De døde ved Daggry
The main theme of ”The Ox-Bow Incident” is vigilantism. A new word for me in English, I had to look up a translation for “selvtægt”. This is however not a new concept at all. In fact countless of films have had as a theme the individual or small group who takes it upon themselves to right something wrong. There is a certain satisfaction to it and the individual(s) who takes action in this manner is often considered resourceful, strong and determined. Positive traits that we like to equip our heroes with.
But vigilantism is fundamentally deeply problematic. Who authorized this or these people to take action? By what right are they condemning someone else? A movie will often make it entirely plain to us that the victim deserves the punishment and really had it coming. We saw what they did and if the law will not take action somebody else must to satisfy our sense of justice. But what if we did not see the crime? What if it is not entirely plain to see what has happened as is usually the case for the characters in the movies? As an audience we often have an advantage there to the characters. Without that certain knowledge vigilantism becomes fraught with all sorts of problems, particularly moral ones.
“The Ox-Bow Incident” cleverly places us, the audience, in that situation. Like the characters we do not know the truth of what has happened and see the townsfolk of this Nevada town make hasty and ill-conceived decisions about the life and death of three men they suspect of murder and rustling. We know no more than these people. Or rather, these people know as little as us about what really happened, yet they work themselves up in a frenzy to see these people hang.
Although this is a slow movie and not one that really drags the viewer into some high paced, action packed horse opera, this is a very interesting movie. What environment is more associated with vigilantism and people taking action than the old American west? This is the landscape of the lone ranger, the bounty hunter and screw-the-sheriff-we-will-deal-with-this-ourselves mentality. But here the table is turned. Instead of showing the resourceful western heroes saving the day we have the self-same people taking action against innocents and we get to see how misbegotten that mentality is. Off all people the western horsemen…
80% of the film is basically a discussion on whether these people should ride out and take on the criminals who allegedly murdered Mr. Kinkaid and stole his cattle or whether they should wait for the sheriff to let the law handle the situation in a proper manor. The discussion starts in the town where an angry mop is forming around Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence) and Major Tetley (Frank Conroy). The deputy Butch Mapes (Dick Rich) is all for it although this is outside his jurisdiction. On the other side Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport) and the town judge Tyler (Matt Briggs) are trying to calm people down, but to no avail. The discussion continues in the forest at night where the posse is entirely deaf to the pleading of the three men they have come upon. Especially Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) as the head of the group of three is heartbreaking in his pleading. He is not whimpering, but incredulous that this posse could even think that they were criminals and just to exacerbate the injustice being done we learn that he is leaving behind infant children and a wife destitute now that he is being hanged.
The lead character of the film is Henry Fonda’s Gil Carter. He and his friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan) are merely spectators to the events. In a sense they represent us, the audience. They join the posse to avoid being suspected themselves as they just rode into town this morning, but they are lackluster about this undertaking and when it comes to a vote they stand against hanging the men. Two of only seven who oppose the lynching. It is through their eyes we feel the bitterness of the events. They tried to stop the lynching but too little and too late and now the only thing left to do is to take care of the family left behind.
There are a number of sub plots and peculiar characters. We learn that Crofts girlfriend left town and married some smartass dude from San Francisco. The only function of this really is to explain his bitterness in general and enable him to take care of Martin’s wife.
Then we have the self-styled Major Tetley who seems hell bent on being the determined and authoritative commander to the exclusion of truth, compassion and his own son, the sensitive Gerald Tetley (William Eythe). As it turns out Gerald may be whimpy, but he has more integrity and spine than his own father and in the face of massive peer pressure he stands up to the defense of the accused and refuse to partake in the execution. A clear contest of values that Gerald wins, though a hollow victory it is.
We see Jane Darwell as (Jenny Grier) a massive woman with a big gun who is ready to hang ‘em criminals. This bloodthirsty woman is a far cry from Ma Joad in “Grapes of Wrath” and you can only admire Jane Darwell for her acting range. Grier may be a funny character to begin with, but in the end there is nothing fun about anybody.
I would not say this is a hugely entertaining film, it is far too slow for that, but there is intensity in it and a relevance that easily makes up for the lack of pace. Also it is I suppose as close as we will ever get to a film noir western.
Martin never shot nobody. In fact Kinkaid was never killed. But by then the mob had already hanged three men who happened to have bought cattle from Kinkaid that morning. That is not fate. That is the evil of vigilantism.