Tag: Henry Fonda

The Longest Day (1962)

John Wayne leads the charge on The Longest Day

Director: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki

Cast: John Wayne (Lt Col Benjambin Vandervoot), Henry Fonda (General Theodore Roosevelt Jnr), Robert Mitchum (General Norman Cota), Richard Burton (FO David Campbell), Eddie Albert (Col Lloyd Thompson), Sean Connery (Pvt Flanagan), Curd Jurgens (General Gunther Blumentritt), Richard Todd (Maj John Howard), Peter Lawford (Brig Lord Lovat), Rod Steiger (Lt Com Joseph Witherow Jnr), Irina Demick (Jeanine Boitard), Gert Frobe (Pvt “Coffee Pot”), Edmond O’Brien (General Raymond Barton), Kenneth More (Capt Colin Maud), Robert Ryan (Gen James Gavin), Red Buttons (Pvt John Steele), Christian Marquand (Cpt Philippe Kieffer), Jean-Louis Barrault (Fr Louis Rolland), Arletty (Mdm Barrault), Paul Hartmann (Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt), Werner Hinz (Field Marshall Erwin Rommel), Wolfgang Priess (General Max Premsel), Peter van Eyck (Lt Col Karl Williams Ocker)

Darryl F Zanuck wanted to make the War Film to end all War Films. So, what better way than to restage D-Day itself, with a cast (as the poster brags) of 42 International Stars, playing out almost in real-time. It’s a grand ‘mock-documentary’ shot in black-and-white (so that actual war footage can be integrated into the film) and aims to show the perspectives of the four main combatants (the Americans, the British, the French and the Germans – with all their scenes played in their respective languages). Adapted from a definitive D-Day book by Cornelius Ryan, it makes for huge, now slightly old-fashioned, Sunday afternoon fun and one of the most iconic second world war films.

To make his dream come true, Zanuck left no stone unturned. Pretty much every single part is played by a ‘name’ actor (although, rather like Around the World in 80 Days, time has left some of them less recognisable than others) no matter how small the role. And I mean no matter how small. Many of the actors appear in no more than one or two scenes. Steiger chips in a brief speech as a Naval officer. Burton has two scenes as an RAF officer, one of the last of the “Few”. Fonda contributes a few minutes of heroism as Theodore Roosevelt Jnr. Robert Ryan briefs The Duke as General Gavin. Jean Servais makes a grand speech as a French Admiral. Gert Frobe doesn’t even speak as a (what else?) bullying German soldier. This parade of stars does though does mean you pay a lot more attention to every single part and it makes it a lot easier to keep track of who’s who.

It’s certainly a ‘producer’s’ film. Zanuck held complete creative control, splitting the directorial duties between three hired hands. Annakin directed all the British and French scenes (and most of the American ‘briefing room’ scenes). Martan, an experienced second unit director, was hired to shoot most of the battle sequences. Wicki looked after the German sequences. With the brief being to replicate the documentary style of actual footage, naturally this basically led to a film that doesn’t have the feel of being ‘authored’ (in the way, say, Saving Private Ryan does), but it’s functional shooting style and design does make it fairly easy to follow.

And it needs to be easy to follow, as this is a very long film indeed – and with the cast frequently changing from scene to scene, can become overwhelming. The quick changes of location – and the lack of time spent with any single character – often means it’s hard to connect to strongly to any of the individual characters. Most of the more prominent characters gain their personality solely from the actors playing them: so I don’t really know what the real Colonel Vandervoot is like, but I know his character here is basically ‘John Wayne’.

The more prominent roles in the script rely on these personality parts. Wayne probably has the largest individual role as the Paratrooper commander who breaks his ankle on landing, but doesn’t let that slow him down from hitting his objective. (Wayne also gets a great little speech, the sort of thing much missed in Ryan, where he praises Brit fortitude under the Blitz, which is a lovely moment of Allied brotherhood). Mitchum gets the juiciest action as General Cota, the highest-ranking soldier on Omaha Beach, who leads the first break out. At the other end of the ranking, Red Buttons brings charm and heartfelt emotion to the most memorable sequence as Pvt John Steele, the paratrooper who landed on top of the church spire at Sainte-Mère-Église, deafened by bells and forced to watch the rest of his platoon slaughtered on landing.

The scale is really what it’s all about. The recreation of the D-Day landings is stunning (the first boats, though, don’t hit the beaches until well over two hours into the film), and its genuinely hard to tell the difference between what is recreated and what is actual war footage. The film doesn’t shirk from showing the cost of war, or the slaughter on that beach (although of course, it looks reserved compared to Ryan). But the combat and operations elsewhere are also perfectly recreated. Richard Todd is very good as Major John Howard, in an expert reconstruction of the seizing of the Orne Bridges near Caen (in real life, Todd himself was one of the commandos serving under Howard and even has a scene where Todd as Howard talks to another actor as Todd).

These battle sequences make for compelling viewing. Slightly less so is the long build-up of the Allies to the attack. There are many, many scenes in various briefing rooms and for every delight (such as Jack Hedley’s briefing around “Rupert” a model paratrooper, dropped as a distraction) there are po-faced actors staring into the middle distance and discussing how important everything is. By far and away the most interesting content in the first half is less the Allies (waiting to leave) than the Germans (trying to work out how and where the Allies will arrive). These scenes feature a range of German officers, from the quietly resigned to die-hard, head-in-the-sand Fascists, and revolve around a series of fascinating debates on where, when or even if at all the Allied attack will come. With a cast of excellent German actors – Jurgens, Preiss, Hartmann, Hinz and Wolfgang Buttner are particularly fine – these scenes stand out as they present a perspective we don’t often get to explore. (Even though the film squarely accepts the German military view that the defeat was all Hitler’s fault and the army was completely blameless of any of the crimes of Nazism.)

