Tag Archives: William Wellman

Buffalo Bill (1944)

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 29, 2014

Buffalo Bill—Joel McCrea, Maureen O’Hara, Anthony Quinn, Thomas Mitchell, Linda Darnell, Moroni Olson (1944; Dir: William Wellman)

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Director William Wellman directed some very good westerns, such as The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky and Westward the Women, but this isn’t one of his very best.  It has an interesting cast, but the story suffers from lack of a strong and cohesive story arc, as is often the case with biopics.   And, as with many historically-based movies in the 1940s, it takes numerous liberties with the real history involved.

The movie starts in 1877, with young Bill Cody (Joel McCrea) hunting buffaloes and rescuing a wagon of dignitaries and Sgt. Chips McGraw (Edgar Buchanan in heavy makeup, playing much older than he really was) from attacking Cheyennes with his excellent shooting.  Among those rescued are Senator Frederici (Moroni Olson) and his nubile daughter Louisa (Maureen O’Hara), with whom Cody is immediately taken, and writer Ned Buntline (Thomas Mitchell).  Cody is sympathetic to the Cheyennes and has friends among them, including chief’s son Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn) and school teacher Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell in a strange role).

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Stills of supposed Cheyennes Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn) and Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell).

When railroad interests try to force the Cheyennes off part of their land, Dawn Starlight tells Yellow Hand to take the senator as a hostage.  Cody rescues him, but the Cheyennes forge an alliance with the Sioux for a new war.  Cody and Louisa marry, and Cody scouts for the Fifth Cavalry against the Cheyennes (and against Louisa’s objections).  The advance scouts for the cavalry and the Cheyennes meet at War Bonnet Gorge, and in order to give the rest of the column time to come up for support, Cody takes on his blood brother Yellow Hand in single combat.  Cody wins, and Dawn Starlight is killed in the resulting battle as well.

Cody scouts for the Russian Grand Duke Alexis on a buffalo hunt, taking Louisa along.  Louisa tells him she’s pregnant, and they head for home.  The baby arrives before they get there, and Louisa bears a son named for Kit Carson with the help of an aged Cheyenne woman.  However, she won’t stay out west and takes their son to Ohio, where he can have the benefits of civilization and be kept safe.

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Cody goes to Washington, D.C. with Buntline to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for War Bonnet Gorge, only to receive word that Kit is dying of diptheria in Ohio.  He arrives just after Kit’s death, and leaves again.  In his bitterness, he takes on the venal railroad interests, and in turn is vilified with his role in the recent war questioned.  Alone and penniless in New York, he takes a job in a sideshow as a sharpshooter; Louisa shows up and demonstrates her faith in his marksmanship.  And Buntline conceives the idea for a Wild West show, giving rise to a montage in which Cody’s show performs before European monarchs and Cody ages decades in a few minutes, before riding off into a figurative Technicolor sunset with Louisa.

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Joel McCrea looks very good in long hair and goatee as Bill Cody, although he does not seem as outgoing and flamboyant as the real showman Cody was.  Even as a lowly scout and buffalo hunter in 1877, we are to believe that Cody wore outrageous pants.  Some of his actions with Indians, such as greeting them with “How!”, are jarring now, but were maybe less so when this was made.  He is depicted as having strong sympathies with the Indians and speaks up for them, although he always fights with the cavalry.

Red-haired Maureen O’Hara is appropriately fiery as Louisa Frederici Cody, although she seems inherently unreasonable in some of her attitudes.  Thomas Mitchell as Ned Buntline is much the same as he was as Doc Boone (in Stagecoach), as Plato Beck (Silver River) or a number of other heavy-drinking, classically-educated populist characters he played in westerns over the years. Anthony Quinn is good as Yellow Hand, but he stands out against other actors who are more clearly Indians.  Linda Darnell is a curious and unnecessary (but beautiful) character, an Indian school teacher in supposedly traditional Cheyenne dress—a carrier of civilization who has not herself fully partaken of various of its benefits.

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With teacher Dawn Starlight.

The supposed chronology of the movie doesn’t work well.   Although the movie is said to start in 1877 and a year or two passes before we hear of Crook’s defeat (actually more of a draw) at the Rosebud and Custer’s defeat on the Little Big Horn, those battles took place in 1876.  Cody did take on and kill Yellow Hand, but their relationship is exaggerated here.  Louisa Frederici’s father was not a senator, and they were married in the mid-1860s, not the late 1870s.  The Codys’ separation did take place, but they were estranged for most of their married life and never really got back together.  Cody started his first theatrical endeavors without Buntline in 1872, well before 1877, and briefly came back to the frontier after Custer’s defeat.  His manager/partner in the Wild West show was Nate Salisbury, not Ned Buntline.  He did have financial ups and downs with his shows, and he did love children as the movie shows.  At the turn of the 20th century, he may well have been the most recognizable celebrity on earth.  William Tecumseh Sherman is here claimed to have made the comment that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, but another general, Philip Sheridan, was supposedly the originator of that famous phrase.  As you might guess, there are other contenders for that honor, as well.

