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Sunday, April 20, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Director: William A. Wellman
Starring: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan

The Ox-Bow Incident is William A. Wellman’s short but powerful condemnation of mob mentality and vigilante justice. In recent years, it has seemed especially pertinent for the way it examines the harm done by Shoot First, Ask Questions later attitudes and knee-jerk reactions which demand the rounding up of someone - anyone - for punishment in order to satisfy society’s need for immediate justice. This is an angry film which examines an ugly subject.

It begins with Gil and Art (Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan) who drift into the little town just in time for the announcement that a local farmer has been murdered and his cattle stolen. The Sheriff is out of town and the Deputy decides that instead of waiting for him, he'll form a posse and find the rustlers himself. The Judge (Matt Briggs) objects to the idea, but in the face of a gang of bored, rough and tumble men, this ineffective authority figure is easily over-ruled. Gil and Art go along, partly to avoid being accused of being the rustlers themselves through their dissention, but also as two of the handful of people who are going specifically to see that things don’t get out of hand. This handful ultimately proves to be futile against the rest of the mob. Three men are found, determined to be the rustlers and hanged without trial or proper examination of the evidence.

What’s great about this film is the way that it dissects mob mentality. We see the posse as it is forming, it’s members riled up and ready to deliver justice, but there’s the sense that what this is really about is a gang of bored people (all men, save one) who are excited about the chance to do something, don’t really take the matter as seriously as they should, and aren’t thinking about the fact that they’re excited about the prospect of maybe getting to kill other human beings. When they find the three men – which includes Dana Andrews as Donald Martin – their eagerness is still clear, though beginning slightly to ebb, especially as it becomes more and more apparent that the three men will be hanged without being brought back to town for trial. When the moment finally comes and the three men, nooses around their necks are placed on horses, Major Tetley (William Eythe) has a difficult time finding volunteers to get the horses off and running. No one really wants to be responsible for these deaths, which at some level they know to be unjust. Eventually the act is carried out and the three men die. The Sheriff rides up shortly thereafter, is horrified by what he sees and reveals that the farmer who was supposedly murdered is actually alive and that Martin’s story is true: he had bought the cattle, fair and square, which means that all three have been murdered to satiate the bored bloodlust of the town.

The dejected posse returns to town and sentiment begins to turn against Tetley, who is seen as having been the leader. There’s a suggestion that he ought to be hanged. “You sure are one for hanging,” Gil says with disgust. They’ve learned nothing. They still believe that there’s no problem that can’t be solved at the end of a gun or in the center of a noose. It is only when Gil reads the letter that Martin had written to his wife, which includes the lines: “They don’t seem to realize what they’re doing. They’re the ones I feel sorry for. ’Cause it’ll be over for me in a little while, but they’ll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives. A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurting everybody in the world,” that the real weight of what has happened begins to settle upon the town.

The characters are well-drawn. There are clear leaders and clear followers who will never have the courage to turn against the leaders – at least not unless everyone else is doing it, too. There are also the men who stand against the mob, which include Tetley’s son, who is coded as being potentially gay and certainly “weak” in the eyes of his father, and who is forced to come along by Tetley’s belief that it will make a man out of him. Some of the characters, like Tetley and his son, Gil and Art, Davies (Harry Davenport) the leader of the dissenters, and Jenny Grier (Jane Darwell) the lone woman in the posse, stand out, but this is ultimately an ensemble film and the size of the cast is always prominent in order to foreground the danger of a group of people who insist that you’re either with them or against them.

The Ox-Bow Incident is a short film, running just over an hour, but the economy of its storytelling is part of its power. This all happens fast, which is part of the film’s critique, because justice shouldn’t be fast – trial, arrest, execution in under an hour – it should be measured and certain. The focus is on the horrible act of the mob, but there are also hints about life outside this incident. There’s a woman Gil came back to town to see, whom he learns has run off and gotten married. They see each other briefly and he meets her new husband. The scene has nothing to do with the central story, but it does provide Henry Fonda with the opportunity to make one of the best The Hell? faces ever captured on screen. There are also suggestions throughout the film about Tetley, about his military experiences and his marriage. We never know the full story, but these vague suspicions help to cloud our view of him and suggest reasons other than the hangings for his own suicide at the end.

Made in 1943, this is a timeless work of art. It will always be relevant but seems especially so today when we read about injustices excused by the fact that a war is being fought on terror. Consider the scene where the posse questions the three men, going at them until they break down and give the answers the mob wants, even if it’s not the truth. “There’s truth in lies, too, if you can get enough of them,” Tetley states. This is a story that continues to echo in our own time.

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