After the slow-build, the explosion of tension and action is done really effectively. Sure, the film is long and episodic, but the ever-changing locations do frequently help with the pace. The film’s documentary style also lends it a great deal of authority that a more ‘fictional’ film would not have. After all, pretty much everyone in the film is ‘real’ and while the film could be seen as a collection of D-Day anecdotes, strange moments – such as a platoon of Germans and Americans passing each other on opposite sides of a low wall without noticing each other – have the ring of truth. The script was doctored by a host of major novelists and playwright (including Noel Coward) to brush it up, but really this is a producer’s triumph.

And it is a triumph for Zanuck. Everything he sought to do, he accomplished here – and the doubts that he could pull it off were moved as wrong, as those who doubted whether the Allied plan to cross the Channel would work. Hugely impressive in its staging, detailed in its recreation and with a cast of stars and top actors giving every scene a fresh bit of life, this makes for one of the all-time classic war films.

Midway (1976)

Charlton Heston fights in one of the great naval battles at Midway

Director: Jack Smight

Cast: Charlton Heston (Capt Matt Garth), Henry Fonda (Adm Chester W Nimitz), James Coburn (Capt Vinton Maddox), Glenn Ford (Rear Adm Raymond Spruance), Hal Holbrook (Comm Joseph Rochefort), Toshiro Mifune (Adm Isoroku Yamamoto), Robert Mitchum (Adm William Halsey), Cliff Robertson (Comm Carl Jessop), Robert Wagner (Lt Comm Ernest L Blake), Robert Webber (Rear Adm Jack Fletcher), James Shigeta (Vice Adm Chuichi Nagumo)

On 4th June 1942, the fate of the Pacific naval war was arguably settled. The Japanese plan to invade the American base on the island of Midway and, crucially, wipe-out the American aircraft carrier force, instead saw a near total US victory and all four Japanese aircraft carriers destroyed. The story is re-told here as a classic all-star Hollywood epic, with the first hour dedicated to the planning and the second hour to the events of 4th June.

After its – successful – run in the cinemas, Midway was re-edited into a two-part TV mini-series. To be honest, that feels more like its natural home. It’s competently directed by Jack Smight – but no more than that – and revolves around several scenes of star-actors pushing models around maps and less famous actors pretending to fly planes in front of blue-screen. The film makes a proud statement at the start of how it has chosen to use only actual archive combat footage to “honour those who fought” – but this actually, you suspect, was motivated more by the fact it’s much cheaper to purchase and clean up piles of stock footage than it is to shoot things afresh.

The main narrative covers the planning and the crucial day of the battle itself. A brief “human interest” story is introduced via Charlton Heston’s (fictional) Captain Matt Garth, an aide of Admiral Nimitz. Will Chuck improve his relationship with his fighter pilot son, who has fallen in love with a Japanese girl? Whadda you think? Saying that, this rather clumsy human-interest story (which features the only female character in the film) does make some interestingly critical points about the policy of internment against Japanese Americans – stressing both the injustice and explicit racism (American Germans and Italians faced no such fate) behind the policy.

In fact, Midway is very sympathetic in general to the Japanese – as Nimitz even says at the end, perhaps it was less a question of skill than luck that led to the final outcome. The Japanese navy is presented as an honourable and thoughtful opponent, respectful of human life and conducting the war via a code of honour (the kamikaze runs of cliché are completely absent). In particular Admiral Naguma (well played by James Shigeta, in possibly the film’s stand out performance) is a decent man caught-out continuously by horrendous luck and timing, who pays a heavy price. Midway is strong in stressing there is no leeway at sea – get caught out there and it’s the bottom of the briney for you.

The Japanese planning is even slightly tragic in its flawed assumptions – crucially they are totally unaware that their codes are broken and that, far from launching a surprise strike, they are actually sailing into something of a trap – while Toshiro Mifune brings a lot of nobility to Yamamoto even if all he really does is pensively stare at a series of maps.

On the American side, Fonda leads the way, giving Nimitz more than a touch of Fordian home-spun heroism. Heston’s presence does well to link together the various true-life characters and location. Most of the rest of the all-star cast are restricted to one or two scenes: Coburn rocks up to handover a report from Washington, Wagner briefly pushes models across a table in a planning room and (hilariously of all) Mitchum delivers both his tiny scenes from a hospital bed, coated in skin cream.

When the action gets going though, it’s done pretty well with the po-faced, stodgy seriousness these war-time later 70s epics nearly all seemed to have in common. The stock footage does actually look pretty good and the drama of the battle – and the tactics – are captured fairly well. It’s intermixed with some real ships and all scored with a great deal of punch by John Williams. It’s all really B-movie, TV-movie-of-the-week stuff but it’s also far from obviously flag-waving either, instead doing its best to be even-handed and even a little bit critical. You’ll learn what happened and also have a bit of fun into the bargain.

