Darryl F. Zanuck never shied away from a challenge. A writer at heart, who had tired of working for somebody else, and with a spark of defiance soon to ignite a four alarm blaze of creativity under his own auspices, Zanuck would become an ‘untouchable’ in Hollywood, the master of all he surveyed over at the newly amalgamated 2oth Century-Fox Studios. Within a year of its incubation, both in terms of quality and output, 2oth Century-Fox would rival the big three (Warner, MGM, Paramount); Zanuck, living, eating and breathing the picture business until it was his all-consuming passion - or rather...one of them. Hollywood had seen nothing like it; the first studio to be managed by someone who instinctively understood that good scripts make better movies. While other studios focused on style over substance, or the talents of a tyrannical director, or even the strength of ‘star power’ to buoy less than admirably concocted scenarios, Zanuck’s success squarely rested on solid story-telling and his uncanny ability for picking stories with a social conscience. Fox films dealt with issues seemingly taboo and un-filmable according to the laws of self-governing censorship; bigotry, rape, suicide, illegitimacy, drug addiction, the murder of a clergyman, and, in the case of William A. Wellman’s The Ox-bow Incident (1943), senseless and un-pitying mob rule that causes a motley entourage of otherwise forthright citizens to exact their brand of frontier justice by lynching a trio of men suspected of the crime of murdering one of their own.
Praised for its maturity, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s literary masterpiece of the same name presented several problems for Zanuck, not the least, its dark and uncompromising narrative. Like a good many of Zanuck’s more ambitious projects, intrinsically designed to push the boundaries of censorship while simultaneously elevating the art of motion pictures, the theatrical release of The Ox-bow Incident was met with indifference from a wartime public, more eagerly in search of frothy entertainments. Lest we forget the aberrant act of lynching had become almost a complacent part of the American landscape. Despite an onslaught of legislation to abolish it, lynching was still readily practiced at the time Zanuck green lit The Ox-bow Incident. Before that, the property had languished in the hands of UA producer, Harold Hurley, who pitched the idea to William Wellman as a titanic Technicolor epic starring Mae West as the proprietress of a gambling saloon. Although Wellman loved the book, he was immediately put off by Hurley’s idiotic approach to the material. Time passed. Hurley was fired from UA, taking Clark’s novel with him. In the interim, Wellman offered to buy the rights for $500 more than Hurley had paid. Desperate for money, Hurley sold out, leaving Wellman to shop The Ox-bow Incident on his own. Still, no takers.
Now Wellman hit upon an inspired notion. He and Zanuck had not spoken since an impromptu fist fight in 1933 severed their lucrative alliance at Warner Bros. Now, Wellman relied on his reputation prior to this incident, including thirty of the most profitable movies he had directed for Zanuck, to reestablish ties with the newly elected mogul at Fox. Reminding Wellman of their altercation, Zanuck nevertheless let bygones be bygones, reading the book and agreeing it would make a good movie. However, unwilling to gamble too much on either Wellman or any novel that ostensibly tore into the western milieu with a dark and harrowing detour, Zanuck imposed several restrictions to get the job done. With the exception of a day’s shoot on the open plains in and around Victorville, and a few choice shots lensed at the studio’s already existing outdoor western set, the remainder of the picture would be entirely photographed inside a sound stage. This decision might have crushed any chances for The Ox-bow Incident to visually succeed, except that Zanuck had assigned cinematographer, Arthur C. Miller to ply his craft on a very limited budget of $565,000. Staging a good deal of the action under low lighting conditions to mimic night, Miller achieved a miraculous verisimilitude from this ersatz sagebrush and tumbleweed.
