Saturday, September 17, 2016
By 1943, Henry Fonda had developed a name for himself as the voice of social conscience in the movies. With roles in films like Young Mr. Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath, the lanky, blue-eyed actor usually assumed the moral center of the stories he inhabited, and his next Fox film, The Ox-Bow Incident, would prove to be no exception.
Fonda had signed a seven year contract for Fox, at the behest of Daryl Zanuck, who wasn’t entirely convinced the actor would be a better choice to play Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath than the more popular Tyrone Power. We all know how that turned out, but it turned out to be a win-win situation for both parties, which by and large spun the same political orbit. So it was a no-brain to cast Fonda as the protagonist in the studio’s adaptation of the novel The Ox-Bow Incident, a western that pretty much made the phrase “lynch-mob” a common metaphor in the American vernacular.
Fonda is Gil, a “just passin’ through” cowpoke, who stops in to a small Midwestern town alongside his amigo, Art (Harry Morgan, decades before his most famous role as Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H). At the bar, he overhears a couple of ranchers complaining about a few rustlers who had robbed and most likely killed their good friend Kincaid. Gil assists the men in their quest to form a posse and go after the culprits, but soon the gang, headed by a former Confederate soldier, starts talking about hanging. The town sheriff is kept in the dark about their plans, while the deputy “deputizes” the entire posse, giving them what they consider to be the legal validation they need to go forth with their vigilantism.
The gang finds the three men encamped on the prairie, in the middle of the night, and wakes them, demanding an explanation. Yes, they do have Kinkaid’s cattle, the trio’s leader, Donald, confesses, but they were purchased legally. No, they didn’t get a bill of sale, no, they know nothing of Kincaid’s death, and no, that knife they have, allegedly belonging to Kincaid, was found on the ground. But the bloodthirsty rogues aren’t convinced; they came for a lynching, and by-God they’re gonna get one. Even Donald’s heartfelt last letter to his wife, which the town doctor believes to be so good it can’t possible be penned by a murder, won’t change any minds. Gil proposes one last chance for absolution – a poll, between those who vote for the rope, and those who believe in due process of the law. The ropers win, and, at sunrise on the dot, Donald and his two associates are hanged.
On the way back, the posse crosses the sheriff, who had been belatedly sent for to straighten out the matter. The sheriff informs them that Kincaid’s not dead at all, thereby validating everything Donald said as true. The weary, guilt-stricken men saunter back to the bar, and Gil, demoralized and disillusioned by the behavior of his fellow man, saddles out of town with a mission: to deliver Donald’s note to his with and help out with his now-fatherless children.
The Ox-Bow Incident is a fable – a morality tale in which its characters don’t grow as much as they are simply emblematic of human behavior. In that it reminded me a great deal of a good Twilight Zone episode, maybe, say, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” or “The Shelter,” and with Ox-Bow’s tight, 75-minute running time, that’s not such an outrageous comparison (particularly if we’re talking about Zone’s fourth-season, hour-long episodes). You could even regard Ox-Bow’s ending as a “twist,” offering up the combined one-two punch of both surprise and moral edification, in the great-grand Serling tradition.
The other work this film reminded me of is the classic 1957 film 12 Angry Men, also starring Henry Fonda, none-too coincidentally. In that film he convinces his co-jurors, one by one, that there is insufficient evident to convict the man on trial, and in Ox-Bow, he pretty much does the same thing with his fellow cowpokes, only this time, he’s entreating them to have a trial in the first place. Men, of course, has a cheerier ending, and the comforting notion that men do possess the power to change. Ox-Bow, as all the great fables generally do, prefers to proffer the notion of man’s implacability – we’re the ones who are supposed to change.
And change I did, in just a small way. Sure, it was preaching to the choir. but one thing that affected my was how resonant the film still is. These thugs, though overacted and broadly written (as they all were back then) could still exist in this day and age. Human nature hasn’t changed; people are still just as malleable when in a group environment, willing to alter their moral fiber just to fit in It’s no surprise the film has been remade – we see the evils that the need for conformity can produce every time we read the papers. I could see showing this to a classroom in 2016, and after the students giggle and laugh at the dated elements, they’ll be mesmerized by the timely theme.
Just like I was.