We also learn that other ranchers have been struck by cattle rustlers. While Wellman keeps the mood light and jovial, Trotti’s script sets up the tension that exists. Gil and Art aren’t new to town, they seem to know everyone and everyone knows them. Gil is even expecting to meet a girl Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes) only to discover she’s left town.
Darby tells them that he feels that the married women in town ran her out of town. “Not that she ever did anything, but they just couldn’t get over being afraid she might.” Yet, while wives and daughters are mentioned we only ever see four women and none of them, except Ma (Jane Darwell) a rough-riding boisterous butch looking woman play a huge role.
I think this is by design. One of the themes Trotti and Wellman highlight throughout The Ox-Bow Incident is how much we as a society hate women. When a character tries to plead for the other men not to ride off in a rage he’s told to “Shut up, Grandma!” At one point the de facto leader of the mob Tetley (Frank Conroy), an ex-Confederate soldier, when his son refuses to help with the hanging, “I’ll have no female boys bearing my name.”
Wellman and Trotti allow a haunted fatalism to build like a cloud over The Ox-Bow Incident. If only Sherrif Risley had been in town, if only they had gone to Pike’s Hole like the accused had asked, or maybe even listened to Mister Davies (Harry Davenport) maybe it would have all ended differently. But with Wellman’s deft touch, all we can do is sit back and watch, smug in our judgments. Until the final reel plays and we sit wallowing in our own guilt.
The way characters enter a scene is a bit of movie magic as every character seems to be moving with a specific purpose. The man who stands outside the Saloon and gets the crowd riles up about the murder of Larry Kincaid, a local cattle rancher and beloved figure of the community, never has another major scene again. But we see his face in the crowd throughout the rest of the movie.
William A. Wellman was a director who trafficked in every genre usually preferring stories with a social conscience. It’s impossible not to see and feel that social conscience while watching The Ox-Bow Incident. I mention this because Trotti and Wellman’s choice to include a black character Sparks (Leigh Whipper) at all is somewhat startling. Though equally telling is that he is not credited.
The sole black man in town is essentially mocked into coming along with the lynch mob by Smith (Paul Hurst). The racism of the taunts or so slight that modern audiences may miss it. They don’t use any slurs, choosing instead to mock his intelligence and work ethic.
Sparks is part of the moral center of the movie, a role he shares with Davies. Smith taunts him into coming by saying the lynching needs a reverend. But when Smith mentions the need for a Reverend, as a joke, Sparks agrees to go.
Fonda’s Gil tells Sparks that they’re teasing him. “I know. But maybe Mr. Smith is accidentally right.” Possibly the most audacious aspect, for the time that is, is Wellman and Trotti have a scene in which Sparks talks with Gil about witnessing his own brother’s lynching. Though the film never calls the act for what it surely was, an act of violence fueled by racism. Instead when Gil asks Sparks if his brother was guilty of what they accused them of Sparks shrugs and says, “No one ever did know.”
Trotti’s script may sidestep the racism, but his implication is clear, the act of lynching itself is wrong, black or white. In other words, he’s implying equality and humanity that at times is heartbreakingly absent in many films of that time period.
When the time comes for Tetley to take a vote on whether or not to hang the three men, Sparks is one of the few who stands up against a sea of angry white people. He is not alone, he is joined by six others Davies, Gil, Art, and some others. But he stands alone as the lone black person taking a stand.
Of the three men, we have Anthony Quinn, the famous Greek actor playing Juan, a Mexican. Unlike Poncho (Chris-Pin Martin), one of Tetley’s ranch hands, Juan is the suave debonair outlaw. Whereas Poncho is regretfully a Speedy Gonzalez archetype. It’s telling that cool intellectual who has the line boasting about how he speaks ten languages, “But I don’t tell anything I don’t want to in any of them,” is played by a Greek. While poor Poncho is reduced to an archetype.
Yet, unlike Sparks, Poncho does not stand up. He is terrified and unsure. By virtue of being an outsider, Sparks has a freedom Poncho does not. I doubt Wellman or Trotti meant anything or even realized the racism of the caricature of Poncho. Doubtful since Martin made a career playing a comic foil in such serials as The Cisco Kid. Still, just as it’s rare to see a black character treated like a human being, it is just as rare to see two different versions of what it means to be Mexican.
