Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ox-bow Incident

In 1940, a young high school English teacher named Walter Van Tilburg Clark published his first novel, one of the first anti-Westerns. The Ox-Bow Incident is the story of two Nevada cowboys - Gil Carter and Art Croft (the first person narrator) - who get caught up in a lynch mob and its tragic results. The book became an immediate classic and film rights were bought within a year of its publication, then re-sold. In 1942 20th Century Fox produced a film also called The Ox-Bow Incident, starring Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan, Dana Andrews and a delightfully young Anthony Quinn.

When I was at high school in California, The Ox-Bow Incident was required reading. I remember I found it hard-going. I recently picked it up again, and still found it hard-going. Although I love Clark's vivid descriptions of the Nevada desert, by today's standards the plot is very slow-moving. For me the biggest flaw is the great number of characters, each described vividly the first time but never again. I had trouble keeping them all straight and found myself flipping back to see who was who.

For me, the film overcomes many of the book's drawbacks. The twenty-plus characters are easily identified when you see and hear them. The interiors and exteriors are dramatic. (Although some of the outdoor scenes were glaringly filmed on a set and not on location.)

In the book, the contents of a letter written by one of the hanged men is never revealed. In the film, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) reads the letter aloud to all the men in the lynch mob in the penultimate scene in the saloon. (below) In this moving scene, Carter's eyes are obscured by the hat brim of Art Croft (Harry Morgan). This is obviously a carefully framed composition. What does it signify? That justice is blind? That the characters were blind? That we can't always see the whole picture?

The final scene of the film is a perfect bookmark to the opening scene of the film.

Though dated, I found The Ox-Bow Incident deeply moving. It was a nominee for the Academy Award in 1943, but lost out to Casablanca.

Clark taught creative writing at the University of Missoula in Montana and San Francisco State before moving to Reno to become the writer-in-residence at the University of Nevada. A strikingly handsome man, even into his 60's, Clark often wore the same clothes: blue socks, grey slacks, a blue turtleneck and a maroon jacket. He died in Virginia City in 1971, aged 62.

Clark wrote several other novels, as well as some poetry - and he edited the extensive diaries of Alf Doten - but he never wrote anything as acclaimed as that first novel. I suggest you see the film The Ox-Bow Incident first, and then read the book.

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