The hanging scene, far shot (1943 William Wellman’s Ox-Bow Incident)
Dear readers, students and friends,
This week when I and my students were about to start our discussion of Walter von Tilburg Clark’s Ox-Bow Incident, together with William Wellman’s faithful film adaptation, Thayvon Martin, an 17th year old unarmed black man was gunned down by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed “neighborhood watch” man. In Florida and other states in the US vigilante terrorism has been replacing the court and law system. These are given the misleading label of “stand your ground” laws; essentially anyone can decide when he or she has been threatened and kill in “self-defense.” Given human nature, it does not take long to see what have been the results and will continue to be of such usurpation of a carefully-wrought criminal justice system.
Clark’s Ox-Bow Incident and Wellman’s film are profound parables depicting the lynching of three innocent men (no crime, no murder was even committed) in the context of a dramatization of aspects of American culture that can lead to such an event. I like to tell my students that movies are so popular and are watched avidly because they mirror central aspects of our US culture, but rarely have I (in this case unhappily) been able to demonstrate this so conclusively by an even happening within a week of an assignment of a 70+ year old novel and film.
For once my blog can function as a set of lecture for my tudents as well as relevant explication and call for action of an immediate far-reaching injustice — for, as Arthur Davies says in Clark’s novel, if such things are allowed to happen, civil society is threatened.
Clark wrote his book in 1938 and it was published 3 years after. Nazism had taken a stranglehold on several European countries as well as fascism, and time and again when asked Clark replied that he was writing a fable about fascism with the idea that this kind of thing can happen here, and that the central violence and fear that Hitler whipped up in the 1930s was part of the US culture/psyche and could be manipulated by ruthless men into mindless mob cruelty.
It was not that long ago that black men were lynched all over the south as a terrorist technique and in the book Sparks, the black preacher, tells of how his brother was lynched for a crime Sparks never heard of. It’s a hard irony how this racism is relevant again. In the 1940s terrorism would not be a word Clark would have used, but his book is prophetic (as was J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country which I and my class read early this term where a contented ending is turned into an ironic one as one of the heroes is supposed going to to and dig and research in Baghdad).
Maybe it’s not such chance that there is a direct parallel between what this book really teaches us about US society in 1943 and 2012.
While Clark persisted once he grew older in living in the most rural of western areas, and passed up opportunities for good jobs teaching with possibilities of tenure, he was the child of highly educated people from the east: his father a professor of economics and political science at City College, CUNY who later became president of a Nevada college. His mother graduated from Cornell and did advanced work in piano and music composition at Columbia. The parents moved to Nevada when Clark was 8. He spent much of his life living in the western part of the US.
So Clark was born in the east in Maine as far east as you can get and became the archetypal western. It’s too simple to say he reacted against his background, for while (very much like the Eugene O’Neill feel of a murderous family politics one sees in Clark’s other novel, Track of the Cat), Clark and his father did not get along, Clark’s father was a strong idealist like his son, and when it was proposed to turn the Nevada College into a place for producing workers for jobs, a business and farming school and get rid of a long tradition of humanities and natural sciences studied in a real way for themselves, Clark’s father fought it. He was vitriolically attacked and smeared and forced to retire. The father and mother both spent examined lives of integrity.
So Clark was strongly influenced by his parents at the same time as rebelling against the eastern world of his father. While highly intelligent, well read (the American male tradition of Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, and more modern poets like Robinson Jeffers), Clark was not bookish. He was interested and active in male team sports, particularly basketball. He also was very active in drama in college. Tellingly though, he did his dissertation on Robertson Jeffers a bleak pessimistic early 20th century American poet.
He was a man who immersed himself in American literature. He loathed commercialism and city-life it’s said. (He makes J.L. Carr look like a net-worker par excellence.) Clark would not send out resumes and applications and submit to interviews but relied on word-of-mouth, connections really to get him jobs where he’d teach and prove himself that way. There was also The Ox-Bow Incident once it was published and adapted by Wellman. But this is not the way to get promotion, for things work according to conventions, people want a team-mate and one swallow does not a summer make. He was only once offered a professorship an did not get it because he wore a black T-shirt under a jacket to the interview. He spent his life as a creative writing teacher — and that takes time. He had to teach 4 courses often and went to composition workshops for money. It got in the way.
