Tuesday, August 17, 2021

When Mob Rule Prevails: The Ox-Bow Incident

 My parents, who had no love for westerns, made an exception for The Ox-Bow Incident. And no wonder! This 1943 drama, directed by William Wellman from a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, is hardly a glorification of machismo on the range. Instead, it’s a sobering study of mob mentality, graphically revealing what happens when a community is overcome by bloodlust.

 Anyone watching The Ox-Bow Incident today will be struck by the fact that its settings  (supposedly high in the mountains of Nevada) don’t seem entirely convincing. Much of the action looks like it was filmed on a studio lot, and indeed it was.  Because Ox-Bow was made in wartime, location shooting was an expensive luxury that mostly couldn’t be justified. But I’m struck now by how this film, by implication, has something to say about why men go to war in the first place. The movie begins as news arrives in a small western town that a well-respected rancher has been shot in the head and his cattle stolen. Immediately a mob forms in front of the local saloon, and there are loud cries for vengeance. Among those clamoring to form a posse to catch and lynch the culprits are many with their own agendas. One dour man in black is convinced that the arm of the law moves too slowly for true justice to be done. Another, the town drunk, is excited by all the talk of bloody vengeance. In the absence of the local sheriff, his newly-appointed deputy is determined to show off his own authority. A Civil War veteran who has a fancy uniform but a questionable war record takes on a leadership role, partly as a way of trying to force his gentle son to man up. Among all these blood-thirsty men is one woman (Jane Darwell), who enjoys being even more tough-minded that her male counterparts.

 It’s a surprise to see Darwell talk tough here, when we remember her so vividly as the gentle, noble Ma Joad in 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath. In that great film, Henry Fonda played her loyal son. Here, by contrast, he’s dead-set against her as she clamors for vengeance against three men who are fast asleep when found by the mob. Circumstantial evidence makes them seem guilty of the crimes, though the well-spoken Donald Martin (a fine performance by Dana Andrews) tries hard to explain why he and the other two (including a shady Mexican played by the young Anthony Quinn) are by no means culpable. There’s a haunting scene in which, facing death at sunrise, Martin pens a farewell letter to his wife back home while the posse celebrates with liquor and raucous song.

 Andrews’ performance is powerful, but the focal point of the picture remains Fonda, as a drifter with local ties. He may have a chip on his shoulder (for one thing, he’s just been dumped by the woman he loves), but he’s still got that fundamentally noble streak that’s embedded in so many Fonda characters: he rides out with the posse partly in the name of self-preservation, but he can’t bring himself to accept mob rule as a form of justice. By the time he made this film, Fonda was a Hollywood star, one whose best roles were low-key but fundamentally heroic. His personal politics—involving respect for the common man—always shone through on the screen. When he was a boy in Omaha, his father took him to the  site of the lynching of a Black man. The object lesson was clear: this was what happened when people forgot about their essential humanity.


No comments:

Post a Comment