One aspect both Zanuck and Wellman agreed upon immediately: Clark’s novel had to be brought to the screen with all the intensity and frankness they, and screenwriter/producer, Lamar Trotti, could muster. Exactly how to achieve this miracle, keep the novel’s incendiary tone intact, but, without ruffling the censors, remained to be seen. To counterbalance the controversy, Zanuck threw everything he could into this production; its cast, a stellar who's who of home-groomed stars including Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Jane Darwell. Herein, we should pause to recall Fox’s roster of talent as unique in the annals of the then reigning ‘star system’. While most every studio went for the glycerin appeal of stunningly handsome and beautiful men and women, a sort of faux waxworks owing more to pseudo-European sophistication, each member cherry-picked from the anatomically gifted, Zanuck’s players were earthy, sultry, seedy and careworn. Even Fox musicals from this vintage favored the rawer humanities; Bette Grable and June Haver; shoot from the hip gals, sporting million dollar gams, yet lacking the bloom of fresh-faced wholesomeness that was MGM’s stock in trade.
The Ox-bow Incident is a very bleak movie told with unvarnished poise. Zanuck’s decisions during pre-production undoubtedly favor Clark’s original unsettling stoicism, the perfect visual complement for this angry mob. From this unlikeliest of melodramas there emerges a startling indictment of America’s fallow sense of community; justice for some – not all, a trampling under hoof and boot of the oft’ mythologized era of the noble pioneer. Assembling his executive brain trust for a private screening, Zanuck was to face rank opposition as the houselights came up. Not even his wife, Virginia understood his motivations, reportedly inquiring with bewilderment, “How could you allow your studio to make this picture?!?” Mercifully, suggestions to shelve The Oxbow Incident were quashed by Zanuck who rushed it into theaters instead, only to be bitterly disappointed by the public’s response. While the critics lauded praise upon the picture (it received nominations from both the National Film Board and the Academy) box office failed to rival its critical coup; Orson Welles offering Zanuck these comforting words, “They don’t know what they’ve just seen.” In retrospect, it is amazing how many movies long since regarded as bona fide classics for all time, were labeled as little more than ponderous trash in their own time: Fantasia (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), Vertigo (1958), etc.; all masterpieces/all condemned or virtually ignored by the public in their day.
There are no clear-cut heroes in The Ox-bow Incident. Although Henry Fonda is its star, his rough-hewn roughneck, Gil Carter, is not above picking a fight or making veiled sexual innuendos about a portrait hung over the bar in Darby’s Saloon, depicting a middle-age lech leering at a half clad young woman splayed on a divan in a state of ‘come hither’ repose. Indeed, the most chivalrous act in the picture is the repeatedly emasculated attempt by shopkeeper, Arthur Davies’ (Harry Davenport); the gentle voice of reason, to implore these men to reconsider their actions. Davies refuses to partake of their blood thirst and draws his own line in the dirt; a vantage from which only a handful of his contemporaries, including Gil and sidekick, Art Croft (Harry Morgan) will follow. Yet, Davies remains powerless to stop the posse. In the novel, Davies later confides he feels a moral responsibility for failing to dissuade the mob. The movie supplants this confession with the reading of a letter, written by the most repentant of the accused, Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) and meant only for his wife's ears.
Everything except this moment in The Ox-Bow Incident seems to ring with truth and the spirit of a genuine happening; the cruel finale, expertly photographed by Wellman to conceal Fonda’s wounded eyes as he affectingly recites the letter (never meant to be publicized, yet somehow far more relevant to these men now listening to its posthumous indictment of them; actually, Zanuck’s own heavily revised magna carta condemnation of capital punishment). The words are true enough yet tinged with insincerity for the purpose in which they were presumably inspired, even as they remain profound and aesthetically pleasing to the ear.
“My dear wife…Mr. Davies will tell you what’s happened here. He’s a good man and has done everything he can for me. There are some other good men here too only they don’t seem to realize what they are doing. They are the ones I feel sorry for, cuz it’ll be over for me in a little while but they’ll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives. Man just can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world. Cuz then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Laws are not just words you put in a book or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people 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. Cuz if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of conscience from 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.”
