Tag Archives: Lynching

The Ox-Bow Incident – Movie and Book

Ox-BowI shouldn’t have read the book before watching the movie! Although I know that William Wellman’s searing The Ox-Bow Incident is a classic (and impressed me deeply the first time I saw it), this time around I was slightly underwhelmed. It still devastates, but felt like an opportunity missed.

The Ox-Bow Incident is the story of a lynching. It is set in the 1880s in Nevada and occurs over 24 hours. The book, published in 1940, was written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark and was adapted as a film in 1943. Director William Wellman had to fight to make The Ox-Bow Incident. Studio heads thought it wouldn’t make money. They were proved right, but the film has nevertheless become one of the great classics of movie westerns.

The film is a remarkably accurate adaption of the book, even employing much of the dialogue. One difference is the pacing. William Wellman is one of the most economical directors I’ve seen and The Ox-Bow Incident comes in at a mere 75 minutes. He gives a wonderful sense of the speed at which men can hear (mistakenly, as it turns out) of a death, how quickly a lynch mob is set in motion (without checking up on facts) and how that quick decision will carry them along whether they have doubts or not.

The novel actually builds more slowly. Clark is interested in exploring the facets of how a lynch mob is formed and the various motivations of people. The book is nearly half over before they even set out in search of the murderers. In the novel, the crime isn’t haste, so much as passivity. Men are angry, and furious speeches are made to rile them up, but most men don’t really want to kill anyone. There is a lot of milling around in town while storekeeper Davies tries to talk them out of going. But men are afraid of appearing weak, unmanly, not part of the group. And Clark is interested in the phenomenon where, once people set out to do something, they continue doing it simply because they don’t want to look foolish by stopping.

film-page-feature-image-front-main-stage-2Another change is in the lead characters. The novel is narrated by Art Croft (played by Harry Morgan in the movie), who isn’t a particularly heroic man. He’s good at observing people and understanding people – the kind of guy people talk to – but ultimately he has no more moral conviction than anyone else and simply sits by while three men are lynched. His friend, Gil Carter (played by Henry Fonda) is described as a bull of a man, not someone who thinks a lot, but enjoys a fight. He, too, sits passively during the lynching, though he doesn’t quite like it.

In the film, a lot of Art’s characteristics, dialogue and even actions are given to Gil (because he’s Henry Fonda). And because he’s Henry Fonda, he’s a lot more heroic. In the movie, Henry Fonda tries to pull a gun to stop the lynching and everyone gets in a tussle. I guess they just couldn’t bear to have Henry Fonda be a complete moral coward? Though I suppose if he wasn’t heroic there would be little for him to do. Even as the movie is, Henry Fonda still plays a less heroic role than usual. Initially, he and Art go along with the lynch mob because they are afraid of being seen as outsiders who don’t stand with the group. But still, I can’t help but think it was a slight missed opportunity. It really would have been something to see Henry Fonda stand by passively, even if his conscience was bothered.

46212I was really impressed with Dana Andrews as Donald Martin, one of the men wrongly accused of murder and cattle rustling: his alternating fear, despair, the sense of unreality, the futility of talking to men who have already decided he’s guilty. He tries to take it like a man, but is scared, grieving and concerned about his wife and children. His very human reaction embarrasses people (in the novel, men are repeatedly embarrassed by the frank revelation of emotion). It’s a wonderful performance that really communicates what it must feel like to be powerless in the face of a group of people determined to kill you.

One change that puzzled me related to Major Tetley, who wants the lynching to happen because of his son, Gerald. Gerald and Major Tetley loath and despise each other. Gerald is sensitive and feels like a coward, but Tetley wants him to participate in the lynching and believes it will make a man of him. In the book, Tetley is a soldier who fought on the Confederate side. In the movie, he is an impostor in uniform. I can’t think why they changed that, unless it was because they didn’t want to show a former soldier in a negative light during WWII.

Inevitably, the issue of blame is softened in the movie. When the sheriff asks Davies who was responsible for the lynching, in the movie Davies says, “all but seven.” These are the seven who vote against the hanging (there are only five in the book). But in the book, no one gets away from blame quite so easily. The people who you would think have the least to blame themselves for take it the worst. Davies is in torment by the end of the novel, convinced that he could have done more. He admits to Art that at the moment of the hanging he was glad he didn’t have a gun, because it meant he didn’t have the option of pulling a gun on Tetley to try and stop him.

176481-004-F5221D4AIn the book (as is mostly true in the movie), there are no heroes, no would-be heroes. But the situation doesn’t call for heroes, someone to come in with guns blazing to save the day at the last moment. It calls for the majority of men involved to check themselves, stop what they were doing and be willing to look weak or silly to do the right thing. It requires the majority of the people to even know what the right thing is.

But despite being somewhat underwhelmed, it remains a superb movie. I just shouldn’t watch it the day after finishing the book – it’s distracting! But Wellman directs a spare film and keeps the focus inexorably on the story. He doesn’t go overboard making Fonda a hero, he doesn’t add any unnecessary romance, conversation, scenery. The entire film is focused on one thing alone: the lynching. It’s a film impossible to ignore or to forget.

This post is part of the “Beyond the Cover Blogathon,” hosted by Now Voyaging and Speakeasy, who I would like to thank for hosting this wonderful event! For the rest of the contributions, click here for Day 1 and Day 2.

