A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1943 – The Ox-Bow Incident

“My marriage, or as it was known, ‘The Oxbow Incident’.”

The fact that Woody Allen was doing standup about this movie and people immediately knew what he was talking about over 20 years later is, in my mind, all the validation I need for this one.

And I’m sure there’s some other shit too.

1943 is made slightly more difficult because the film that won Best Picture is a film that came out the year before (and one we talked about already. Yesterday). Outside of that, you’re left with a pretty uninspiring group of films. There are a lot of good ones there, but nothing stands out as, “Wow, that’s the one.” A lot of them are films that deal with the war in some way. Or they’re big classy films like For Whom the Bell Tolls. There’s not too much that stands out as being “the choice” for the year.

Except this one, really. This one stands out for a lot of reasons.

The western, as we all know, is the quintessential American genre. And this list has been pretty light on westerns. But basically, the western genre had a whole long history as complicated as the history of film itself. And the interesting thing about this western is that it really doesn’t fit with what westerns were doing at this particular time in history. Some people consider this a revisionist western. It’s not. It’s more of a message western. Revisionist westerns were more the 50s, when we went, “Hey… those natives probably weren’t the villains of history.” This one is more a western with a conscience. This era for westerns was still the fun, “let’s go settle the west” era. Though granted, the genre did sort of take a backseat to war films at this time, for obvious reasons.

Coincidentally, this was also the last film Henry Fonda would make for the next three years (his first back being My Darling Clementine, to me, one of Ford’s five best he ever made), mostly owing to his extremely leftist attitudes and Hollywood brownlisting him during the war years. This film is a pretty good example of why they did that.

The important thing about this film, historically, is how it shows exactly what “frontier justice” can lead to. It’s a cautionary tale about lynching someone rather than using actual legal process. It’s an examination of the American “gung ho” attitude, and does a great job of examining that within a very recognizable genre using very recognizable tropes. All your characters are there: the cowboys, the preacher, the Confederate general — that Hateful Eight movie Tarantino’s coming out with next year… he’s using all the same tropes as this one.

What’s great about the film is how many viewpoints actually get shown. And how you see exactly how logic and reason can be thrown out the window in certain situations when a mob mentality takes over. It’s one of those movies that’s become iconic, even if it was disliked when it came out, and stands the test of time because of its message.

I thought it was important for us to get a western in there, and also because this truly does stand out as a film that represents a lot of what’s going on in film at the time. Granted, the war hides some of it, but there’s a bubbling undercurrent of questioning going on during this time. Hollywood was all fun and dancing and comedy and escapism, but there were some serious doubts going on, socially, which would really take hold after the war, when people really became jaded and noir started emerging as a genre. But that’s for another day.

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