Is this really the honest farewell of a devoted husband and father acknowledging his own mortality and giving thanks for and to the woman who has shared his life? Hardly. And Zanuck, chiefly responsible for this revision, must have known the loaded nature of the verbalized gun he had just shot off, prepared as a caprice to his own cause célèbre. In hindsight, The Ox-bow Incident’s box office failure is almost preordained by Zanuck’s myopic focus to will a morality play, telescopically focused on hand-crafting a work of ‘quality’ – née prestige – rather than making another ‘popular entertainment’. Zanuck might have had it both ways except his passion for clear-eyed storytelling works sincerely on only one level; as a mandate ironically meant to join ‘the fight’ against ‘brutality’ even as it contains certain ominous parallels between American lynch mobs and Hitler’s SS rounding up ‘undesirables’ for extermination. Yet this does not absolve Zanuck of the fact he liked rocking the proverbial boat to the point of capsizing. Even at his most insular, one of Zanuck’s most admirable qualities, imbued in the best of his ‘personally supervised’ projects, was his capacity to make the rest of us meditate on man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. While lesser film-makers have atypically relied on plying the audience with sentimentality to elicit pathos, appealing to the cheapest of all emotional responses – crocodile tears – Zanuck’s yen for cutting into the heart of human tragedy leaves his audiences holding a very mixed bag of emotions in the end.
It is not being overly critical to suggest The Ox-bow Incident does not emotionally satisfy on this or any other level, nor arguably, was this ever Zanuck’s intent. Instead, the picture attempts to goad the average viewer into reconsidering the content of his/her character. Do we follow blindly as sheep in a flock, as too many of the townsfolk in the fictional town of Bridger’s Wells do to their detriment, or choose to remove ourselves from their mob mentality and thus exit the theater with a sad-eyed, but very sobering vindication of our ‘better’ angels left intact. Neither outcome proves satisfactory because the results remain the same. A group of seemingly God-fearing and forthright townsfolk have committed cold-blooded murder – some to satisfy a blood lust; others swayed by bigotry; still others, influenced in their mass of contradictions kept hidden from public view; as retired Major Tetley’s (Frank Conroy) deep-seeded anxiety - that his own son, Gerald (William Eythe) may somehow not be a ‘real’ man because he initially refuses to partake of the exercise. Determined to break Gerald of his sensitive nature – always code for homosexuality in classic Hollywood films - Tetley orders Gerald to directly participate in the execution; thereby severing all paternal bonds with the young man and, in abject humiliation, forcing Tetley in retreat to his colonial-styled manor house where he commits suicide; the gentleman’s out of a very sticky situation.
Miraculously, The Ox-bow Incident casts no aspersions and/or moral judgment on any of these characters it introduces at a glance with spellbinding efficiency and without cliché. Certainly, there are archetypes. At a scant 75 minutes, there is not enough time to unearth the particulars beyond such incidental traits; characters like Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes); reportedly a ‘good time had by all’ cum respectable newlywed to a San Franciscan businessman; or Judge Daniel Tyler (Matt Briggs), a foppish and ineffectual ‘authority’ figure; or Deputy Butch Mapes (Dick Rich), the boorish and all too eager ‘lawman’ who, in absence of real authority - his boss, Sheriff Risley (Willard Robertson) - transgresses against the law by allowing others to take it into their own hands. Yet, not once do any of these ‘bit players’ seem to be going through the motions of their thumbnail-sketched character studies. In fact, one senses a great level of investment and distinction between them perhaps collectively owed Zanuck his expert casting choices, drawing on a wellspring of repetitively featured character players; fondly cherished and instantly recognizable to audiences of their day. That cleverness is somewhat diminished today due to our current lack of familiarity with these indelible faces. And yet, Zanuck’s handpicked thespians hold up – in fact, spectacularly well; as example - Marc Lawrence’s beady-eyed instigator, Jeff Farnley, equally as menacing even if one knows absolutely nothing about Lawrence’s illustrious career, perpetually typecast as baddies of one sort or another.