He lived casually, loved talking, saloons, into the mountains camping; natural landscape basic, primordial; man messing up life on earth
Perhaps he was partly badly served by editors. They wanted his work to be more apolitical; at least I surmise that because after The Ox-Bow Incident, he presents an anti-materialism and anti-hierarchy point of view but nothing more than that. The Ox-Bow Incident formed a story because it is political. Clark was writing pro-environmental fables before the environmental movement. Most of his stories are about men and animals. Clark thought we could become better caretakers and inhabitants of the earth if we expressed and acted out compassion towards each other and the natural world: caring for others is what matters. It was politics though from a quite different angle than say George Orwell. Or some primal natural force set nature into motion; man has to have understanding of how basic nature is, how primordial — and dangerous as well as fecund and beautiful.
So the result are stories with little plot really. They resemble Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. A man and his burro, a man and his phonograph, a man and a cougar cat. This not the genre of the lone hero cowboy, which is what would sell.
If one reads what he says about his not writing he claims a writer’s block and that he hasn’t the time. But where did the block come from? That he didn’t have the time is easy to understand. For years he was a composition teachers, sometimes, teaching 4 sections, sometimes teaching 5 days a week. He also had to make money by traveling to conferences and teaching writing there. He says that too much academic-style “talk” (literary analysis) affected him adversely; it made him too self-conscious.
Later in life when he did achieve positions in Montana and Stanford, Clark gave over his original writing and began a mass editing project: Doten a newspaper reporter, editor, miner; the man and his way of life fascinated Clark who had this scholar in him.
Clark is not alone for having written one book and then be stymied by reactions to him and his book. Ralph Ellison the black man who wrote The Invisible Man and Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone with the Wind. The one categorized as a black writer and yet writing in European tradition as to style; Mitchell was derided as a writer of women’s historical romance and it is a racist book. Did not turn to alcohol which faced with American difference to culture a lot of American writers have
The Ox-Bow Incident is rarely assigned as a book in college classrooms, and except for New York Review of Book edition, it’d have fallen out of print. The movie is ironically famous as a success d’estime which was a financial flop — a kind of warning lesson to those who want to make money.
Apart from the hard-truthfulness and exposure of a stunning chapter in American history, the reason the book doesn’t get done in schools is its a cowboy story. As with feminine romance and historical romance, male cowboy stories are not much respected. They are low popular forms. Formulaic, like gothic.
Obviously this is not cheap degraded stuff, debased or exploitative — nor is Haunting of Hill House nor Ross Poldark (my class’s other two examples of popular genres). All three authors use the genre matter to bring out its central strength and potentially serious content.
The novel’s story and themes
The literal events of the story are retold concisely in a wikepedia article. In a nutshell the central events provide an examination of the interaction of law and custom to show how men behave in social situations where a macho image dominates without qualification.
Again and again in the book the words that are used as damning are “woman” like, female man, yellow (for cowardice). Anything effeminate which seems to mean tender love and protection is out. Competition, aggression, and a will to dominate, your ability to foresee what you will be suspected of (which Martin didn’t), sheer malice and stupidity (Monty Smith) win out over reason, any notion of evidence as a basis for a just decision. It’s exciting to go out in a group and kill someone. Their blood-lust is up and they have the excuse of a barely listened to story of the death of a friend. There has also been rustling of cattle.
But we are told the men themselves have rustled cattle; they don’t care for Kincaid much; what makes them form a group and go out to kill as a group? They are almost sidelined at the end of Chapter 2 but that Tetley shows up, says the “right” formula of words and off they go again.
So one of the questions the book asks is, Why does one man gain power over others? And often the most vicious when social elements like rank, money, and future calculations on these vanish or become irrelevant?
According to Max Westbrook (a man who wrote a book which has a mystifying perspective on Clark’s work — it’s about balance, wholeness) and did one of the entries in our college Literature Resource Center, Clark feels this is not because ruthless amorality will win out by virtue (joke alert) of dense determination but because such people have not separated themselves from their primordial energies.
Tetley has not separated himself from the archetypes of the unconscious. He enacts them instinctively, like an animal. This helps explain the appeal of (and then helpless imprisonment) of female sexual cynosures (e.g., Marilyn Monroe). Rose Mapen, the woman Gil Carter was so attracted to, enacts female archetypes of sexuality and coquetry. We have a picture of a cowering man in front of an alluring big woman on the front wall of the bar. (If you think about the candidate for election, you’ll see how people will vote for these awful stereotypes in men. Monty Smith reminds me of Newt Gingrich; Santorum a refugee from a gothic novel.)