I bring this up because part of watching old movies is engaging with the history and attitudes of the past. There is a very good chance I am perhaps reading too much into all of this if for no other reason to justify or defend a favorite movie.
Wellman balances all this with the human desire for justice while also questioning the purpose and nature of laws while tempering the very human need to go with the flow. Larry Kincaid himself is of little interest to us, we never see him, only hear about him and even then, we only hear his name. We know Farnley (Marc Lawrence) was great friends with him, but that’s part of the genius. Trotti and Wellman allow us to see how empty so much of this anger over his death is.
Half the men in the lynching party don’t even know who Larry Kincaid is. Gil and Art barely know the man and even discuss why they are even here in the first place. “There’s always some crazy fool who’ll lose his head and start hangin’ everybody in sight.” “Us?” “Funnier things have happened. “Well, we didn’t have to come.” “It’d looked kind of funny if we hadn’t, wouldn’t it?”
Most of the men go along because they’ve either been riled up, afraid of what people will think if they do nothing, or worse-are bored. Art and Gil’s conversation is telling since so much of the movie the men claim they are doing this as to not be perceived as weak. The fear of seeming weak or feminine drives them until they are forced to reckon with their own actions and souls.
Wellman allows Arthur Miller’s camera to glide across a sea of faces as Allen McNeil’s editing hammers home the seemingly unstoppable train of events. Miller’s camera and McNeil’s cuts make it easy for us to recognize familiar faces. Much like Wellman, the two worked in silent film. The clarity and economy of language make it so that even if we have a movie brimming with characters, we recognize each one. We may not know their name but when we see their face we nod, “Oh, that guy.” We’re never lost or confused as to anyone is, all characters are accounted for and all are distinct.
We know the main players, Gil, Art. Mister Davies, Tetley, Sparks, and the condemned trio. The three men accused of killing Larry Kincaid have his gun, his cattle, and are strangers to the other men. None of this is a crime but then someone recognizes Juan as a wanted man and their innocence starts to look shaky.
Conroy’s steely-eyed tight-lipped Tetley is horrifying simply because he refuses to bow to anyone but himself. In contrast with the head of the accused trio, Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), Tetley comes off like the bully he naturally is. Andrews has a big open face, perfect for tortured souls. It’s the type of face that when he says he is innocent you tend to believe him.
The third man of the group is an old man whom Martin calls “Dad” (Francis Ford). Half senile and confused Tetley somehow manages to see him as a liar and a fraud. Tetley is obviously blinded by his emotions and needs to prove himself, but so is everyone else.
The character of Tetley is an outlier in cinema. For most of Hollywood’s early existence having a character be a Confederate soldier was a visual short cut to let the audience know that he is an underdog. Conroy’s Tetley, who stomps around in his old Confederate uniform is even branded a “renegade” by Gil. Not exactly damning but Gil’s tone implies Tetley’s ties to the Confederacy are part of why he doesn’t trust him.
Indeed, it is Tetley who is revealed to be the most heinous. But Wellman does this without having Tetley meltdown into some screaming madman spewing some melodramatic monologue. His punishment is he has to live with himself and his actions though he soon discovers he may not be able to.
I won’t tell you what happens to the three men at Ox-Bow Canyon. I’ll leave that for you to discover. The movie ends with a message but even here Wellman cuts out the sentimentality. Martin writes a letter to his family and Gil reads to Art at the Saloon.
The letter, in lesser hands, would be pure hokum. It is an attempt by Wellman and Trotti to sit us down and give us a flowery monologue. Yet, Miller frames it so the brim of Art’s hat blocks Gil’s eyes. Wellman did this often in his movies, a simple but effective trick, which has a way of sapping the moment of overt sentimentality.
It helps that Fonda is one of the greatest actors of his time. His cold yet soft-spoken voice is the perfect salve for what could have been a moment of treacle sermonizing. Perhaps, more than anything that shot, combined with the two men riding out of town as that old western staple Red River Valley plays mournfully in the background is why the movie sticks with me as it does.
The Ox-Bow Incident is a western about a lynching. But it is also the rare breed of movie that is about more than one thing. Indeed, at times, it appears to be about everything.