How the West Was Won (1963)

James Stewart helps us see How the West Was Won

Director: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall

Cast: Spencer Tracy (Narrator), Carroll Baker (Eve Prescott Rawlings), Walter Brennan (Colonel Jeb Hawkins), Lee J Cobb (Marshal Lou Ramsey), Henry Fonda (Jethro Stuart), Carolyn Jones (Julie Rawlings), Karl Malden (Zebulon Prescott), Raymond Massey (Abraham Lincoln), Agnes Moorehead (Rebecca Prescott), Harry Morgan (Ulysses S Grant), Gregory Peck (Cleve van Valen), George Peppard (Zeb Rawlings), Robert Preston (Roger Morgan), Debbie Reynolds (Lilith Prescott van Valen), Thelma Ritter (Agatha Clegg), James Stewart (Linus Rawlings), Rus Tamblyn (Confederate deserter), Eli Wallach (Charlie Grant), John Wayne (William Sherman), Richard Widmark (Mike King)

How the West Was Won was the Avengers: Endgame of its day: every star of the biggest box-office genre in America coming together for one epic adventure that would stretch over generations. Stewart! Fonda! Peck! Wayne! Together for the first time (only of course they are not, none of them appearing the in same scene). Even more than that, How the West Was Won would be filmed in Cinerama, a three-screen shooting method producing a panoramic image. All this would make How the West Was Won the biggest, grandest, largest film ever made. It was a massive box-office success, nominated for eight Oscars (including Best Picture) and wowed audiences.

Plot wise though, it’s basically a series of short films cobbled together into a single film. The stories are basically self-contained, although some actors cross over (especially George Peppard and Debbie Reynolds). The first episode The Rivers covers the migration west, down the river, of the Prescott family, taking on river pirates and allying with James Stewart (looking at least twenty years too old as a young drifter). The Plains sees Debbie Reynolds, daughter of the Prescott family, migrate further West and eventually marry gambler Gregory Peck. The Civil War sees Stewart’s son George Peppard caught up in the war. In The Railroad, Peppard reluctantly runs security for ruthless railway builder Richard Widmark. Finally, in The Outlaws an older Peppard attempts to retire, but not before one final shoot out with old enemy Eli Wallach during an attempted train heist.

All these short stories – each about 30-45 minutes in length – are entertaining. So entertaining that you won’t mind at the end that you have no idea how the west was actually won (I assume it’s something to do with progress and the law) or that the characters are basically actors riffing off their own personas rather than fully realised individuals. Despite the attempt to build the story around one  family (the Prescott-Rawlings), the stories are so disconnected and the characters so lightly sketched, with such huge time jumps, each story might as well be about completely new characters.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that. But it boils down to the key issue with How the West Was Won, a very flabbily constructed film that lacks any real sense of guiding narrative or vision behind it. It’s a series of set pieces, which are all about scale – the river rapids, the battles of the Civil War, the final train-set shoot out – in which some loosely defined characters live their lives. There are some decent performances – Debbie Reynolds does a very good job anchoring a couple of stories (plus we get to see her do some song-and-dance routines), while Peck (a smooth operator) and Fonda (a gruff woodsman) have the best parts among the stars. Others, like Wayne, pop up for but a few seconds.

They needed all these stars to fill the frame. How the West Was Won’s main problem is also its principle reason to exist. It was designed to showcase the wideness of Cinerama, one of only two films to use the technique. Designed to be projected into curved screens, the technique essentially used one massive camera to produce an image so large it needed three synchronised projectors to screen it. This led to an impossible wide frame to fill, with two clear joins in the middle. The challenge of shooting this was not an enjoyable one for the directors.

To cover the visible joins, nearly every scene in the film sees an object placed one-third and two-thirds of the way through the image (usually a tree or a post). The actors stand carefully on their marks in their assigned third of the image. Close ups involved flying the massive camera almost into the faces of the actors (and even then it only produced an image from the waist up). Awkward compositions abound – either with actors standing rock still in front of huge scenery, or actors standing in carefully assigned rows, standing on marks they never move from.

The sweeping shots of the American west look impressive, but in a National Geographic way – it’s simply fitting as much of the imagery of the countryside in as possible. It was a hugely difficult job for the directors. It was not helped by two of them being competent journeymen and all three of them having done their best work in 4:3. Quite frankly I don’t think any of them have a clue about how to fill a frame this mighty. Instead, the film for all its grandeur is frequently visually conservative and unimaginative to look at. It’s got huge landscapes, but no real inspiration.

How the West Was Won is an enjoyable curiosity. It is very rarely, if ever, seen as it was intended on a Cinerama screen (the version I watched on a large television, still showed the slight fish-eye effect at points of a curved image flattened). Telling five short stories, each of them entertaining enough, it keeps the interest. It has a lusciously beautiful (famous) score by Alfred Newman that captures the spirit of the West. But, for all its grandness, it’s a strangely small experience.

Fail Safe (1964)

Henry Fonda desperately tries to avert nuclear war in Fail Safe

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: Henry Fonda (The President), Dan O’Herlihy (Brigadier General Warren Black), Walter Matthau (Professor Groeteschele), Frank Overton (General Bogan), Fritz Weaver (Colonel Cascio), Edward Binns (Colonel Jack Grady), Larry Hagman (Buck), William Hansen (Defence Secretary Swenson)

In 1964 the classic film on nuclear conflict was released and became a landmark in Hollywood history. Also released was Fail Safe. Dr Strangelove has dragged Fail Safe through history like a sort of phantom limb. It’s reputation – if you’ve heard about it at all – is “Dr Strangelove but with no jokes”. That’s hugely harsh on a well-made, tense and fascinating film that sees nuclear war as less the blackly comedic theatre of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, the buzzword of the day), and more as a dark human tragedy where mistakes, suspicions and paranoia lead to disaster.

During a routine manoeuvre, a mechanical power surge at USAAF leads to a mistaken but correctly authenticated order being sent to a wing of bombers to drop their nukes on Moscow. Due to Russian jamming, USAAF has no idea this has happened until after the five minute recall window. After the five-minute window has passed, the pilots follow their training and ignore all subsequent orders no matter who gives them – even if it’s directly from the President (Henry Fonda) himself. Desperately the President works with the Soviet Union to stop the bombers (and prevent the inevitable full scale nuclear war they would provoke). Problem is national pride, mutual suspicion, subordinates who can’t stomach co-operation between enemies and those that an accidental first strike is the perfect way to start a nuclear war one side could win, keep getting in the way.

