WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘The Ox-Bow Incident.’
Out of all the classic American movie genres, the Western is the one that has been around the longest, with its creation almost coinciding with the invention of cinema itself.
The first movie that bears the distinction of being called a Western is a short film called The Great Train Robbery, released in 1903, just thirteen years after the U.S. Census Bureau announced the closure of the American Frontier, an event which sent deep psychological ripples through the heart of American society:
“The ideal of an ever-pioneering spirit with eternally new wildernesses to conquer was the American heroic myth, felt by all and expressed in literature and art. With the end of the frontier, the romance of the West was over.”
While the conquer of the West was by that point part of the past, countless tales about it remained to be told, and such stories eventually found their place within the ultimate American genre: the Western. For decades, filmmakers continued to romanticise the myth of how the West was won, creating and consolidating the tropes that characterised the genre, such as the precedence of justice over law, the isolation from broader civilisation and the taming of wilderness.
In the late 1960s, Hollywood was shaken by a major cultural shift that took the world by storm, in which authorship in cinema served as a way of expressing the filmmakers’ skepticism about politics and societal values, and as such Westerns served to reflect this new way of thinking.
Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid are some examples to come out during this period and embody the characteristics of what has since been named the: “Revisionist Western”.
Said sub-genre had, by definition, the goal to subvert old tropes associated with the Classic Western tales, infusing the myths that surrounded it with a seriousness and introspection, previously unseen in much of the genre’s best.
It is wrong to assume that said subversion was unprecedented, however, since long before the ‘New Hollywood’ mindset came along, some directors familiarised with the genre were already very aware of the dogmas and stereotypes of the “cowboy movie” and consciously stepped away from the formula.
John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Searchers (1956), Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953) and Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950) are all examples of early representatives of the sub-genre, but it is William A. Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident – released in 1943 during the heyday of the Classic Western – that most often takes the title amongst scholars as being the first true Revisionist Western. Based on the 1940 novel of the same name by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident instantly stood out amongst its peers, especially when compared to the other, numerous – call them simplistic – morality tales that flooded the Cinema throughout the 1940’s.
The story is easy to follow. In the late 1880s, a small town in the state of Nevada is plagued by numerous incidents of cattle rustling. The killing of a local rancher and the subsequent stealing of his herd kicks the plot into motion. Despite the pleas of a local judge warning the – understandably upset – town’s Sheriff to stay within the confines of the law, one of the town’s deputies hastily takes action, forming a posse to track down the murderers.
Not long after, the posse comes across three men (who are believed to be) in possession of the dead ranchers’ cattle. The three men claim to have bought it legally, but have no way to prove it, since they didn’t get a bill of sale.
Evidence that the men in question are the outlaws responsible for the murder starts to pile up and, without convincing counter-proof having being produced, the angry mob proceeds directly to what is known as a ‘kangaroo court.’
Following an exhausting back-and-forth debate that lasts a long percentage of the movie’s running time, those in favour of the arrest of the suspects – in order to deliver them to the proper authorities and give them a lawful trial – are outvoted, resulting in the men being hung.
Following the execution, the posse returns to town, only to find the town’s Sheriff accompanied by the rancher that had been believed dead. Not only did he survive his attack – but also helped the Sheriff to track the real culprits down, and arrest them. The haunting realisation that the men who were hung were actually innocent looms over the remainder of the picture – and weighs heavily on the minds of those who made the final call.
Although produced two years prior to its release date, The Ox-Bow Incident had its premiere delayed by an apprehensive Twentieth Century-Fox due to its pessimistic, somber message. With the recent involvement of the United States in WWII, the entertainment value of a morbidly depressing film that went against ideological American values, such as national patriotism and individual freedom, wasn’t exactly considered bankable.
The higher-uppers of the studio believed that audiences instead craved for escapist fantasies and patriotic war morale-boosters, rather than anti-Fascist parables with downbeat finales. The making of such an unappealing oddball was only possible due to the efforts of its director and star, William A. Wellman and Henry Fonda, respectively.
Wellman was a colleague of Darryl F. Zanuck, vice-president of Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, having directed Zanuck’s production of the the box-office hit Public Enemy in 1931. Using that acquaintance to the project’s advantage, Wellman had in Zanuck an ally to strike a deal with the studio, agreeing to deliver two other projects Zanuck handed him if the production of The Ox-Bow Incident was carried through.
Attaching star Henry Fonda was another decisive element to the production of the project. An admirer of the source material, Fonda, who was already building a big name for himself in Hollywood, not only helped to raise funding, but also agreed to play a role smaller than the ones he had been getting by that point, helping to further integrate the ensemble cast to which the story develops around. Despite this, he was still given top billing in the film.
Even if now the film can be considered a masterpiece of the Revisionist Western genre, the studio’s predictions were somewhat correct – and the film was plagued by both an underperforming box office and a middling critical reception.
It is widely felt that audiences of the time simply weren’t ready for such a stark and intense examination of the myth that lawlessness can be countered by strong-willed justice, with its characters representing various philosophical stances on the matter. They were still too attached to the escapist entertainment offered by traditional Westerns at the time.
It is curious to notice, though, that The Ox-Bow Incident is categorised as a Western for its setting, despite many of its characteristics resembling the touchstones of Film Noir, another great American genre, and a comparatively brand-new one at that, which saw its popularity grow rapidly throughout the 1940s.
The Ox-Bow Incident’s lack of commercial success was also probably partially related to its labelling as a Western and all the expectations that that had imbued on audiences at the time of its release. The astounding growth of Noir in the following years, with its cynical and pessimistic views on American society, may hint that the film might have been much better received if not marketed as a Western.
With the distance of time, it becomes clear that the The Ox-Bow Incident, with its deconstruction of the thematic and ideological foundation of the Western, accompanied by a sprinkle of Noir undertones, can be considered the forefather of Revisionist Westerns.