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Director William Wellman, star Joel McCrea and editor James B. Clark on the set.

Cody’s Medal of Honor was awarded in 1872, for service as a civilian scout to the 3rd Cavalry, displaying “gallantry in action” at Loupe Forke, Platte River, Nebraska, not for Warbonnet Gorge.  After Cody’s death in 1917, Congress revised the standards for receiving the Medal and removed from the rolls 911 given to civilians and others that would not be awarded by the new standards.  Among those removed was Cody’s.

This was a large-budget production in its time, with an excellent cast.  As a whole, elements of the film don’t work all that well; the weakness is largely in the structure and story.  Shot in color at various locations in Arizona, Utah and Montana, at 90 minutes.  For another interesting view of the Cody marriage (with a young Anthony Quinn as another Cheyenne warrior), see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936).  In They Died With Their Boots On (1941), Anthony Quinn was Crazy Horse and got to kill Custer and make off with the 7th Cavalry’s banner.  For a revisionist look at Cody as a showman and the supposed history of the West, see Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), with Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill.

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McCrea as Buffao Bill, with Maureen O’Hara; the real W.F. Cody in theatrical gear, ca. 1875.

As an historical artifact, the real Cody made a film with footage of from his show in 1908 near the end of his career.  Four minutes of the footage can be seen at http://moviessilently.com/2013/10/19/silent-movie-time-capsule-105-years-ago-buffalo-bill-cody-appeared-in-a-movie/

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

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Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

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One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

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Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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Yellow Sky

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 20, 2013

Yellow Sky—Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark, Anne Baxter, John Russell, James Barton, Charles Kemper (1948; Dir:  William Wellman)

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Talky, noir-ish western with a small cast.  James “Stretch” Dawson (Gregory Peck) is the leader and perhaps the toughest of a gang of seven outlaws.  In 1867, the gang robs a bank in northern Arizona or New Mexico and is pursued by a posse into the desert.  One of them is killed, and they set out across the waterless waste.  (An outlaw gang pursued by a posse is a traditional set-up for a desert/isolation story, used, for example, in 3 Godfathers, Quantez and Purgatory, among a number of others.)  The survivors include Dude (Richard Widmark), a gambler with a gold fixation; Lengthy (John Russell), who likes both gold and women; Bull Run (Robert Arthur), a young man; Walrus (Charles Kemper), a hefty guy with a drinking problem: and Half Pint (Harry Morgan), the least developed character of the six.  

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On their last legs, they arrive at Yellow Sky, a ghost town, where they find water, an old prospector (James Barton) and his tomboyish granddaughter Mike (real name:  Constance Mae, played by Anne Baxter).  Trouble starts almost immediately, with various lusts coming into play.  And then Dude discovers that the prospector and Mike have gold.  With numbers on their side, Stretch makes a deal to split the gold 50-50.  Lengthy and Stretch are developing interests in Mike, and some backstory develops with Stretch.  It turns out he’s a Yankee veteran of the war on the border fighting Quantrill, and his intentions toward Mike may be more or less honorable, in contrast to Lengthy’s. 

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Mike (Baxter) meets Stretch (Peck).  Dude considers his chances for the gold.

As matters develop, eventually the gang with Dude as the dominant personality rejects Stretch’s leadership, and Stretch joins the prospector and Mike as they shoot it out.  Bull Run is killed, and Dude turns on Lengthy.  Stretch gets Walrus and Half Pint to join him, and in the end has to shoot it out with Dude and Lengthy in an old saloon.  None of the saloon shootout is shown—just the bodies on the floor afterward.  Stretch returns the stolen bank money, presumably to settle down to a permanent relationship with Mike.  This is one of the first westerns where an outlaw gets to return his ill-gotten gains and walk away (unlike, say, Joel McCrea in Four Faces West, Fred MacMurray in The Moonlighter or John Wayne in 3 Godfathers, all of whom have to serve some jail time as part of their rehabilitiation). 

