The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

the_ox-bow_incident_posterThe western isn’t often thought of as a genre that delivers a lot of message films. There are exceptions of course, like The Searchers (in a way) or Dances With Wolves (good but heavy-handed). One of the best was released in 1943, The Ox-Bow Incident.

It’s 1885 in Nevada as small-time cattle ranchers Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into a quiet, small town in the hills looking to get a drink and a good meal. Rustlers have been working in the area, putting the ranchers and townspeople on high alert, especially when news reaches town that a popular rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen. An angry, murderous posse forms, led by a former Confederate officer, Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), that heads out on the trail, following reports of three men herding cattle into the mountains. Are they the rustlers? If they catch up, will they be brought to justice or promptly lynched?

Based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel of the same name, ‘Ox-Bow’ is a western ahead of its time. A box office flop, there’s no action, no romance (except for one odd exception), and a story that is bleak and depressing to say the least. What’s not to love?!? From director William Wellman, it’s a gem, an honest look at the wild west. There’s no romance, no perception of the glory or honor of America’s history in the west in the late 1800s. Just an indictment of mob mentality who thinks they know what is right and wrong.

Wellman filmed ‘Ox-Bow’ on basically two sets, one a western town in the Hollywood backlots and the other an indoor set standing in for the spot where the posse catches up to the believed rustlers. It’s equal parts uncomfortable, quiet and claustrophobic, all wrapped up in a 75-minute movie. There’s one odd scene where Fonda’s Carter meets a former love on the trail, but other than that, it’s a tight, well-executed final product.

Throughout his career, Fonda had a knack for playing the Everyman, the average Joe thrust into not so average situations. He can underplay a part (in a good way) and then come to life in a flash. That’s his Gil Carter, a cowboy and rancher who wants to know the truth before acting, to think things through as much as possible. Morgan is solid as his sidekick, equally quiet and worried they might be thought of as rustlers if they start acting funny.

The rest of the cast is broken down into 2 groups, the posse and the believed rustlers. The trio of potential rustlers includes Dana Andrews in a scene-stealing part, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford (John Ford’s older brother). Three very different parts, but the best kind of variety as the trio tries to convince the posse that they’re innocent. Andrews delivers a memorable turn especially, desperately trying to convince the posse they’ve got the wrong guys. The posse is frightening, a group of men who get angrier and angrier, their fury and rage blinding their decision-making. Along with Conroy, look for Jane Darwell, Harry Davenport (a voice of reason), Marc Lawrence, Paul Hurst, William Eythe (Tetley’s son) and Dick Rich.

When I think of dark movies like this, I describe them having a “sense of doom.” You just know watching ‘Ox-Bow’ that things aren’t going to end well. You just don’t know how it’ll go down. No spoilers here, so go in fresh without any knowledge of where the story goes. It’s a movie and a story that will no doubt stick with you long after viewing. A western classic for a reason.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): *** ½ /****

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Island in the Sky (1953)

island_in_the_sky_281953_film29_posterSince I moved over to WordPress from Blogger this past fall, I’ve struggled with what to review. Life gets in the way and what not, huh? Should I stick with solely westerns? Guy’s guys movies in general? I’d been sticking with westerns of late, but when watching 1953’s Island in the Sky, I had to expand the parameters a little bit. A John Wayne movie many fans have never heard of, much less seen, it’s a hidden gem, a true classic.

It’s early in World War II and many civilian pilots have been enlisted in the armed forces to help transport supplies to Europe. One of the routes is over Canada to Greenland and eastward into England and beyond. Among those pilots is Dooley (Wayne), a longtime flier, and his four-man crew. In horrific weather, Dooley’s plane goes off-course and the pilot is forced to land in the wilderness of Labrador, mostly uncharted land that’s never been explored. With food in short supply and temperatures at -70 degrees, the five men must band together to survive. All over the region though, civilian pilots report in to aid in the search. In the uncharted wilderness though, the search proves to be almost impossible across 10,000 square miles. Can the rescue effort find them? Can Dooley and his crew hold out?

Originally released in 1953, ‘Island’ went unseen for over 20 years as it languished under copyright and legal issues. It was finally settled on released on DVD in the early 2000s with another Wayne aviation movie, The High and the Mighty (also recommended). Some 15 years before disaster movies were in style, both films set the bar high and are obvious influences on countless flicks to come (both serious and spoof). ‘Island’ is as straightforward as they come with a downed crew and the rescue effort in the air. No frills, no tricks, just a survival movie at its absolute best. A must-see film.

Director William Wellman had a pilot’s background himself, flying in a fighter in WWI. He’d done several aviation movies already — including 1927’s Wings — and just has a knack for it. ‘Island’ is filmed in a stark, haunting black and white that adds a layer to the film. With color filming, it would lose some of its minimalist edge. The aerial sequences are quite impressive as WWII-era planes fly through weather, in and around mountain ranges, and all in sub-zero, frigid temperatures. Much of the movie is spent in tough, cramped quarters on the search planes, and we’re there with the pilots the whole way. A solid musical score from Emil Newman and an uncredited Hugo Friedhofer underplays all the action.

Rarely mentioned as one of Wayne’s best, this definitely belongs in the conversation with The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Shootist. His part as veteran pilot Dooley is his most human part. He’s not a superhero, a cowboy, a war hero. He’s just a good pilot trying his damnedest to get his crew home safe. The voiceover narration Wayne delivers adds an excellent element to the character as we see his doubts creeping into his head while trying to hold the situation together. There’s a good twist in the final scene too concerning his character. Nothing crazy, but it adds a nice touch. As for the crew, look for Sean McClory as Lovatt, the co-pilot, Wally Cassell as D’annunzia, the radioman, Hal Baylor as Stankowski, the engineer and Jimmy Lydon as Murray, the navigator.

The survival and rescue effort is delivered in almost documentary-like fashion. In brief snippets, we get little windows into the lives of the crew as they look back on what they’ve left behind. It’s never heavy-handed or too distracting, but is instead highly effective in letting us feel like we know the crew well. It goes a long way in simple fashion of getting us invested in their survival. A solid ensemble.

And then there’s the rescue efforts, featuring plenty of recognizable stars, character actors and future stars. ‘Island’ features an excellent ensemble all-around, starting with the rescue pilots, including Lloyd Nolan, James Arness, Andy Devine, Paul Fix, Allyn Joslyn, Cass Gidley and Louis Jean Heydt. Walter Abel leads the effort from base as the Army officer in command, an effortlessly effective part as he spells out what’s going on. As for some of the crew members, look for Harry Carey Jr., Fess Parker, Bob Steele, and Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer.

I’ve seen this movie several times now, and I go along for the ride each and every time. The tension is beyond uncomfortable at times as the days pile up and supplies begin to dwindle, all the while the extreme, bitter cold wreaking havoc. SPOILER ALERT I absolutely love the ending too, one of the best, most emotional finales around. SPOILER ALERT. I can’t recommend this movie enough. Hidden away in a vault for years, ‘Island’ is must-see for fans of aviation, of John Wayne, of survival stories, and more simply, just of good stories. Definitely check this one out.

Island in the Sky (1953): ****/****