While Dr Strangelove saw the insanity of MAD – the willingness of the leaders of both sides to promote a type of war that could only lead to the destruction of all life on earth – as so darkly absurd it could only be a subject for jet-dark-satire, Fail Safe takes a more humane if equally chilling route. Shot mostly with a low-key documentary realism by Sidney Lumet, the action is restricted to no more than four main locations. Once the crisis starts we never go outside. We never even see the Russians, represented only by photos and their words given life by Presidential translator Larry Hagman. Bar from the odd piece of stock footage, we are in the bunkers with the characters. And we feel as powerless as they do, as events spin out of control.

The film could be seen as an attack on the replacement of humans from the system by machines. Sure, the strike is triggered by a faulty piece of equipment. But everything after that is the result of good old-fashioned human error. The US debate about shooting down the bombers that goes on for so long, the bombers get out of range. The Russian refusal to accept US help to shoot the bombers down, leading them to taking pot shots at radar ghosts. The attempted coups on both sides in the command room, as junior officers refuse to co-operate with the enemy. The mistrust between both sides that leads the Russians chasing a decoy attack run rather the real bombing plane, despite the pleading of the American General that it’s a decoy.

And above all, the crushing arrogant insanity of introducing a system like this in the first place. A system so regimented and drilled into its soldiers – removing any chance of independent logical thought – that the pilot of the bombers will even ignore his own wife pleading down the line that the first strike he believes he is retaliating against hasn’t even happened. A system where leading American advisors suggest that, because it’s so difficult to call back an attack like this, why not just launch everything else after it as well and claim victory. This system can destroy the world but has no leeway for human error and forbids any independent thought from anyone. Now that’s MAD.

It takes a while for the film to get going, laying its groundwork slowly. Much of the first half hour introduces the characters – such as the family life of anti-Nuclear but loyal soldier General Black (a very good Dan O’Herlihy) and the chilling pragmatism of war theorist Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) to whom nuclear war is just a matter of working out what the acceptable casualty rates are (he would agree with Stalin that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic). We tour the USAAF base where level-headed General Brogan (an excellent Frank Overton) and his twitchy number two Colonel Cascio (a slightly too fidgety Fritz Weaver) demonstrate just how fool-proof their systems are to a couple of congressmen – just as those systems fail.

From there the film plays out almost in real time, as the planes fly the two-hour journey to drop their bombs. Two hours when everyone tries to desperately tell themselves that this disaster can be prevented (or in some cases, can be turned into victory). Lumet’s film captures wonderfully the claustrophobic intensity of this. The Russians – despite never being seen – are skilfully humanised with snatches of conversation and photographs. The pilots are brave, resourceful, brilliantly trained – making their rigid determination to destroy the world for no reason (because their training doesn’t allow them to consider any other alternative) all the more tragic.

It all culminates in an impossibly bleak ending, the President’s only alternative to all-out nuclear war is one of terrifying magnitude. The inevitable build to this sacrifice is also executed with a low-key intensity. Fonda is perfect in the lead role – his tortured gravitas and decency pushing him towards ever more distasteful and finally appallingly bleak decisions.

Lumet’s film isn’t perfect – an overly impressionistic opening of General Black’s recurring dream of a matador smacks of someone who has watched way too many Bunuel films – and its slow start probably takes five minutes too long. But with its chillingly cold glaze on the flaws in the nuclear deterrent and the people who operate it, it deserves to be remembered as something more than Dr Strangelove Without the Jokes.

The Lady Eve (1941)

Henry Fonda is bamboozled by Barbara Stanwyck in the delightful The Lady Eve

Director: Preston Sturges

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Jean Harrington), Henry Fonda (Charles Poncefort Pike), Charles Coburn (“Colonel” Harrington), Eugene Pallette (Horace Pike), William Demarest (Muggsy), Eric Blore (Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith), Melville Cooper (Gerald), Janet Beecher (Janet Pike)

In the 1940s, Preston Sturges hit a rich vein of form that led to him making some of the finest comedies in Hollywood history. Perhaps the greatest of that run of hits was the hilariously heartfelt The Lady Eve, a comedy that is as much a rich, twisted romance as it is a fast-paced screwball comedy of long cons and deception. Played to the hilt by a perfectly selected cast, Sturges’ dialogue zings in every scene, making this timeless entertainment.

Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda) is the young heir to a brewery fortune (the most famous brand being “The Ale That Won for Yale”). Naïve and shy, Charles is a passionate ophiologist (that’s snake-expert to you and me) who is just returning from a year-long expedition in the Amazon. On the cruise ship taking him back home, Charles is the target of every single woman on the boat – and also for a pair of expert con artists, Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn). At first it’s his money they want, but Jean surprises herself by falling hard for Charles on the voyage – only to be stung when Charles coldly rejects her after learning the truth about her. So Jean decides on revenge, disguising herself as ex-pat aristocrat “Lady Eve” and proceeding to win over Charles’ upper-class New York family, and seduce Charles all over again.

Not a single opportunity for comedy is missed in Sturges fast-paced, beautifully done film. As well as some truly wonderful word-play and verbal comedy, the film is crammed with vintage sight gags (Charles’ struggles with an overly affectionate horse is a hilarious highlight) and keeps up a series of perfectly judged running gags (one of the best of which falls to William Demarest’s befuddled bruiser-turned-valet Muggsy). But the comedy works because it’s invested in characters who feel real – despite all the absurdity – and demonstrate real emotions alongside all the comic invention. It has a story that you care deeply about it, all while you are laughing your head off.