The impetus for The Ox-bow Incident begins in the tiny hamlet of Bridger's Wells, Nevada - circa 1885. Two drifters, well known to the town, Art Croft and Gil Carter have only just come back from their latest wandering; making a much-needed pit stop at Darby’s Saloon. Gil, who is equally of a hothead and a loner, inadvertently discovers from the saloon’s proprietor (Victor Killian) that his paramour, Rose Mapen has since left town for parts unknown; tired of waiting for Gil to come back to her. Overhearing this news, Jeff Farnley goads Gil into a confrontation he narrowly loses; Darby temporarily knocking Gil unconscious with a bottle to break up their fight. A distinct pall hangs over the town; Farnley’s allegation, that no one except a drifter could likely be responsible for the recent spate of cattle-rustling. One of the locals, Greene (Billy Benedict), bursts into the saloon, informing the men one of the town’s most respected, Larry Kinkaid, has been murdered; Sheriff Risley already gone out to the Kinkaid homestead to examine the crime scene. Without further proof to support the claim, Farnley elects to gather a posse to pursue the murderers. Imploring the menfolk to reconsider, local merchant, Arthur Davies is chastised by Farnley for his weak-kneed reluctance; Davies now appealing for Gil to fetch Judge Tyler for their counsel, but imploring him to avoid divulging the particulars to Deputy Butch Mapes who will surely side with the mob.
Alas, Mapes is keeping company with the Judge. The pair arrives at Darby’s with Tyler suggesting the culprits, whoever they may be, must be brought back to Bridger’s Wells alive to stand trial. Farnley fluffs off this suggestion; buoyed in his stubborn resolve when another local, Poncho (Chris-Pin Martin) tells of a trio of men on the outskirts of town escorting cattle bearing Kinkaid’s brand. Although not entirely convinced, Art and Gil join the posse to avoid suspicion, as does Davies, still hoping to dissuade the men from acting on their rage. The posse is led by Major Tetley who has ordered his son, Gerald to join them. Interestingly, while Tetley appears in full Confederate regalia, no mention of his loyalties is made in the movie, Zanuck likely eager to have the picture appeal to audiences in the Deep South who were unlikely to find Tetley a forgiving representation of the ole southern aristocrat. En route through a narrow pass, the posse encounters a stagecoach. Under the cover of night the driver, assuming an ambush, wounds Art in the shoulder before being subdued by Tetley and Farnley, who clarify the situation. Emerging from the coach is none other than Rose Mapen with her new husband, Swanson (George Meeker). Gil and Swanson regard one another as adversaries for Rose’s affections. It is rather clear Rose still harbors some feelings for Gil and vice versa.
Unable to quantify these in the moment, Gil proceeds with the posse. They come across three sleeping men in a nearby clearing. Stirring them to wake at the point of a gun, the youngest of the accused, Donald Martin makes repeated attempts to explain their situation as his compatriots, a rather fiery gaucho, Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn), who pretends not to know any English, and a doddering old codger, Alva Hardwicke (Francis Ford), whose loyalties blow as the wind, look on with grave curiosity. Yes, they were at Kinkaid’s ranch earlier in the day and yes, they are in possession of heads of cattle and a pearl-handled revolver belonging to Kinkaid. But Donald insists everything is above board. He purchased the cattle and the gun, but was not given a bill of sale for either by Kinkaid. Informed by Farnley that Kinkaid is dead, the news is just as devastating to Donald who now realizes why these men have come for them. Donald insists they are innocent. They are neither rustlers nor murderers. Davies believes Donald’s story. But the others are not nearly as sure justice will be best served by handing everyone over for trial, and some, like Tetley and Farnley are wholly unwilling to concede they might be wrong. No – Donald and his friends will hang at sunrise. Davies refuses to partake, and appeals to the others to reconsider what they are doing. Only six men eventually side with Davies, including Art and Gil. Juan stages a daring – if misguided - escape. He is quickly recaptured by Farnley. Realizing their fates have already been decided, Donald writes a letter to his wife back home, entrusting Davies to deliver it.
