I am a big fan of westerns. John Ford westerns, B-westerns, spaghetti westerns: I like westerns. On the other hand, I do not like liberal propaganda films. I especially do not like liberal propaganda films disguised as westerns. This is why I do not like The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). Neither did the public.
Henry Fonda starred in the film. He raised money to finance this film. He even worked for union scale wages. His presence did the movie no good. It lost money. The public spotted a stinker. It remains a stinker.
It was based on a 1940 novel written by an academic. It is today heralded as a masterpiece. It is not much better than the movie, which had a vaguely uplifting ending.
Liberals have rarely understood the appeal of the western, nor have they understood the people who like westerns, i.e., most Americans. Fonda was fine in a John Ford western like My Darling Clementine or Fort Apache. Ford understood westerns. Fonda did not.
MOB RULE BY COWARDS
The Ox-Bow Incident is the story of mob rule leading to a vigilante hanging. But this theme is not what makes it a bad movie. It is possible to make a good movie based on this theme. Clint Eastwood’s Hang ‘Em High is a fine example. The Ox-Bow Incident is not.
The movie starts out with Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan riding into a small town in Nevada in 1885. As far as I know, Morgan is the last person still alive who was in this movie. Even in 1943, he looked middle-aged. They walk into a saloon. From inside the saloon, you can see outside: the Nevada hills. You can also see that the hills are painted. This screams “low-budget.” It is an accurate scream.
The movie gets rolling in earnest when someone rides into town, runs into the saloon, and says that a local rancher has been shot dead by rustlers. What to do?
The sheriff is out of town. So, a mob forms.
At this point, a Mexican in a sombrero rides into town and tells the townspeople that he has passed what he thinks is a group of rustlers riding into the hills with cattle. The cattle happen to have the brand of the rancher who has just been killed.
One man, Davies, warns that it is unwise to take the law into your own hands. He sends Fonda to the home of the local judge. The judge’s housekeeper, played by Margaret Hamilton, the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz, gives him a lot of trouble. She tries to keep him away from the judge out of cantankerousness. She has the best role — brief — in the movie.
The judge is hesitant to intervene, but he is finally convinced to do so. He goes before the mob and gives a Hollywood version of a political speech. The mob is not impressed.
The mob then invites a black man to go along with them. They refer to him as a preacher. He isn’t. When we first see him, we hear a choir singing. This is Hollywood’s attempt to re-create an angelic host, but on union scale. We are in the middle of a Nevada town in 1885, and there is a black man who is accompanied by singing angels. This is when you might get the idea that maybe The Ox-Bow Incident is not really a western.
The black man is a local town character. The crowd invites him along to the lynching. There is another thing about the black man. He does not look black. He looks like a white actor with what Ann Coulter would call swarthy guy makeup. As it happens, he really was an African-American, the founder of the Negro Actors Guild. He just did not look like a Negro. The character agrees to go along with the mob.
The mob rides off to catch the rustlers. It must go up a mountain 8,000 feet high. It is early spring. It is freezing cold.
Then, after dark, out of nowhere a stagecoach comes from the opposite direction. It races past the group in the dark, almost falling off a cliff.
The mob stops the stagecoach. On the stagecoach is Henry Fonda’s ex-girlfriend, who had been forced out of the tiny town by the right sort of people — people we never actually see. She is coming back from San Francisco. She has just married the man she met in San Francisco. He is a weasel. He is also very jealous, as he makes clear in a speech to the crowd.
Problem: we are informed that they had just gotten married that day. Conclusion: the couple traveled all the way from San Francisco to somewhere in the high hills of Nevada, and got married only that morning. I suppose they got married in the stagecoach station where the company switched horses.
Why a good-looking woman would leave San Francisco to return to the dusty town that drove her out is unclear. Why her incredibly jealous new husband would decide to make this move back to where every man in town was smitten with her is unclear. What he (or she) will do for a living is unclear. The stage then drives off into the night. These people never appear again. (They do in the novel, briefly, for no reason and with no literary effect.) This scene has nothing to do with the story. It also has nothing to do with reality.
The mob finally finds the alleged rustlers. There are three of them, and one of them is an aged, senile incompetent. The leader claims he bought the cattle from the dead rancher. The rancher did not provide a bill of sale for the cattle. One of the men of the trio has the rancher’s gun. He says he just picked it up. He found it on the road. This explanation impresses no one in the mob. It also does not impress anybody in the audience. It is completely implausible.
The man who claims he bought the cattle asks to be allowed to write a letter to his wife before he is hanged. He is granted permission by the mob’s leader, a man dressed in the gray coat of a Confederate colonel. He writes a first draft. He crumples it up. He writes a second draft. He hands it to the man who had been vocally opposed to hanging him: Davies. He asks Davies to take it to his wife.