Because deep down this is a romance between two very unlikely people. Barbara Stanwyck radiates wit, intelligence and incredible sex appeal as Jean, a role that seems all surface but actually contains a huge amount of depth and shade. She may well be a sort of con-woman with a heart, but the creeping onset of love surprises (and almost confuses) her as much as it might throw off an audience. Not that that ever stops her from being (usually) two steps ahead of everyone around her, a nature that suits perfectly for her revenge act in the second half, where she aims to teach Charles a little humility. Stanwyck’s comic timing is perfect, but it’s the human heart she gives the character that works, and makes us warm to her.

It also makes a superb contrast with Henry Fonda as Charles. Riffing on his screen-image for upright purity (he’s Honest Abe for goodness sake!), Fonda creates a man who is sweet, honest, naïve – but also has an inverted sense of snobbery that comes from being convinced you are usually right. For all his innocence, Charles is surprisingly abrupt when he dismisses his romance from Jean, and his slightly priggish self-satisfaction is evident when he proudly presents his (feeble) card tricks to the card sharps he finds himself on board with. Fonda also proves himself a surprisingly deft physical comedian, a key running gag being Charles’ continual prat falls (a neat metaphor for him both figuratively and literally falling in love with Jean).

Together these two power a lightening-fast series of comic masterpiece scenes from Sturges. But the director is also confident enough to throw in other beats: a stationary single shot of Jean cradling Charles for several minutes (after a semi-pretend shock at discovering his pet snake) sizzles with sexuality. Later Stanwyck delivers Jean’s joy at finding love a heartfelt wonder, which she neatly inverts to heartbreak on her rejection. Her father, played with a delightful wryness by Charles Coburn, has no problem with fleecing people (although of course “Let us be crooked, but never common”) and delights in his ingenuity (cheating) with the cards, but he also has the humanity to warn his daughter about the sometimes unforgiving purity of decent folk.

And those decent folk are quite snobby. The second half of the film gets a gleeful energy from throwing the knowing Jean in amongst a group of upper-class rich snobs, who will believe anything that comes out of someone’s mouth with a British accent. It’s certainly been working for years for “Sir Alfred”, a conman sponger played with twinkling glee by Eric Blore. Jean’s almost deliberately ludicrous story (arrival on a submarine and a hilariously convoluted backstory) gets lapped up – and of course seduces Charles all over again. No wonder he keeps falling over.

The final act – with a deliciously funny final line that deserves to be more famous than it is – makes for a superb cap to what is a marvellously sparkling comedy. It also manages to avoid sentimentality or mawkishness – not a sudden surprise, considering it’s stuffed with people pretending to be what they are not. Sturges’ direction is sharp – even if visually he isn’t the most imaginative director in the world – but the main thing that gives this such zip is the dialogue and the acting. Stanwyck is simply sensational, Fonda just about perfect, and the whole thing is a delight. Surely one of the greatest classic Hollywood comedies of all time.

Fort Apache (1948)

Henry Fonda and John Wayne face off in John Ford’s Fort Apache

Director: John Ford

Cast: John Wayne (Captain Kirby York), Henry Fonda (Lt Colonel Owen Thursday), Ward Bond (Sgt Major Michael O’Rourke), Shirley Temple (Miss Philadelphia Thursday), John Agar (Lt Michael O’Rourke), Dick Foran (Sgt Quincannon), Pedro Armendariz (Sgt Beaufort), Miguel Inclan (Cochise), Victor McLaglen (Sgt Festus Mulcahy), Guy Kibbee (Captain Wilkens), George O’Brien (Captain Sam Collingwood), Anna Lee (Emily Collingwood)

Fort Apache was the first of Ford’s “cavalry trilogy”, exploring problems and personality clashes of remote cavalry posts in the middle of what used to Native American territory. Contrary to what you might expect, this is a complex, intriguing film that brilliantly explores tensions between very different ways of thinking and issues of class in America, which are so often overlooked. If it sells some of the tensions of clashing ideals down the river with an ending that fully endorses the myth over the reality, the fact the film makes clear that the idea of a well-meaning army all pulling together is a myth says a lot.

John Wayne is Captain Kirby York experienced, more liberal minded acting commander of Fort Apache. Aware of the difficult balance of maintaining good relations with the Apache tribe while protecting American expansionist interests, he’s perfectly suited for keeping the peace in the West. Unfortunately he’s replaced by Lt Col Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), an arrogant, class-conscious – if polite and honourable man – who applies the letter of the law to all his dealings, so obsessed with rules (he protests “I’m not a martinet” while bemoaning the lack of proper uniform in the dust filled heat of the West) that he sees no reason to moderate even the most corrupt of the local officials who have driven the Apache to revolt, instead demanding the Apache submit. Disaster is on the cards.

Ford’s film revolves around the personality clash between York and Thursday. While both dutifully respect the chain of command, it’s clear that York has a closer bond and understanding with both the men under them and the complex considerations to balance when dealing with the Apache. Thursday, on the other hand, is an arrogant, prickly character, bemoaning his “demotion” from a field rank of General in the Civil War, to an “obscure” fort. A posting he is determined to escape from with an honour laden victory as soon as possible. 

With Ford’s romantic regard for the ordinary soldier and regular Joe, the sort of posh New-Englandish Thursday is a clear stand-out. A stiff-backed martinet, he never listens to others (he constantly needs to be reminded about names) and has a snobbish disregard for Lt O’Rourke (a callow John Agar) whose father, far from being officer class, is an Irish Sgt Major at Fort Apache. Thursday is notably uncomfortable at such Fordesque events as a NCO ball, or when talking with the men – he even looks unsettled in the desert, wearing full uniform and avoiding a hat in favour of an army cap with a dust-sheet attached at the back (no Ford hero would be seen dead wearing such a thing). 