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The story relies on believing Peck’s basic decency, even when he seems to be a bad guy.  Peck was initially reluctant to play an outlaw, feeling that he was miscast.  Hank Worden and Jay Silverheels have uncredited tiny parts.  Watchable but a bit talky, with an excellent cast.  This may have been one of John Russell’s best roles.  Charles Kemper is largely forgotten now, but in the late 1940s and very early 1950s he was an excellent character actor in such westerns as this, Wagon Master and Stars in My Crown before his early death in an automobile accident.  Harry Morgan shows up in a surprising number of good westerns, from The Ox-Bow Incident to this to High Noon to Support Your Local Sheriff, to mention just a few. 

This was an early entry in the series of “adult” or psychological westerns of the 1950s.  The setup has some similarities with The Law and Jake Wade, made a few years later.  Some say this is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but if so it’s not a very close one.  Director William Wellman said in the book “The Men Who Made the Movies” that he had no idea of the connection.  Wellman also made such excellent westerns as The Ox-Bow Incident and Westward the Women.  Produced by Lamar Trotti, who wrote The Ox-Bow Incident, among many other films.  Shot in Death Valley and the Alabama Hills in Owens Valley in black and white.  Music by Alfred Newman.

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Westward the Women

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 11, 2013

Westward the Women—Robert Taylor, John McIntire, Denise Darcel, Hope Emerson (1951; Dir:  William Wellman)

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Surprisingly effective wagon train story, perhaps the best ever made.  Despite the title, the lead character is Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), the hard-bitten wagonmaster leading an international wagon train full of women from Independence to California in 1851.  Although the cast of women has no big names in it, it’s an effective group with good differentiation between characters.  Perhaps that’s Wellman’s doing. 

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Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) gets things moving. Actually, he’s trying to stop a horse/mule stampede.

Buck Wyatt is recruited by Roy Whitman (John McIntire), founder of a town in California without women, to guide the wagon train from Independence, Missouri.  That’s a long way, and many of the men initially hired can’t keep the rules imposed and leave the women alone.  So it’s mostly Wyatt, Whitman and the women, who have to adapt to the harshness of the trail.  Whitman intends the women as potential brides for all the unattached men in his town, and for a woman to be willing to undergo this trek, there must be some backstories to them.  There are, and many of them come out bit by bit.

Taylor is excellent, as is Denise Darcel as Fifi Danon, his eventual romantic interest.  There are good scenes of what it takes to get wagons through difficult terrain, and what it cost in terms of life.  There’s an Indian attack, during which no actual Indians are shown, flash floods, mule stampedes and equipment failures.  A particularly effective scene is the aftermath of the Indian raid, when various women call out the names of the dead and the camera pans to each victim’s lifeless body.  It shouldn’t work as well as it does; Wellman again.  Henry Nakamura as Ito the cook is also very good, as is Hope Emerson as Patience.  In black and white with very good use of what appear to be southern Utah locations. 

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There are the usual mistakes with women wearing pants (they absolutely wouldn’t have in Victorian times), and, with the exception of Patience, they don’t appear to wear hats or other headgear in the desert nearly as much as they would have had to.   We know that’s so we can see their faces and differentiate among them, but still.  Wellman appears to have minimized the makeup on the women as well.  As with most westerns set in the 1840s and 1850s, the guns are anachronistic.  In black and white, with cinematography by William C. Mellor; story by Frank Capra.  Robert Taylor played a character named Wyatt in his last western as well:  Return of the Gunfighter (1967).

Director Wellman was notoriously disdainful of actors, but he liked Robert Taylor.  “I have never gotten along with actors but I was crazy about Bob Taylor.  I think he’s one of the finest men I’ve ever known.  He was probably handsomest of them all.  I had no trouble with him at all.  He did everything I asked him to; he was wonderful.”

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Danon (Denise Darcel) and Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor).

This was shot on location around Kanab, Utah, so even the scenes where they take off from Independence, Missouri, look like southern Utah.  Southern Utah may have a lot of variety in the scenery available around Kanab, but none of them look much like Missouri.  The desert scenes were shot in the Mojave Desert.  The movie has no music except over the opening and closing credits, and it’s one of the things that gives it verisimilitude.

This was finally available on DVD in May 2012 from the Warner Archive.  The DVD contains an excellent commentary by film historian Scott Eyman.  For another good wagon train movie from the same period, check out John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950).  For another good Robert Taylor western from about the same time, see him in Ambush.(also with John McIntire).  For another good western directed by William Wellman from this period, see Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck and Anne Baxter.

 

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The Ox-Bow Incident

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 1, 2013

The Ox-Bow Incident—Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, Anthony Quinn, Frank Conroy, William Eythe, Jane Darwell (1943; Dir:  William Wellman)

This is one of those movies that is more admired than watched these days, much like Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel on which it is based.  But it’s an excellent character study and a searing indictment of mob justice.  It’s all the more remarkable when one considers that it predates the McCarthy era by a decade.  It can be taken as one of the excellent examples of social commentary from its period, along with such films as The Grapes of Wrath and Sullivan’s Travels.  It probably gets less respect than those because it’s a western, and it is less watched by western fans because it’s heavy on the social commentary—lots of talk and not so much action.