The individual with intelligent feeling is someone with an intuitive sense of how the primordial feelings of others, particularly in social situations, can be affected or manipulated. Ma or Mrs Griers is one such person, so too Gil Carter. They know how to appeal and make friends instinctively.
Arthur Davis and Judge Tyler lack it. Osgood, the white preacher, lacks it. To have such qualities doesn’t mean you’ll act for the good. If the black man, Sparks has this intuitive sense, he dare not use it. He must kowtow at all times or he’s a goner — alas it makes me recall Thrayvon Martin who did not kowtow probably.
Donald Martin (the same last name as the young black man), is the victim partly because he is naive, has acted without taking into account how his actions will be seen by the unconscious of others. He did not keep his papers in order. He did not think how as a stranger in a society where suspicion and distrust is the order of the day (no melting pot here), he would disbelieved. This action can of course take the form of retreat and silence, but only someone
with rare luck never has to aggress. Most of the time at some point we must.
The group defines itself by its scapegoat: that is who we are not, and nasty skunks like Monty Smith egg others on, frighten the silent afraid of the group. The jeering type who swaggers is what Monte Smith is. No one wants to singled out by Smith. They fear derision and bullying. Newt Gringrich insulting the young black moderator on TV some time ago. Sometimes such people can rise high in politics, but they usually need money and smart people behind them, plus ability to pressure the media through surrogates.
When first published people persisted in seeing this novel as sheerly about Nazism; insofar as the way Hitler rose to power and the group dynamics that supported him are concerned it can be applied, but it can be applied to many situations — which we see here today. The injustice of “lynch-law” is the immediate reference but the subject is used to bring out how cheap male virtues — not deep, not protective — can be manipulated through the rage, anger, fear, desire to hurt by other people. Tetley is a half-crazed officer, the gallant confederate, but his behavior is within the compass of what’s allowed.
Fadiman in his introduction of New York Review of Books edition puts it well (p. 21): “We live mainly by forms, if forms are bad, we live badly.”
Art Croft who is our narrator, Arthur Davies who is the man who presents argument for what justice is. See pp. 44-49 for the central debate on justice, conscience, law.
Judge and jury system do often make mistakes. But it’s better than feud and lynch law — and now I’ll add vigilantism. We agree to go through forms but forms can be subverted.
Gerald Tetley whose analysis of what happened we are to accept (pp. 100-104). At close of book Davis berates himself (pp. 200-217). He feels he is the guilty one. Obviously not, but he sees that sometimes you have to be brutal: he should have brought his gun and murdered Tetley if necessary. He couldn’t get himself to do that. Catch-22 situation: if he did that he’d be a murderer himself — that’s why we want courts. Do not want to be Grangerfords and Shepherdsons in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: story of endless feud, one side murders someone on the other and so there is a retaliation.
Sparks (Leigh Whipper)
Two themes are linked up to what is good in society and what we need to hold to: examined conscience (pp. 117-20). Here we have the remarkable character of Sparks. He is a black man and stands for belief in God and clinging to Christian or religious faith and really following “rules” or customs — at their best, not fanatic. He tells the story of his brother’s lynching. Brave and unusual for the time.
A morality play: real incident would be much more violent, cruel, and quickly over
A sort of morality play emerges where the characters who are believable nonetheless can be marshaled to stand for views.
The evidence against Donald Martin, the Mexican and old man is actually suspicious. No bill of sale; cattle; the gun. Nonetheless, obviously no one should have hung them — they had no evidence whatsoever that there had been a crime. The waited until dawn because Tetley liked to watch people suffer.
Voices which favor lynching: Major Tetley, the steely minded sadist who murders these three men for the pleasure of it as well as to try to inflict his ideas of masculinity on his son, to force his son to be macho male, emerges as charismatic leader; Monte Smith, town drunk, a sensualist (disgusting sex with Mrs Griers (Jane Darwell) suggested — in front of others), goes along for thrill; the man-woman older Mrs Grier, she proves herself a man; Mapes, brutal deputy who makes mockery of office; Gabe Hart, simple-minded; Winder resentful stage driver economics driving out of a job; Farnley, angry mad dog type.