The character works so effectively because he is played so delicately and skilfully by Henry Fonda. Cast against type – and looking older – Fonda plays Thursday as a frustrated man, terrified of failure who simply lacks the flexibility to adjust to situations. Rules instead are there to be followed in detail, regardless of his personal feeling. Corrupt government agent Meacham he treats with contempt, but he will defend his incompetent regime in Apache land to the death. With the Apache he can’t see past his own inbred ideas of superiority, treating them with a paternal disappointment, certain that they are no match for American cavalry might (spoiler, they certainly are). Fonda however keeps Thursday human, a flawed, rigid man dropped into a role he is ill-suited to and struggling to adjust.

John Wayne offers an equally careful performance as York. Unlike Thursday, York adjusts his actions and decisions based on situations and personalities, rather than enforcement of rules. Army regulations can be respected but applied with sense. Meacham to him should be hounded out of town as the root cause of all the problems. Cochise, the Apache chief, he treats with respect and honour – abiding by deals and attempting to compromise with him to find a peaceful solution (a negotiation Thursday of course torpedoes with his arrogance and intransigence). Wayne is often thought of as the action hero, but here Ford starts to explore his elder statesman quality, as well as his underlying decency and honour as an actor.

Other sub plots interweave neatly around this. John Agar’s young O’Rourke flirts with Thursday’s more liberal daughter (played brightly by Shirley Temple) – needless to say this relationship meets with no approval from Thursday. Thursday’s old colleague Sam Collingwood – now a time-serving captain at the Fort – is paralleled with him and York, as a time-server and mediocrity, a decent family man but lacking the will to do what he knows is right. Ward Bond provides both comedy and also a warm fatherly quality as Sgt Major O’Rourke, proud of his son and re-enforcing discipline on his (mostly Irish of course!) soldiers. 

And of course the action is handled extremely well. A chase sequence with Apache, cavalry and a wagon (under-manned and out-gunned, because Thursday believes a few men and rounds of ammunition should be enough to see off the Apache) is filled with excitement. And, of course, the film builds towards the inevitable disaster Thursday’s rigid mismanagement was always heading towards: a suicide charge against a well defended Apache position, fighting to defend a corrupt agent who Thursday and York both know should be replaced.

It’s a film that quite daringly shows that American’s “mission” in the West was often founded on corrupt officials, and that the military leaders were sometimes rigid, incompetent martinets who led their men to avoidable disaster. It’s shame then that the York – and the film – chooses in a flash forward at the films end to promote the idea of Thursday’s charge being a glorious defeat, rather than an avoidable disaster. And that, this printing of the legend, is important to protect the “why we fight” idea of America. It’s the downside of Ford’s love of the past, of the mythology of the West, that even in the end of a film about incompetence, it’s still seen as noble and important to protect people from the truth and promote the legend, than tell the truth. But then for Ford, protecting the memory of the ordinary soldiers who died is the key – and if that means never questioning the how or why, well then that’s a price worth paying. It’s an idea we perhaps have far less sympathy with today.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Fonda and Bronson prepare to face off in Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West

Director: Sergio Leone

Cast: Henry Fonda (Frank), Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Charles Bronson (“Harmonica”), Jason Robards (“Cheyenne”), Gabrielle Ferzetti (Morton), Paolo Stoppa (Sam), Marco Zuanelli (Wobbles), Keenan Wynn (Sheriff), Frank Wolff (Brett McBain), Lionel Stander (Barman), Woody Strode (First Gunman), Jack Elam (Second Gunman), Al Mulock (Third Gunman

Sergio Leone’s Westerns were always based, first and foremost, on his own love for the genre – and the great filmmakers, from John Ford onwards, who made them. Returning to the genre for the final time – putting on hold (for what turned out to be nearly fifteen years) his plans for a New York gangster film – Leone wanted to make his final, and ultimate, tribute to the Hollywood western. Collaborating with Bernardo Bertoloucci and Dario Argento (now there is an odd trio!) on the scripting, Leone’s final Western is a sweeping, grandiose, operatic Western littered with visual quotations from films he loved.

The story rather takes second fiddle to the general ambiance and visuals, but it never bothered Leone to have only the sketchiest of plots stretched across the many hours of his movies. The railroad is being built across America – changing the face of the West as it goes. Frank (Henry Fonda), hired gun of crippled railway tycoon Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti), guns down farmer Brett McBain and his children. He had been sent to threaten them to clear off the land of Sweetwater. But why? And how will the return of McBain’s new wife Jill (Claudia Cardinale) – now heir to all of Frank’s holdings – affect their plans? And why does the mysterious “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) – a shadowy gunman with no name have such an interest in events, and in Frank in particular? And will criminal gunman Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and his gang – blamed for the McCain killings – be able to establish their innocence?

The answers to all these questions come slowly – and often confusingly – in this long, slow but – as with many Leone films – engrossing Western, which features 3-5 minutes of Morricone build-up and extreme close-up before even the slightest action. This makes it very easy to mock, and perhaps by this point Leone had started to believe too heavily that he was an artist daubing in genre, rather than a purveyor of entertainments. Certainly, Once Upon a Time in the West is consciously weighted down with its own importance, it’s ominous sense of events heading to a pre-ordained conclusion and its half-hearted attempt to depict itself as sitting at a crossroads in American history, as technology squeezed out the old West.

But somehow you give Leone’s film a pass for all its many faults because it’s assembled with such unrivalled skill and breathtaking pizzazz. Sure the film is only half as smart as it thinks it is, but when at its strongest it offers unrivalled entertainment. Leone also mastered here his balance between the slow, tense, agonising build-up to violence – followed by its sudden and brutal enactment. 

