Born in the late 19th century in Brookline, Massachusetts, and capable of tracing his ancestry back to the Puritans, William Wellman starred as a fighter pilot in World War I. He might thereafter have been a different kind of star, just because Douglas Fairbanks, whom he had met accidentally after landing a small plane on Fairbanks’s polo field, told him he was handsome. Fairbanks ought to have known.
Stationed in San Diego after the war, Wellman, dubbed “Wild Bill” by his mates, was teaching flight tactics to initiates and zipping down to Hollywood on weekends at Fairbanks’s prompting. The latter said that Wild Bill should take up acting, which is what Wild Bill proceeded to do. But he didn’t take to it; he concluded before very long that the acting profession was too “unmanly” for his liking. He decided that he would rather direct films than act in them.
Wellman’s judgments about the manliness of acting, or lack thereof, should not be misread. Wellman’s sense of masculinity transcended mere macho chest-thumping à la Hemingway or Mailer, the kind of two-dimensional notion that tends to produce art that one soon grows tired of, lacks nuance, does not age well, and does not incorporate a wide spectrum of viewpoints. Wellman’s sense of masculinity had more to do with leadership and taking responsibility.
It did not, however, imply anything anodyne, or too well behaved. Wellman earned his nickname both in the skies over France and in the bars below. As an assistant director, having successfully departed the actors’ studio, he broke a “no associating with femme fatales” bylaw laid down by his director-boss, which led to a thrashing. Still, his time in the director’s chair came, and with his first mature work, 1927’s Wings, Wellman proved that he was not an artist bound by simple notions of what was masculine and what was feminine. Of all the great American silent pictures, the camera moves in no other quite like it does in Wings. The sequences of planes in combat must have hit viewers at the time with that same wallop of authenticity that much later made the battles in Saving Private Ryan so searing. Other masterpieces and mini-masterpieces followed: The Public Enemy (1931), Beau Geste (1939), and The Story of G.I. Joe (1945).
Yet there is no Wellman picture like 1943’s The Ox-Box Incident, which marks its 75th anniversary this year. Even in Hollywood’s rich history of Westerns, and even the rich indie history of Westerns, there is no Western like this one.
The film stars Henry Fonda, who would always remark that it was among his favorite pictures. His character Gil Carter is friends with Harry Morgan’s Art Croft. They have been traveling a long time on the trail when they ride into a saloon in a town that has experienced a spate of cattle-rustling. This is a deeply grim saloon—perhaps the most depressing such establishment in all of the cinematic Old West. Even by small town frontier standards it is so shabby that you can scarcely imagine anyone willingly going there. The place has the vibe of a charnel house, as if boxes of bones might be tucked off to the side.
These two men have a history with this town, but an oblique one. They are not townies returning to home base. They kind of know the people there in a vague way, and Fonda’s Gil Carter is looking for his girl. But it’s obvious that this romance dates to some distant past, and his girl could simply be a prostitute with whom he once had a side-alley five-minute dalliance. We are not sure, exactly, which is unsettling, and Wellman is in no rush to provide us with any kind of peace, which is one of the movie’s themes.
A contretemps between Croft and a patron—which seems a generous term—occurs, with a chair being busted over Croft’s head, just to show how close to the surface tensions are in this desolate place. A report arrives that a rancher and top cattle seller named Larry Kinkaid has been murdered, and now a hanging party is about to be assembled. It is at this point that we meet the dramatic personae of a group who will function in relation to each other much like the group in another Fonda picture, 1957’s 12 Angry Men.
There is Major Tetley, played by Conroy, and his son Gerald (William Eythe), whom he deems too effeminate. Tetley is an invented Major, as becomes known later, a man not unlike those people we read about in our current society who invent stories about being Marines or Special Forces. His son is not effeminate; he simply does not want to make some strange bodies dangle in the trees, which is what this picture is starting to become about. But what it is even more centrally about is people lying to themselves about who and what they are, and lying, in turn, to the people around them. Reality, of course, can only be evaded for so long before it comes marching upon us, holding out a mirror with that reflection of our true selves, which we cannot avoid.
Watching this film recently during a revival showing on the big screen, I was struck by how uncomfortable fellow watchers seemed to be. It was as though they were projecting themselves into the film, where people, without a proper dispensary of facts, seek to destroy other people. Harry Davenport plays Mr. Arthur Davies, a respected senior member of the town who begs the departing posse not to do this. They haven’t done anything yet, but what they will do already seems inexorable. Carter and Croft don’t want to be there, because they know they won’t be able to stop anything out in the open. Maybe they can gum up some works behind the scenes, but when we all get to where we are going, that’s clearly, as we see, not an option.
Along the trail of the alleged murderers, the group, which is outfitted with more townsfolk, for whom this is akin to a turkey shoot, encounters a barreling stagecoach. The driver thinks this is a hold-up and fires, hitting Croft, who is more lucky than harmed, left with just a bad flesh wound.
Wellman shoots this scene on a manufactured ridge, as if there were a chasm a hundred meters below, a veritable bottomless pit in an inky night. The lighting is that of the film noir genre that had started to make inroads in Hollywood, though no one was calling it noir at the time, and no one, certainly, associated it with a Western.
People are packed in this film like the ship’s cabin scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, only Ox-Bow isn’t the least bit funny. As it happens, Carter’s ex (Mary Beth Hughes) is on this stagecoach, newly married. She moves to tend to Croft, exchanging some looks with Carter, before her husband intercedes. He does so by launching into a priggish, ignorant speech of the kind often given by one whose entire self-worth has always been built around the things they were given—money, privilege, elite education. Carter stands there listening to this torrent of drivel about how he may or may not have known this woman in the past, yes, but her life is different now, and someday, after enough time has passed—which is to say, never—he might be welcome to visit their home and meet their family.