Again lynching is ineffectual opposition: Davies, storekeeper (Harry Davenport really looks like the character in the book — a kind of Barack Obama); Sparks, African-American handyman preacher whose brother was lynched, a gaunt presence (hasn’t got money for a blanket; will not take a gun lest it boomerang on him); Gerald Tetley the son whose sensitive nature is revolted by what he is forced to participate. In the film Art and Gil also stand against the lynching
In novel Art Croft and Gil do not move into center to stand against lynching. They are themselves frightened they’ll be blamed (as strangers or non-natives they are under suspicion); Gil Carter actually does not understand Davis argument and only when he sees the lynching begin does his imagination begin to work and then he’s appalled & sickened. In the movie the characters of Gil and Art are combined in Henry Fonda with Art (Harry Morgan given little to do). Stars include Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, and Tetleys (Frank Conroy the father, William Eythe the son).
Judge Tyler hypocritical fatuous politician who doesn’t take responsibility (Mitt Romney is before us). Risley , the sheriff offstage. In the book he lets them go; can he hang the whole town (p 191): he passed them in a snowstorm and didn’t see anything.
The moving character is Donald Martin, high nobility within him, good man, but himself a dupe, and alas not capable of manipulation; Alva Hardwick, feeble old man who salivates and lies, and the Mexican man who enacts macho male ideal until last moment when he is strung up.
Novel suggests women present themselves as sex objects as that’s the way to have power: through a man (P. 102. Wellman and Clark may think think so but would say this is a delusion. Mr Swanson is a dominating sort and seems to assert himself over Rose. His caste and education allow him to beat back Gil — Gil’s only defense is the physical.
Signs of hope: people aren’t ogres; they have potential to have better sides come out. Landscape it opens and closes with. Early scene in gambling is parable of how such things can end in comedy. Guilt of nervous coach-driver who almost kills Art Croft (p 127): “you oughtn’t to have come barging out like that”
Astonishing that people should try to make a popular movie out of such material. But they did. Financial flop
Three act play
Act One, Chapters 1-2, pp. 1-94. Gambling incident; formation of posse. They almost don’t leave. Alas Tetley comes along. They set out. Speech on law and justice from Davis.
Act Two, Chapters 3-4, pp. 95-189. The long trek, a perverse quest for something to kill, something to wreak animal fervor on. They meet up with Rose and her husband. Alas, they find Martin, the Mexican man and aging man. Interactions of victims with posse. Climax in hanging. Speech on power and cruelty, on conscience from Gerald and about Sparks.
Act Three, Chapter 5, pp. 191-end. Almost immediately encounter sheriff and discover Kinkaid is alive. Denouement. Suicide of Gerald and then suicide of the father. Drunkenness of Gil. Remorse of Davis. In original screenplay the movie was to end in another inane vacuous
brawl between Gil and Swanson — really dark. Instead they have Gil appearing to take the letter and head off into the sunset with Art to replace Martin as family loving support. Book ends neither in black humor nor uplift. The two men simply move on.
Like Robert Wise, we have in Wellman’s film an important movie accorded serious respect today (another is Lost Horizon with Ronald Colman). The screenplay has been published more than once and way back in the 1950s one of the earliest film studies book comparing books and film took this film and book as one of its pairs.
The conventional Western:
Broad hero story; forces of civilizationa and savagery struggle, expressed in oppostions of east v west, garden v desert, US v Europe, order v arnachy, cowboy v Indian, schoolteacher v dancing girl; the lone cowboy repeatedly restores order and then leaves, an uncivilized outlaw hero and his prostitute-saloon girl woman unite and go off to vision; he is outside of and protects community; usually not assimilated (must not be emasculated) when he is he settles down with say a farmer’s daughter. Of course real west nothing like this An optimistic myth. Has evolved from more simple to psychological complexity and odd stereotypes like McCabe and Mrs Miller (Warren Beatty). Poldark conforms to latter paradigm: he settles down and enables the community to try to thrive; often fails but tries again.
There are places where The Ox-Bow Incident conforms to this. For example, the brawls at the opening and close. The way Henry Fonda is presented as Gil Carter in love with a transgressive woman (Rose) and drawn to her sexually and she to him. Yet at the end we are asked to believe he is meaning to replace Donald Martin as protector and perhaps eventually husband.
Conventions broken: characters who appear before us with density of psychology and real past that matters – not simple at all: Tetley attempts to make sadism respectable by donning a military uniform; Mrs Grier makes a fetish of shedding feminine traits (not comic suffragette but a female lyncher), Anthony Quinn not lazy immigrant but wily intelligent man who loses; Leigh Whipper not shuffling black man has quiet dignity which ought to have put the whites to shame.
