“A person is smart… people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.”
-Agent K. (Tommy Lee Jones) in Men in Black (1997)
Ask most people today what they think of mob rule and they will speak of Transylvanians with torches storming Castle Frankenstein, angry Springfieldians amassing to harm Homer Simpson, Black Sabbath lyrics from the early R.J. Dio era or how much they loved The Sopranos.
What they will fail to mention are the dangers of ochlocracy or “mob think”. It can breed fear, malice, hatred, mistrust, greed, bigotry, and terror.
Much like a Tea Party Rally.
One must be vigilant (see “irony”) against such bandwagoning and conformity in order to prevent injustice from occurring.
This is the timeless warning of 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident, a morality play masked in chaps and spurs that was Hollywood’s first anti-western and a catalyst in the way many filmmakers would deal with the genre in the future.
Ox-Bow spawned the 1950’s collaborations of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart; dark, brooding oaters like Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man From Laramie. This led to the revisionist westerns of the ‘60s; Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967), Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch in 1969.
The 1970’s blurred the “black hat/white hat” western morality into a further shade of grey with Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) and Missouri Breaks (1976), Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Peckinpah again with Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973), and Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976.
If Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves and Dead Man are children of this movement, Ox-Bow is their grand pappy.
Daryl F. Zanuck did not want to make the film. The horrors of World War II were heightening and the Fox Studio Head was reluctant to back a film with no significant heroism and a lynching at the heart of its story. On the home front, Japanese-Americans were being held in internment camps on the west coast. There were race riots in the major cities of the north. In the south, the hangings of African-Americans were all too commonplace, and had been since the end of The Civil War.
Director William Wellman’s argument was that Ox-Bow was an engaging, ever-relevant story of mass hysteria and mob mentality, much like what the United States was struggling against with the fascism of Germany, Italy, and Japan. He also owned the rights to Walter V. T. Clark’s source novel and was eager to get it made.
Zanuck agreed to back it on two conditions. The budget was to be miniscule and Wellman would have to direct two pictures of Zanuck’s choosing without question. Wellman agreed. Zanuck was ultimately correct on the venture. The movie performed poorly at the box office despite being well received by critics. It was only through later screenings on television that the film gained a larger audience and earned its status as a classic of the genre.
Zanuck was never averse to “message” pictures, he just liked the dollar a little more. As one of the few goys among the Hollywood moguls, he was remarkably forthright in his desire to condemn anti-Semitism and racism. Zanuck himself got the House of Rothschild (1934), Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) and Pinky (1949) made during a time when most other studio heads (particularly L.B. Mayer) were either hiding their Jewish roots or wrapping themselves in the American flag and a manufactured air of wholesomeness.
All of the studios touted these prestige and/or “message” pictures and were proud of them all, despite poor box office performance, but it was Zanuck and his love of controversy who realized, “People will accept enlightenment if it is skillfully served to them. They will not go to the theater for enlightenment alone.”
It was with a paltry budget, a big name star in Henry Fonda, and a disturbing new vision of subverting a beloved genre that “Wild Bill” Wellman set out to make the first “anti-western”.
It is Nevada in 1885, and cowboys Gil and Art (Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan-M*A*S*H*’s Colonel Potter) are returning from the range. They ride into a town “deader than a Piute’s grave,” and head for the saloon. After a few whiskeys and a curiously good-natured fistfight (a cowpoke insinuated Gil and Art might be cattle thieves), a man storms into the bar and announces that a local rancher has been shot dead and his cattle rustled.
The rancher was a friend of the cowpoke Farnley (Marc Lawrence) and, after his humiliation by Gil, he’s pumped up for vengeance. He gathers some like-minded vigilantes from the town (they are all quickly whipped into a hanging frenzy) and forms a lawless, makeshift posse. Gil and another man go speak to the town Judge (Matt Briggs) and ask him to quell the fervor of the hanging party until the Sheriff (Willard Robertson) arrives back in town. The acting Deputy (Dick Rich) is notoriously sadistic and sets out to lend legitimacy to the mob. The wheels of injustice are in motion and reason is given a deaf ear.