A few minutes later, Davies shows the letter to one of the other mob members. He says that it is so impressive that it could not have been written by a murderer. The man who wrote the letter is outraged. This is a violation of his privacy. The letter is ruined, he says. Davies defends himself by saying he thinks it might persuade others not to hang the man. The man is adamant: nobody is to see that letter.
This is just plain nuts. If the letter might save him, why not let Davies show it around? This entire scene was written into the movie. It is not in the book.
The group hangs the three men. At that point, the black man sings that old Negro spiritual, “You’ve Got to Walk That Lonely Valley by Yourself.” The problem is, the three men are already swinging. The time to have sung the song, assuming the song would do them any good, was before they were swinging. This is the last we see of the black man. We also do not hear the angelic choir again.
They all ride back toward town. A few minutes later, the sheriff shows up and tells them that the rancher had not been killed; he only had been wounded. The sheriff has already arrested the men who committed the crime. Everybody rides back depressed.
The leader of the mob goes back to his house. His son ridicules him. He had forced his son to participate in the lynch mob. The son admits he is a coward. He yells through the front door, which his father has locked, that maybe the public will understand that his father also has weaknesses.
His father walks into another room and closes the door. We hear a gunshot. It is obvious what has happened: the humiliated father has killed himself.
Then, without warning, the door that he is just slammed shut opens about two inches for about one second. The film editor then cuts back to the son outside the front door, who recognizes that his father has gone to his reward.
This is one of the classic movie bloopers of all time. Who opened the door? This is worse than Orson Welles’ final word, “Rosebud,” in Citizen Kane, uttered in a deserted room. It is not clear how anyone knew what Kane’s last word was, yet it was central to the entire film. But at least Kane uttered the word before he died. In The Ox-Bow Incident, dead men apparently open doors.
Back in the saloon, Henry Fonda, who now has the dead man’s letter, reads the letter to the assembled group of lynchers. Understand, this is the second draft of a letter written by a man to his wife, which his children will cherish as their only memory of their father. This is the letter he wrote.
My dear Wife,
Mr. Davies will tell you what’s happening here tonight. He’s a good man and has done everything he can for me. I suppose there are some other good men here, too, only they don’t seem to realize what they’re doing. They’re the ones I feel sorry for. Because 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, because then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived? I guess that’s all I’ve got to say except kiss the babies for me and God bless you.
Your husband, Donald.”
Here is a man writing his last testament to his beloved wife. He writes the equivalent of a high school student’s submitted draft for a 1943 oratory contest. Yet this letter was so private, so intimate, that the writer was enraged when Davies showed it around.
The letter sounds fake. That is because it is. It was written by a Hollywood screenwriter. Nowhere in the novel does anyone read it to the group. We never hear of its details. Also, in the novel, the man who wrote it was not a mature man in his early thirties, as actor Dana Andrews was, but “a kid,” as the author put it. A kid would not write such a letter.
The movie ends when Morgan and Fonda then ride out of town, to deliver the letter to the victim’s widow. In the novel, they don’t. Neither of them actively opposed the hanging in the book. They were both cowards, and they knew it. That was the book’s theme: the cowardice of an old West mob. They barely opposed the hanging in the movie.
Nothing is resolved judicially. Injustice triumphs. The sheriff promises justice in the movie. In the book, he tells them that he never saw them, to forget about the whole incident, although he says everyone in town will know. The judge goes along with this.
The movie review in Legal Studies Forum (2000) comments:
In the Ox-Bow Incident, Hollywood has chosen a more didactic approach to teaching the lesson of fidelity to law than Clark chose in the novel. This is, of course, at the expense of fidelity to source, but it is a clearer argument — and arguably healthier — for fidelity to law in popular culture than Clark’s somber vision of a society incapable of justice. In the film, at least, wrongful conduct is likely to be punished, the evils of vigilantism are exposed in their grossest commission of error, and we are reassured that a few good men, with whom we can more happily identify, exist to restore hope in the promises of fidelity to law, if not in its everyday perfection.
The book’s theme was contrary to the popular western, where injustice gets its due reward. The movie was unable to turn a liberal academic’s tirade into a decent western.
From start to finish, the story rings false. Like the stagecoach, subplots come out of nowhere and soon disappear. Implausibility is piled on top of implausibility.
The western has faded in popularity because liberals do not like to make them and do not understand how to make good ones. Clint Eastwood does understand, but he is a libertarian. Silverado (1985) was a wonderful fluke, but that was a quarter century ago. In the final scene, the two heroes gallop off to California. Kevin Costner calls out, “We’ll be back.” He was wrong.
The Ox-Bow Incident is usually rated by four stars. The Library of Congress in 1988 designated it as being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically relevant.” It should have added “for liberals.”