Thursday, May 24, 2018

Flashback, May 1943: Anti-Lynching Film ‘Ox-Bow Incident’ Jars American Conscience

In the middle of a war fought against foreign dictatorships, the western The Ox-Bow Incident—released in U.S. theaters 75 years ago this week—delivered a somber warning: Under the auspices of democracy, even a group of rambunctious individualists can be manipulated by a bullying poseur into overriding the rule of law. 

I remember watching The Ox-Bow Incident in sociology class in high school. It was like dunking in ice-cold water a group of adolescents whose principal preoccupations were the correct party to attend that weekend, Sunday afternoon football, and catching the eye of the opposite sex every day of the week. The movie was obvious—especially in a letter read by Henry Fonda that should have had “MESSAGE” written all over it—but it was just the type of thing that kids needed then.

Come to think of it, that lack of subtlety might be the only way to get through to some adults today who need to heed the movie’s caution that “law is the very conscience of humanity.”

The “incident” at the heart of the movie—the lynching of three innocent men on the Nevada frontier in 1885—had particular meaning for star Henry Fonda (left, in the attached image, with Dana Andrews, center), whose witnessing of a similar event on the streets of Omaha at age 14 in 1919 inspired his subsequent lifelong liberalism. (That episode is described in Scott Eyman's recent dual bio of lifelong friends Fonda and James Stewart, Hank and Jim.)

Now, with race riots bursting out in some of America’s biggest cities and Japanese-Americans compelled into internment camps, Fonda, screenwriter-producer Lamar Trotti, and director William Wellman wanted to signal, in unmistakable terms, the dangers in disregarding laws and the rights of minorities.

Lynching, though reduced in number, was hardly absent from either Americans’ memory or even short-term experience nearly a year and a half after Pearl Harbor. The three recorded in 1943, as well as the 16 that occurred in the 1941-45 war years, were, to be sure, a good deal lower than the 20 of 1935, let alone the postwar high of 83 in 1919. 

But the attempt to pass federal anti-lynching legislation had proven as futile as it was unrelenting. The last serious attempt to do so, in 1938, had foundered when President Franklin Roosevelt decided he could not support the bill lest it fracture a New Deal coalition that included a segregationist Southern contingent on Capitol Hill. 

Highlighting this situation in a western, seemingly far removed from contemporary reality, seemed tailor-made for a cinematic treatment more palatable to audiences. (Especially the year 1885, the last time that the number of white lynching victims outnumbered black ones.) But just about every studio in town rejected “Wild Bill” Wellman’s pitch. 

As a last resort, the director took the treatment to Darryl Zanuck. Wellman’s last encounter with the Twentieth-Century Fox head had ended in disaster: a fistfight on a camping trip. After getting over his surprise over hearing from Wellman again, Zanuck called him back as promised within 48 hours and agreed with him that it was a great project. 

Even so, Zanuck was dubious about the commercial prospects of such grim subject matter. He only ended up giving the green light to the project for three reasons:

*Wellman’s prior record of commercial success;

*The director’s agreement to keep a tight lid on costs, which would improve its slim chances of earning even a slight profit; and

*A commitment on the part of Wellman to direct, sight unseen, two other scripts of Zanuck’s choosing, in return for approving Wellman’s dream project.

Within these restrictions, Wellman created an admirably lean, taut western with a low budget that worked to its advantage. 

At only 75 minutes long, the movie tells its story swiftly, like a novella. The need to compress characters forced Wellman and Trotti to combine characters and make them more complex—which worked especially well for the African-American preacher Sparks (significantly, the first character among the posse to vote against the lynching) and the mob’s Mexican victim (played by a scene-stealing Anthony Quinn). 

Moreover, instead of the wide vistas that were a staple of the genre, Wellman began with shots of a small town and the bar that served as a flash point of civilization before switching to nocturnal scenes that symbolized the posse members’ individual and collective descent into moral darkness.

Although 1885 was surely chosen as the date for the novel and film because it was when the American frontier was still considered open, it also happens to be the last year in which white lynching victims outnumbered black ones. From this point on, the practice became overwhelmingly a weapon of racial control. Viewing lynching as a realistic possibility on the frontier enabled audiences to understand the stark issues this extrajudicial resort to murder posed outside of a racial context.

Zanuck was correct about the film’s poor prospects. From its earliest previews, audiences didn’t know what to expect and were not happy with the film’s tragic ending. But he was also right that it was a story worth telling. Critics hailed it immediately, and, despite its box-office failure, it earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. (Very unusually, the movie earned no other Academy Award nomination besides that.)

Sometimes considered the first “serious” western novel, The Ox-Bow Incident is also considered the forerunner of the “psychological” and “allegorical” western film genres. It dispensed with gunfights, guys in white and black hats, confrontations with Indians, and cowboy heroes. Instead, it considered the fragile circumstances by which men in society maintained the thinnest veneer of civilization.

It starts from the first scene in the bar, and hinges on the distorted sexual dynamics that will play a role in the later resort to vigilante justice. Told that a woman he had an understanding with, Rose, has unexpectedly skipped town, a drunken Gil (played by Fonda) ends up pummeling another townsman and, in turn, is knocked out by the bartender. As much in need of the restraints of the law as anyone else in town, he is also left gravely aware that he is an odd man out. When sidekick Art Croft (played by Harry Morgan) says they didn’t have to ride with the posse, Gil responds testily: “Look kinda funny if we hadn't, wouldn't it?” 

To satisfy the Hays Office, Hollywood’s censorship arm, Twentieth-Century Fox was forced to make Gil into a less passive member of the posse. The resulting changes helped solidify the Fonda’s image as the personification of American decency and fighter against injustice, one that he would enhance with 12 Angry Men, The Wrong Man, and The Best Man.

Trotti’s script, like Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel, dispensed with the usual genre clichés about the goodness of the common, uncorrupted man of the West. The denizens of Bridger’s Wells are animated by displacement, fear, and resentment of the outsider—all too malleable material for a cruel man with a will to power like “Major” Tetley, who dresses up in a Confederate uniform even though, Gil tells Croft angrily, he never served a day in the army.

Carter and Croft are buffeted by the same forces afflicting the other members of the posse, though. Opening and closing shots of them riding into town establish them as solitary drifters, with no standing in the community that would allow them to effectively challenge Tetley or influence the posse’s vote on whether to string up the unlucky trio they come across at night out in the valley.

In fact, nothing stands out so much in the film as the overwhelming ineffectuality of opponents of the lynching. The fiercest of these, the elderly storekeeper Davies, is dismissed with, “Shut up, Grandma. Nobody expects you to go.” Major Tetley browbeats his son into participating in the posse with, “I’ll have no female boys bearing my name.”

The two potboilers that Zanuck got Wellman to make in exchange for the director’s special project, Thunder Birds: Soldiers of the Air (1942) and Buffalo Bill (1944), are little remembered today. But many of the great westerns to come that explored the psychology of westerners or that used the West as allegorical settings for the issues of their time were made possible by The Ox-Bow Incident: The Gunfighter, High Noon, The Naked Spur, The Searchers, Vera Cruz, Cheyenne Autumn, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven

In trying to show readers how Germany, the country that produced Goethe and Beethoven, could cause the mayhem of Kristallnacht, Clark set his tale of a mob that yields up their individual consciences in a setting far closer to home: the American West. 

Those who doubt that such a tragedy—featuring a leader who denounces opponents as weaklings, and followers too nervous or apathetic to stand firmly in the way—can occur in today’s America have not paid much attention to the news recently.

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