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Posted by on April 10, 2016 in Books, Movies


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The Hanging Tree (1959)

Poster_of_the_movie_The_Hanging_TreeI’ve finally realized the reason why I have always assumed that I am not a fan of Westerns. It’s because I’m not really a fan of John Wayne or John Ford (sacrilege, I know), and their Westerns were mostly the ones I’d seen. But I am a fan of Gary Cooper and I’ve found yet another Western that I like. It is Gary Cooper’s 1959 film, The Hanging Tree, directed by Delmer Daves and based on a novella by Dorothy Johnson.

What made me want to see the movie was actually a clip on youtube that I found so striking that I was determined to see what led up to it. And it was exactly what I’d hoped for. It’s a striking movie, not a typical shoot-em-up, with an ending that is all the more romantic and redemptive for the stark background of noose and drunken, gold-lusting mob. There’s also a seriously catchy title song by Marty Robbins that I guarantee will lodge itself in your head…but in a good way.

The setting is 1873 in Montana, during a gold rush. Waver-thin mining towns are set up and abandoned as the miners roam around the state searching for gold. Into the new camp of Skull Creek – which has already set up the obligatory hanging tree – arrives Doc Frail (Gary Cooper), who sets up shop as a doctor, despite the angry and dire prophetic warnings of the local “healer” Grub (George C. Scott), who always keeps a whiskey bottle in his back pocket.

Doc Frail is a taciturn and slightly mysterious man who most of the miners mistrust, though they know something of his background, which is never fully revealed in the film. And they all know that Frail is not his real name, but only what he calls himself. He is both controlling and distant, but also capable of great kindness and gentleness. He treats a young girl suffering from malnutrition for free and loans his cow to her parents so she can regain her strength. He takes in a wounded young man who was shot trying to steal gold from a sluice. His name is Rune (Ben Piazza), who Frail forces to work as his servant in lieu of payment for Frail’s professional services in removing the bullet. Rune initially refuses, but Frail points out that he has the bullet and that if anyone in the town found out that Rune was the sluice robber they shot, he would be hung.

Gary Cooper and Maria Schell

Gary Cooper and Maria Schell

Despite Rune’s sullenness, he can’t help also admiring him at times. Frail also takes in Elizabeth Mahler, a Swedish immigrant who is badly injured when the stage-coach she is in is robbed and her father is killed. The horses bolt and go over a cliff and she is left out in the sun and cold for days, suffering from burns and temporary blindness. Frail, with the help of Rune, gently nurses her back to health.

The trouble is that he’s so much of a controlling man that he keeps everyone away, including the respectable female members of the camp, that he inadvertently gives her a reputation of being a loose woman and people assume he is keeping her for himself.

And when Elizabeth recovers, she wants to show her gratitude to Frail and assumes that he does care about her, only for him to suddenly become cold and remote. Pushed away by him, Elizabeth and Rune join together with another miner named Frenchy (Karl Malden) to buy a grub stake and look for gold.

One of the things I appreciate about Gary Cooper is how he seems to express so much with his body language and face that by the time he speaks it seems to be an afterthought, as if he’s only speaking for informational purposes and not to communicate his real feelings, which he’s already indicated through other means. He’s laconic, as most leading men in Westerns are, but he has an unspoken eloquence about him.

And The Hanging Tree provides a good role for him as the silent and controlling and even manipulative man capable of making people love him, but who feels compelled to push them away as soon as they do. He’s incapable of receiving anything from anyone. As soon as they don’t need him, he pulls back. There is a wonderful scene where Frail is standing with Elizabeth on a cliff’s edge and encouraging her to open her eyes and see (she’s been temporarily blinded). When she does, she finally sees his face, but he instantly loses his gentle tone and coldly pulls away.


Ben Piazza and Maria Schell offer their gold

But as good as Gary Cooper is, Elizabeth Schell is really who I think makes the movie wonderful. She has that perfect blend of sweetness, friendliness and strength. It can be difficult to portray, in movies and books, sweet characters who also have  inner strength. As soon as she realizes that Frail is pushing her away, she doesn’t try to hang on, but determines to work and she is not afraid of hard work. She is unfailingly friendly, but draws the line with Frenchy, who has been fascinated by her from the moment he first found her half-dead in the woods and has been lusting after her ever since. And she has one of the sweetest, most radiant smiles ever seen on film, but never in a naive or childlike way, but as a woman

Karl Malden is also good as Frenchy, who seems to feel a kind of possession over Elizabeth because he was the one who found her and he calls her “Lost Lady.” His contribution wasn’t only reserved for acting, however. When the director, Delmer Daves became ill, it was actually Karl Malden who finished the film, with a lot of support from Gary Cooper.

And what ultimately sells me on the movie is the ending (Spoilers!). Doc Frail is a man who is only comfortable when people owe him something, if they in a sense belong to him. He must be in control. But in a reverse at the end, it is Elizabeth who is now in control and whom he owes something to. When he shoots Frenchy (who attacked Elizabeth), there is a drunken mob of miners who witness it and decide to hang him, just because they feel like it and don’t like him much. They are drunk because they are celebrating Frenchy, Elizabeth and Rune’s discovery of gold. And where are the respectable citizens, while the drunken ones try to lynch Frail? They’ve formed a bucket brigade and are trying to put out all the fires that the drunken mob started.

But Elizabeth buys Frail’s salvation when she and Rune offer their gold to the angry mob. And now Frail owes her and discovers that it’s okay to be in someone’s debt. In a sense, he now belongs to her and it’s actually a liberation. It’s a beautiful ending and completely satisfying.

The theme song was written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David and sung by Marty Robbins. It was nominated for Best Song at the Academy Awards and essentially summarizes the film’s story and theme. The musical theme is woven in and out of the film’s score by composer Max Steiner


Posted by on September 28, 2015 in Movies


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