Never is that more clear than in the film’s opening ten minutes which features three gunmen (among them Ford favourite Woody Strode and reliable minor bad-guy Jack Elam) waiting at a train station for what turns-out to be the arrival of Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica”. The three gunmen sit, waiting, in silence. Around them the everyday sounds of windmills, buzzing flies and dripping water builds and relapses with all the dread of distant thunder. Leone’s camera crashes in for long, intense close-ups, as if drilling down into the souls of these bored men, the camera studying every detail of their faces. After almost ten minutes – during which the credits roll – “Harmonica” arrives. And promptly shoots all three men dead in seconds. You know it’s coming, but the tension and expectation of this confrontation makes the entire sequence compelling. 

It’s a trick that Leone repeats time and time again. Effectively the whole film is only prolonged extension of this sequence – the inconsequential back-and-forth of the lacklustre plot all really about giving us a chance to drill down into the character of Henry Fonda’s bad-to-the-bone Frank, while we wait for the inevitable gunfight between him and “Harmonica”. Leone’s film is a triumph of mood, filled with sweeping beautiful camera shot and luxiously paced editing, all mixed down with some stunning scoring from Ennio Morricone.

Once Upon a Time echoes a fairy tale in its title, and that’s what it is. For all that Leone attempts to throw in plotlines around progress, the influence of big money and the new order leaving gunmen behind, really everything it knows about America is taken from movies. Leone litters the film with visual quotes from High Noon, Shane and dozens of others, most especially Ford (he even insisted in transplanting some of the scenes to be shot at Monument Valley, which led to merry hell trying to get the other Spanish-shot locations to visually match). The entire film unfolds like a dream. At about the half way mark in particular – this might be due to cuts to be fair – the narrative suddenly becomes almost deliberately unconnected, key events seemingly skipped over and sudden character reversals taking place. There is a rumbling sense of everything in the film being artificial and the characters themselves being manipulated by something larger than them (like a film director!).

This is further heightened by “Harmonica” himself. Played with an empty blankness by Charles Bronson – the camera zooms into his expressionlessly craggy face endlessly as if searching for meaning – “Harmonica” is an almost mystical presence. He’s always in the right place at the right time, seems to be the only person in the film who knows what’s going on and Leone even shoots him regularly sliding into frame, as if the camera has stumbled upon him at the least expected times. Perhaps Bronson’s lack of real character helped make him perfect for this near-mystical presence. It also fits in with the shamanic feeling of a film where frequently not much happens at great length, but the inconsequential moments of events are filmed with a pregnant importance.

Compared to him the other principles are painted in earthy tones. Robards makes his bandit – who switches allegiances and escapes from undefined imprisonment several times in the movie – a jovial, grimy figure with a rogueish temperament. Claudia Cardinale – in what passes for a strong female character at the time – is a whore with a heart of gold who may, or may not be willing to do anything to ensure her own survival (the film is unclear). Is she a ruthless woman using sex as a weapon? Or is she the sort of radiant Earth-mother that the new West needs? Or is she a bit of both? The film isn’t really sure.

What it is sure about is that Fonda’s Frank is the meanest of the mean. Looking lean and tough, Fonda revels in the chance to play a villain – and not just any villain, this grinning sadist is so mean the first thing he does is gun down a child on screen. Leone loved Fonda – and above all he wanted those “baby blue” eyes to be the thing the viewers see as unspeakable deeds take place, expecting the cry of “Jesus Christ, that’s Henry Fonda!” Frank is a bully and tirelessly ambitious, and if we never get a real sense of what motivates him, it’s balanced by Fonda’s charismatic viciousness in the role.

It’s a pointer though to the fact that this is not a film about the West – as always the strange mixture of accents, faces and locations never makes the film feel for one moment like a real slice of America – but rather a film that is aiming to reflect the romance of movies. It’s a piece of Americana, that is really a love letter to other films. Perhaps it’s one of the first post-modern films ever made? But really your appreciation of the film can only really be complete if you have seen a lot of Westerns. Then it’s fairy tale like logic, and Leone’s operatic style and languid pace suddenly make sense. It’s not a film deep in meaning, other than perhaps our own love for cinema and the story it tells.

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Henry Fonda is here to enforce justice in My Darling Clementine

Director: John Ford

Cast: Henry Fonda (Wyatt Earp), Linda Darnell (Chihuahua), Victor Mature (“Doc” Holliday), Cathy Downs (Clementine Carter), Walter Brennan (Newman Haynes Clanton), Tim Holt (Virgil Earp), Ward Bond (Morgan Earp), Don Garner (James Earp), Grant Withers (Ike Claton), John Ireland (Billy Clanton), Alan Mowbray (Granville Thorndyke), Roy Roberts (Mayor), Jane Darwell (Kate Nelson)

In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a journalist says “When legend becomes fact, print the legend”. It could almost be a commentary on My Darling Clementine, a lusciously romantic retelling of the story of Wyatt Earp and his Gunfight at the OK Corrall between the Earps and local cowboy gang the Clantons. John Ford’s film is a perfect slice of Americana, in which the West is seen at its glorious best, and almost no fact in it is true.

In 1882 retired Marshal turned ranger Wyatt Earp’s (Henry Fonda) brother James is killed outside the town of Tombstone, shortly after Earp had turned down an offer to buy his cattle from Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan), the family patriarch. Earp suspects foul play, but decides to stay in Tombstone as its new Marshal, with his brothers Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan (Ward Bond) as his deputies to reinforce the law. In town he meets local gambling man “Doc” Holliday (Victor Mature) and falls for Holliday’s former girlfriend Clementine (Cathy Downs), in town searching for Doc. Will Wyatt find out who killed his brother and find contentment?

