Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Standing Up to Vigilante Justice in the 19th Century

Major Tetley (Frank Conroy): This is only slightly any of your business, my friend. Remember that.

Gil Carter (Henry Fonda): Hangin' is any man's business that's around.

If someone asked me to pick my favorite Henry Fonda movie, that would be a tough assignment for me.

I have admired Fonda for a long time, and I like nearly all of his movies.

But, while his movies are great, the problem with many of them is that they have lost much of their relevance with the passage of time.

Not so director William Wellman's "The Ox–Bow Incident," which premiered 70 years ago today. Its topic is timeless — mob rule and vigilante justice, which, sadly, the human race never seems to outgrow — and, even though it is set in the Old West, it is still more a drama than a western and could have been set in any place at any time.

The setting is all too human — a small town in 19th–century Nevada is plunged into fear when word spreads that a local rancher has been murdered and at least a portion of his livestock may have been stolen. The sheriff is out of town, and his deputy takes it upon himself to form a posse. Fonda and his sidekick, Harry Morgan, are drifters who get swept up in the mania and are enlisted to assist in the pursuit of the "killers."

Before the posse leaves town, a judge instructs its members to bring the suspects back for a trial. He also tells them that the actual creation of the posse by the deputy is illegal. In the dead of night, the posse encounters three strangers, who are unable to verify that their herd was purchased fair and square. The absence of a bill of sale is enough for the mob and its leader, an ex–officer in the Confederate army, to find the men guilty and sentence them to death by hanging.

Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and a senile old man played by Francis Ford protested that they were innocent, but their pleas fell on mostly deaf ears — and Fonda and Morgan participated in the lynch mob that ended their lives.

But that was decidedly not the end of the story.

After the three men had been hung and the lynch mob returned to town, it was discovered that there had been no murder after all. The three men had been executed for nothing.

Fonda was in his finest "The Grapes of Wrath" Tom Joad mode, at one point telling the Confederate officer (after the officer informed Fonda that the lynchings were "only slightly" his business), "Hangin' is any man's business that's around."

But there are few more elevating moments in American cinema than when Fonda reads aloud the letter written by one of the condemned men (Andrews) to his wife explaining what was happening.

I always thought one of the best touches was how the angle of the camera shot obscured Fonda's eyes with the bill of Morgan's hat as he read the letter. It subtly reminded viewers that justice is blind in America — or, at least, it is supposed to be.

"My dear wife, Mr. Davies will tell you what's happening here tonight. He's a good man and has done everything he can for me. I suppose there are some other good men here, too, only they don't seem to realize what they're doing. They're the ones I feel sorry for. 'Cause it'll be over for me in a little while, but they'll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives. A man just naturally can't take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin' everybody in the world, 'cause then he's just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It's everything people ever have found out about justice and what's right and wrong. It's the very conscience of humanity. There can't be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody's conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived? I guess that's all I've got to say except kiss the babies for me and God bless you. Your husband, Donald."

The project was special to Fonda and Wellman — so special that they both agreed to work on lesser studio projects in return for being allowed to make "The Ox–Bow Incident." Fonda, of course, went on to appear in other great films in his career, but for Wellman it was a peak he never reached again.

It is safe to say "The Ox–Bow Incident" wasn't a blockbuster at the box office in 1943. Its budget of $565,000 seems modest by modern standards — but so did its profits.

Thankfully, though, time has been much kinder to "The Ox–Bow Incident" — at least as far as perception is concerned. It is much more likely today to be regarded as one of the great movies of all time.

It was a nominee for Best Picture at the Oscars in 1943 (the last time until 2009 that more than five movies were nominated for that award) and lost out to "Casablanca" — which is a great movie, but I don't think it had the same kind of moral to teach.