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The film’s action, such as it is, takes place in Nevada in 1885.  Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and his partner Art Croft (an early appearance by Harry Morgan) are regular cowhands and small ranchers, making one of their infrequent stops in the small town of Bridger’s Wells one spring, when they with others hear of rustling and the murder of Larry Kincaid, a well-thought-of local rancher.  The sheriff isn’t readily available, so a posse is formed with his deputy under the leadership of Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), apparently a Confederate veteran of the Civil War.  Carter and Croft join the posse in part so they don’t become suspects themselves.  In pursuit of the supposed murderers, they encounter a stage carrying Carter’s less-than-faithful intended and her new San Francisco husband.

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In Ox-Bow Canyon, the posse catches fifty head of Kincaid’s cattle in the possession of three men, led by Donald Martin (a young Dana Andrews), who claims to be a new rancher from a nearby town.  Nobody knows him, though, and they don’t buy his story.  Martin says he bought the cattle from Kincaid but doesn’t have a bill of sale.  After hearing a little, the posse decides to string up the three of them.  There is an extended sequence while one of the three, a Mexican (a young Anthony Quinn), makes a break for it and is shot in the leg.  The third turns out to be a feeble-minded old man (Francis Ford, brother of the more famous director John Ford).  Seven of the posse, including Carter, Croft and Major Tetley’s cowardly son Gerald (William Eythe), have misgivings about the lynching and stand up against it, but to no effect.  Martin is given time to write a last letter to his wife, and the hanging is done. 

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Quinn, Andrews, Fonda, Conroy and Darwell:  A necktie party.

As the posse heads out, the sheriff unexpectedly turns up.  He says that Kincaid is not dead, and they caught the ones who shot him, meaning that those the posse lynched were innocent, just as they claimed.  From what the sheriff says, he intends to take action against those responsible for the hanging.  The chastened posse makes its way back to town, where Carter reads Martin’s last letter to them as they reflectively drink in a saloon.  The split between Tetley and his son has become irreparable, and the major shoots himself.  As the movie ends, Carter and Croft head off to deliver Martin’s letter to his widow.

That the film contains so many good performances must be attributed to William Wellman, the director.  Henry Fonda in particular is superb as Carter, and this performance ranks among his best.  But a number of new, young actors (Andrews, Morgan, Eythe, Quinn) are also very good in this film.  As Farnley, the hothead who continually incites the posse, screen villain Marc Lawrence is deliciously unlikable.  Henry Davenport, as Davies, the leader of opposition to hanging, is very good.  Jane Darwell as Ma Grier, the female member of the posse, has none of Ma Joad’s warmth.  Sparks (Leigh Whipper, uncredited) provides a bit of humanity as a black man tolerated on the posse who is one of the seven objectors and prays as the men are hanged.  His character later says that his brother was lynched, accounting for his sympathy with those hung.  

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Carter (Henry Fonda) in the aftermath of the hanging: Reading the letter to the wife.

One scene that stands out is Carter’s reading of the Martin letter to the other posse members in the bar, after they have returned to Bridger’s Wells.  As a dramatic moment, it ranks with Fonda’s Tom Joad soliloquy in The Grapes of Wrath, despite the fact that (a) the contents of the letter are never revealed in the novel, and (b) the letter doesn’t sound much like an 1880s rancher, but much more like a 1940s screenwriter (Lamar Trotti, in this case).  Fonda’s face is deliberately obscured by a hat brim for much of the reading, so his words are the focus.  This is one of Fonda’s best performances, although his character starts out fairly unlikable and is merely a witness for much of the movie.  In Fonda’s career, this film invites comparison not only with The Grapes of Wrath, but with the later 12 Angry Men.  Immediately after making this movie, Fonda enlisted in the U.S. Navy for the remainder of World War II.  Harry Morgan had a solid and long-lived career as a character actor, showing up as an unhelpful townsman in High Noon and as a quasi-comic mayor in Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter.

It’s a fairly short movie at less than 75 minutes.  Even so, it’s hard to know what to make of the early subplot with Carter’s supposed fiancée.  Made with a small budget and not a commercial success upon its release, the film was nevertheless a Best Picture nominee in that year’s Academy Awards.   It lost to Casablanca, as it should have.

For westerns featuring lynchings, see The Moonlighter, Johnny Guitar, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Hang ‘Em High and A Man Alone, among others.

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