Questions asked are: what is justice? who is guilty of what happened? and what is real? (These questions and the rest of this section of my blog is indebted to George Bluestone’s analysis in Novel into Film.)
You have diversified characters carefully played against one another, a cumulative effect (p. 172); all the men are guilty who actively do it, but the sadist and damned man is Tetley; the ineffectual opposition. Gil and Art are outsiders and they must worry lest they be blamed as rustlers. The victims united in death, very diverse responses throughout
Past constantly felt as narrator tells of the characters; lynching is latest in what these people are capable of
We have a close unity of structure, themes and characters. Weather too: begins in daylight and serene, moves to night and storm, darkness and snow and return to restored gray light weather
Gil and Art ride in light of late afternoon, a dog seen near them; when they leave a dog following; agitation suggested by dog.
Pictorial devices: an accumulation of close-ups, silence used as carefully as speech as characters size one another up: camera moves from mobile deeply emotional face of Andrews to cold hard Tetley; faces show anxiety, curiosity, cruelty, hatred, doubt.
There are also film noir elements: the darkness, use of black and white, the contrasts, the sense that something is deeply awry.
Changes between movie and book
Henry Fonda is both Gil and Art, and must necessarily have inferential thoughts and does not know any more than others: we are to identify with him. Continual conversion of thoughts into dialogue and this is not scanted. They do produce it.
Most are trivial additions and much is kept from poker scene to last until we get to conclusion:
In fact in the book we never know the contents of Martin’s letter, only that it’s superbly moving, eloquent, and is read aloud. (In Month in Country we are not told Birkin’s lecture. I copied it out; not as probable as Birkin’s (comes from Davies’s earlier speech) but accepted as a convention (seen at end of Talk of the Town)
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 have ever 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 got 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?
Davies rightly aghast at end of book, if law doesn’t always work it’s better to let it go rather than sin against society, but this is dropped, partly because sheriff implies he will take some people in. Some of the bitter judgements are dropped.
In the film our attention drawn to anti-macho male struggle of Tetleys: father and son. In the book the Major runs himself through his sword; Gerald hangs himself and Gerald’s speech (see above) is about the violence and cruelty of human nature (said to Art Croft, the narrator). In the film, the father locks son out and shots himself; we see an exalted look on Son’s face. In book it’s Davies whowishes he had brought a gun and shot Tetley to stop him hanging these men; in the film Gerald cites the remorseful words of Davies, and Gerald says he is a coward for not killing his father to stop him.
The original screenplay had another brawl at the end: showing them not learning anything much as far as their behavior goes. In original screenplay, Rose and new husband turn up in saloon, instantly trouble is in the air, Swanson makes some remark and Gil swings for him, and again he is stymied, again smiles, this time at the picture. The wheel come full circle.
Instead this final statement of the letter, they all look sombre, a collection taken, and wife taken care of: it does seem she’s going to get Henry Fonda instead of Dana Andrews and maybe he’ll be wiser. Unfortunate I feel but romance not strong here, rather caring, responsibility shown at the end.
Larger view from Clark’s other stories and one novel, Track of the Cat
Nature savage and predatory; we are caught up in a struggle to survive; animals often personified, Hook is told from a Hawk’s point of view. Animals given respect. (I am again much indebted to Bluestone.)
Moral scheme only possible when people are controlled; only then humane behavior can emerge; cruel sadistic killing a sin. The merciless killer or sadist (the torturer) is outside realm of what we should tolerate; these creatures (animals, people) have to be reigned in. They do self-destruct (as Curt Bridges in Track of the Cat).
When Farnley talks about murdering the Mexican so impersonally, he is damnable; people exhibit gratuitous cruelty.
Without a compulsory system there can be no civilization; left to their own devices people cannot be trusted; it will be continual low level war
Caution is genuine response that helps and can be done by some.
A letter Clark wrote to Bluestone (who wrote a comparison of the book and film) in 1956: Clark said man has come to dominate the earth far too much; unhealthy; moral law cannot be set up without taking people’s natures into account
What influence has this movie had: the use of film noir techniques, environmentalism in his Track of the Cat; otherwise, not much: the films with men who are hard professionals are a mirror of our era: The Wild Bunch is another showdown like the shootout at OK corral in My Darling Clementine.