Instead, Davies reads the letter; then, attempts to share it with Tetley and Farnley as proof to dissuade them from continuing with their revenge. Donald demands the letter be returned to him to destroy it rather than having his personal thoughts revealed to the posse. Davies apologizes and promises the letter will reach its rightful owner. At dawn, Tetley pistol whips and orders his son, George to partake of the hangings. Reluctantly, George complies. At the last possible moment, Gil tries to intervene. He is knocked unconscious. Donald, Juan and Alva are ruthlessly hanged from a nearby tree with an almost ebullient satisfaction expressed by the rest of the posse. Alas, their smug self-righteous vindication turns rancid when, upon encountering Sheriff Risley at the pass, they are informed by Risley not only is Larry Kinkaid still very much alive, but the rustlers who shot at him have already been apprehended and confessed to the crime. Learning of his deputy’s complicity in this miscarriage of justice, Risley orders Mape to turn in his badge. Tetley stoically rides with George back to his manor house, barricading himself in his study alone and taking his own life. Back at Darby’s Saloon, Gil, now in possession of Donald’s letter, elects to read it aloud to every man in the room; a reminder of their ill-advised hastiness, not to see justice served, but rather blindly driven to commit the very act they accused Donald and his friends of without any proof. Disgusted by what he has witnessed, Gil leaves Bridger Wells, presumably forever, to seek out Donald’s widow with Art at his side.
The Ox-bow Incident is an extraordinarily achievement, particularly in an era of despotic screen censorship. Like all of Wellman’s pictures, this one is imbued with his uncompromising sense of moral clarity; a gruffness and contempt for humanity’s absurdities that could allow such a travesty to blindly occur. Wellman’s recompense for convincing Zanuck to produce The Ox-bow Incident was a two picture commitment, resulting in a pair of unremarkable follow-ups; Thunder Birds and Buffalo Bill (both released in 1944). While the box office tallies would not reflect it for generations yet to follow, Zanuck could take much pride in having done right by Clark’s extraordinary novel; Lamar Trotti’s screenplay ingeniously avoided the pitfalls of censorship while retaining a good deal of the novel’s unadorned eloquence and clarity. Zanuck had originally offered the part of Gil Carter to Gary Cooper who turned it down. And Henry Fonda, although slight in physical stature when compared to ‘Coop’, nevertheless manages to embody all the conflicted valor and unpretentiousness required of the character. Indeed, Fonda did not think much of his tenure at Fox – considering it more servitude than an expression of his artistic strengths. In later years, only The Ox-bow Incident and The Grapes of Wrath (made three years before it) impressed him as parts in which he had managed with humility to live up to the source material. Viewed today, The Ox-bow Incident remains a one of a kind in the western genre; a movie that, in hindsight, ushered in the anti-heroic western exploits later to achieve legendary status in pictures like The Wild Bunch (1969) and Unforgiven (1992); irrefutably, a trail-blazer.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release is advertised as a 4K restoration. Alas, owing to less than perfect source materials, what’s here is not nearly as impressive as one might expect. The 1.33:1 image is free of age-related artifacts. But overall image crispness is sincerely wanting with the additional hint possible DNR compression has been applied to smooth some of the more obvious film grain. Shadow delineation is generally strong, but there is some edge enhancement peppered throughout this presentation and also, occasional haloing effects. While close-ups look generally solid, even they do not reveal the sort of finite detail in skin, fabrics and hair we have come to expect from ultra-hi-rez remastering. No, this is a generally soft focused presentation. I am entirely uncertain whether the blame herein lies with the source materials used in the clean-up; perhaps second or third generation removed from the original camera negative, or has the softness come from a blatant application to digital manipulate the image too liberally applied with tinkering to ‘improve’ the overall quality; inadvertently homogenizing and slightly blurring the image instead. At this point, your guess is as good as mine. The 2.0 mono DTS fairs considerably better; void of any hiss or pop, and delivering clear dialogue with unanticipated bursts of sonic intensity in effects and score. We get the Biography Special on Henry Fonda, plus an audio commentary by western scholar, Dick Eulain and William Wellman Jr. and three trailers for other Kino Lorber Fox westerns coming soon. Bottom line: this ‘restoration’ of The Ox-bow Incident is underwhelming. Better than the DVD but not nearly as good as a Blu-ray can get. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)