Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Ox-Bow Incident. A


Not a made as a commercial product, The Ox-Bow Incident would never have been adapted from Walter Van Tilburg Clark's novel if not for 20th Century Fox boss Darryl Zanuck's appreciation for the story. He wanted to have it for his studio, profits notwithstanding. And it's true about the unorthodoxy of the story. This movie's not about heroes, outlaws, or shootouts. It's not about the good guy killing the gunslinger and getting his woman. And it's not about Henry Fonda's character, the film's only star and real selling point. Fonda is merely part of an ensemble of characters in a posse out to avenge the murder of a popular rancher. The movie opens with a paint-by-number sequence that makes you think the movie will follow the typical trends of the Hollywood Western. Fonda and his friend ride into a dusty town, visit a saloon, and lean against the bar, drinking. Then Fonda finds out that his girl has left the town and then gets insulted and engages in a bar brawl. But the gears shift pretty quickly when the news that a popular rancher has been murdered. Without the permission of the town's sheriff, a group of angry men form a posse in pursuit of the cattle rustlers who killed the rancher. Fonda, very principled as usual, reluctantly goes along. It doesn't take long for them to find three men who at first seem to be the guilty party. But the town's men are so angry that they decide to hang the suspects on the spot without a proper trial. There are a few exceptions, including Fonda's character and the youthful son of a major who orders the hangings. This is one of the saddest movies ever made. As the story goes on, the audience becomes more and more convinced that the men are innocent. But at the same time, the angry men's thirst for revenge grows even more to the point of irrational conclusions. The Ox-Bow Incident is about how a mob mentality influences and ultimately wipes out the justice system. The revelation at the end is tragic, and the final scene at the bar is truly heartbreaking. I can only think of a few Westerns that treat death with such sincerity. Unforgiven definitely comes to mind. The old west was indeed a time when the lack or jurisdiction and the abundance of unscrupulous mentalities caused murder to be more like a killing game than a crime. But the cause and result o f the death is rarely explored, which is why movies like The Ox-Bow Incident are so rare and telling.

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