“The law is slow and careless”, says Farnley, “We’re here to speed it up.”
Despite a call for calm and patience from the Judge and shopkeeper Davies (Harry Davenport), the posse gains new members; Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), a local big wig who dons his former Confederate army uniform and Ma Grier (Jane Darwell), a tough talking cowgal with a thirst for blood. All of them are poisoned by personal shortcomings and insecurities, fueling their vendetta against an unknown enemy.
They ride out into the night and stumble upon three sleeping cowboys, Martin (Dana Andrews), Martinez (Anthony Quinn) and Harvey (Francis Ford- brother to Director John). Their guns are taken and they are questioned. It is obvious to any rational person that they are innocent, yet small bits of circumstantial evidence begin to arise. Martin had purchased cattle from the dead rancher, but has no bill of sale. The rancher’s gun is found in Martinez’ possession and, out of coercion and panic, the senile old Harvey erroneously confesses that Martinez killed the rancher. This is all the mob needs for a conviction. A last ditch effort is made to vote on postponing the hanging until the sheriff can be found, but only seven men (out of about 20) call for it.
The condemned are allowed to write a letter and eat some food. Major Tetley has wrangled control over the proceedings and by morning, thinking the Sheriff might be arriving soon, he rashly decides to begin the executions.
The three men are strung up, hung, and then shot.
The mob rides back toward town and runs into the Sheriff, approaching from the dead rancher’s place. They learn the rancher has survived his bullet wound and the guilty party is now in custody.
A discernible pall hangs over the lynchers as they slink back to the saloon.
Once there, Gil pulls out the letter Martin wrote to his wife and reads it aloud. It is a devastating accusation from the grave, appealing to conscience, justice, and forgiveness. Gil and Art walk out to their horses. Art asks him where he’s going.
“He said he wanted his wife to get this letter, didn’t he”, Gil replies harshly, “Said there was nobody to look after the kids, didn’t he?”
The two men saddle up and ride out of town.
This film is as strong of an indictment toward mob mentality, gang ethics and vigilantism as it is a heartbreaker. It acts as an affront to the cavalier way that former (and future) western “heroes” dispense justice. Its star, Henry Fonda, despite top billing, receives little or no more screen time than most of the other players. His character is ineffectual, ignoble, and shows only mild reluctance toward the will of the mob, until it is too late. His sidekick Art is even worse. All the characters suffer from misjudgment. The Major wrongly sees his son’s humanism as feminine and weak. Ma Grier sacrifices her better judgment in order to prove she’s as tough as any man around. The Deputy is a bully and is driven by the want of power and respect. Farnley is mistrustful of everyone and even the Judge cringes and fusses when he actually has to do his job. Only the town preacher (Leigh Whipper) and the shopkeeper maintain a voice of reason throughout.
The scant budget and obvious soundstage sets (there are only a few brief outdoor location sequences) add to the film’s creepy sense of claustrophobia and doom. Orson Welles would later use interior western sets at the Republic Studios to equal effect in his 1948 version of Macbeth. With the majority of the scenes taking place at night, Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller (three-time Oscar winner) utilized shadow and minimal lighting to give menace and psychological darkness to the characters and surroundings. It is the first western to use this type of expressionism.
It’s like a John Ford nightmare, where Maureen O’Hara is raped and killed by Apaches and John Wayne is too cowardly to do anything about it… powerful, strange, unique.
The Ox-Bow Incident is a small, internal picture. Unlike most westerns that use the vast spaces and vistas of the terrain to give their stories an epic, heroic feel, Ox-Bow is contained and introspective. It represents the place where Americans' desires to expand their society overshot their ability to keep it civilized. The danger, it warns, may not be from an unseen enemy lurking just past the hills or beyond the mesas but, rather, inside the hearts and minds of us all.