The scene plays out, and we never see Carter’s ex or her new husband again. This was just something that happened, like things in life just happen. They don’t knit up all neatly, tied with a bow, as in so many Hollywood films. So many daydreams, so many lies to self. We are not dealing in any of that in The Ox-Box Incident. What we do deal with is a series of individuals who judge but will not be judged, people who show us what they are, and by so showing reveal what they can do to the fabric of society when they act from anger and emotion rather than with equanimity and thought. The storyline detaches and reknits, or not; but the underlying theme never abates.
The posse catches up with the alleged murders, which is pretty easy, considering these three men—the articulate Donald Martin (excellently played by Dana Andrews), Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn), and an old man, Alva Hardwicke (Francis Ford, John’s brother)—think they’ve done nothing wrong and are fast asleep in their bedrolls. It feels like 80 percent of the film plays out around this campfire, but that is on account of its emotional intensity. Wellman hung a cyclorama for a backdrop. This is a Hollywood set, not the great outdoors, but it’s done up in such a stylized way as to feel like its on loan from German Expressionist horror. Is Doctor Caligari hiding behind one of those dead acacias? Is Nosferatu perched somewhere overhead? The stench of death fills your nostrils even as you sit in the theater, but that death focuses as much on the soon-to-be-murders as the three men who are swiftly realizing that there is no way out of their predicament.
Martin has a family. He asks to write a letter to them about what is going to happen, but he wants no one to read it, trusting the letter to Mr. Davies. But Davies betrays this confidence in trying to do everything he can to help these men. The Major, though, wants no part of reality. So it goes with people whose agenda is based on moving themselves ever further away from having to confront, deal with—and possibly even rectify—what it is that they really are. Reality can be a nuisance; better, then, to judge others in lieu of confronting oneself. If we still hunted people down and hanged them with regularity, reality being as much discounted nowadays as it is, you would not be able to drive down a street anymore without seeing swaying bodies. Instead, some amorphous equivalent pollutes social media, where avoiding oneself by snap judging others is the norm.
Juan Martinez certainly has a sketchy past, and certain things the men have done raise doubts as to their innocence, but we don’t know for sure, and there is more reasonable doubt than facts. Martin’s letter ends up with Carter, who believes his story and promises he will ride out to his wife and let her know what has happened. A vote is taken, with people who believe the trio innocent stepping away from those who do not, forming two sides. On the non-hanging side, seven people stand, including the Major’s son—which makes the Major wish to kill the suspects even more. But seven is not enough. We sit and watch these three men, who had been sleeping hours before, die at the end of ropes, in a brilliantly staged chiaroscuro shot of shadows, silhouettes, and rippling cyclorama with stars painted upon it, shot from down low, angled up, as though we are on the ground, unable to reach, morally, any higher level.
What follows is predictable, perhaps, but how it unfolds is not. The men of the posse ride back to town. It is daylight, the noir-ish and horror film elements of the evening have lifted, and they meet the sheriff, now returned. He brings them news that Kinkaid is still alive and his true assailants have been arrested. Someone had lied, and a rumor had ricocheted out of control.
Learning what happened at the campground, the sheriff demands to know who is responsible. Silence can be so potent in art, as in life. Think of Orson Welles using a few seconds of dead air with his War of the Worlds broadcast, which was the most disturbing passage in the whole thing. There is a pause before the answer is given, and in that pause you are afraid that someone is going to try to cover for what happened—to avoid reality and judgment both. There is enough time for you to think it through. But then comes the answer, one of the great lines in all of cinema: “All but seven.”
Wellman was a master of sound when he wished to be. The Major and son return to a lavish house, the boy remaining outside, because the Major has locked the door. Their final exchange plays out with the two never sharing a frame in a one-sided conversation, the boy renouncing the father, and then the Major shooting himself off-screen, the shot ringing out when we were not expecting it. The sound of it may be the most powerful line in the film.
Cut to the bar, where the men have gathered. Remarkably, the place is somehow even more depressing than when the film opened. Carter asks Croft, who is angering him over not being sensitive enough to what just went down—which perhaps is not fair, given the state of their nerves—if he wants to read Martin’s letter to his wife. Croft is illiterate, so Carter says he’ll read it for everyone.
It was at that point, in a lifetime of screenings, that I never saw a theater audience more uncomfortable. Martin’s letter speaks to our rush to judge, because of our rush to avoid the suspected or known realities within ourselves, and that letter smacked damn near everyone in that movie house in the face—because it might as well have been addressed to them, with a posting date of 2018. And in this envelope was a mirror, and this mirror knew that in that darkness, in that seat, you had absolutely nowhere to go, and for a few seconds, at least, you were going to look at what you were, if you were culpable in your own version of these events.
Louis B. Meyer once responded to media accusations that 75 percent of what Hollywood made in those days was junk with the rejoinder that, “well, 75 percent of everything is junk.” The Ox-Bow Incident was not, is not, junk.
Perhaps that’s why the studio, Fox, had no idea what to do with the picture. Instead, they let it sit on the shelves for months without releasing it. We are a country of great cinematic Westerns, just as we are a country of the greatest in jazz, but there had never been a Western like this one, if you even wish to call it a Western. Fonda, who normally was not a fan of the movies he was in, cited the picture as one he was deeply proud of. Darryl Zanuck, the head of Fox, couldn’t understand what was going on, when the studio could have simply released one of their regular Laurel and Hardy pictures and done better with it at the box office. What he failed to take into account, of course, is that the soul has a box office as well, only it is the kind of box office that shakes you down and makes you look at everything that comes out—that shows you what you are.