My Darling Clementine is almost entirely invented. Virtually nothing in it is true, from the year it’s set (the actual gunfight happened in 1881) to what happens in the actual gun battle. The fates of nearly all the characters have been changed (James, whose death kicks the film off, actually died in 1926) and a host of characters have been invented, not least Clementine herself. The action has been moved to Monument valley from Arizona. Its comprehensive myth-making on screen, with Earp himself changed from an unhappily married man probably “carrying on” with an Irish actress into the pillar of moral decency that is Henry Fonda. 

But does it really matter? Not really. If you run with the film has being part of Ford’s tradition of reworking the past of America into a grand origins myth for the United States, the film works perfectly. It’s directed with great visual skill by John Ford, who creates some luscious shots of Monument valley and some glorious skylines that dwarf the actors into the machinery of myth. His visual storytelling is perfect at communicating character, from the boyish leaning back on his chair from the boy scoutish Earp to carefully building the tentative, ]barrier filled relationship between Earp and Clementine. 

My Darling Clementine features a romance plot line, but it’s played in parallel with a story of feuding that leaves large numbers of the cast dead. Aside from Earp and Holliday there is virtually no overlap between the romance plot and the events leading to the gunfire. Clementine never refers to it, and you can almost imagine this as two films skilfully and gracefully cut together. Perhaps this is Ford’s intent: this is a film about community in the West, about the building and creation of a town and the shaping of relationships and friendships around it – that just happens to have as well a gang of murderers that Fonda needs to take down.

Tombstone is emerging from the Wild West – at a key moment half way through the film, Earp and Clementine dance (Earp with a surprising grace) at an outside ball to celebrate the opening of a church. It’s just one sign of civilisation arriving in the town, with theatre on the way and even Holliday’s gambling den slowly becoming something a little bit less violent. Earp himself is a reluctant but honest lawman, repeatedly asking at the start “what kind of town is this?” and seemingly deciding to stay to sort the place out as well as find out who killed his brother. 

It’s telling in any case that Earp’s reaction to his brother being killed is to pick up a badge not a gun, but then you would expect nothing less from Henry Fonda. Fonda is at his most decent, and bashful, his most just and moral, the embodiment of law and justice. Fonda pitches the performance perfectly, a shy man who knows what’s right, but has the guts to go the extra mile to get it. Fonda also gets some wonderful chemistry from his interactions with Cathy Downs’ Clementine, each scene between them dripping with longing but a sad knowledge that nothing can come of it.

There are a whole host of reasons for that, not least her past relationship with Doc. If there is a second heart to the film, it’s the uneasy semi-friendship that grows between Holliday and Earp. It’s a beautifully judged, wordlessly expressed mixture of regard, respect and suspicion, of two men who have taken very different paths in life but recognise in each other a common world view, a yearning for peace and poetry under the guns. Holliday – dying although you wouldn’t think it considering the hale and hearty look of Victor Mature – is a dangerous man but a fair one, not like the arrogant destructiveness of the Clantons. He’s even able to juggle respectful relations, not least with Linda Darnell’s showgirl. Mature gives a decent performance, hampered by his essential earnest woodenness from really exploring the depths of a TB suffering physician turned gunslinger, but able to express a basic decency and touch of poetry.

It’s a film about small moments between these characters that culminates in parallel with a gun fight that burns out of the clash between the Earps and Clantons. The Earps are of course all thoroughly decent, upright sorts while the Clantons are unclean, unshaven (first thing Wyatt does in the film is get shaved!) types, led by a bullying Walter Brennan. The gunfight is spectacular, but it’s part of one of two films, followed as it is with Earp’s sad departure from the town and the culmination of the unspoken love between him and Clementine. But isn’t that part of the myth? And with its romance, its heroic stand against injustice and its epic sweep and brilliance, My Darling Clementine is a celebration of the myth and power of the West.

Young Mr Lincoln (1939)

Henry Fonda excels in the origins story as the Young Mr Lincoln

Director: John Ford

Cast: Henry Fonda (Abraham Lincoln), Alice Brady (Abigail Clay), Marjorie Weaver (Mary Todd), Arleen Weaver (Sarah Clay), Eddie Collins (Efe Turner), Pauline Moore (Ann Rutledge), Richard Cromwell (Matt Clay), Donald Meek (Prosecutor John Felder), Eddie Quillan (Adam Clay), Spencer Charters (Judge Herbert A Bell), Ward Bond (John Palmer Cass), Milburn Stone (Stephen A Douglas)

John Ford is often called the mythmaker of America, the director who perhaps contributed more than any other to building a romantic vision of America’s roots and past. As an explorer of the legends and mythology that underpinned his country, it’s perhaps no great surprise that he directed a film about the American revered more than any other since the Founding Fathers – Abraham Lincoln himself.

Playing out over 10 years, the film follows Young Honest Abe (Henry Fonda) from his days of autodidactism with a law book in Illinois, through his love for, and the death of, Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) and his arrival in Springfield to practice law (which he does with a shrewdness mixed with the wisdom of Solomon). The bulk of the film’s plot focuses in particular on him representing two brothers accused of murder in a courtroom trial, where Lincoln’s wit, wisdom and determination see justice done.

Okay reading that subplot, it’s pretty clear that this is a fairly rose-tinted view of The Great Emancipator. Henry Fonda had put off playing the role, as he felt it would be like hewing a performance out of marble. It’s hard for non-Americans to even begin to understand the reverence with which Lincoln is almost universally held in America, but it runs through this film like sugar through a stick of rock. Lincoln throughout the film is maybe an increasingly canny operator with a mastery of winning people over and playing crowds large and small, but he’s also always right, always does the right thing and always has a warm regard and love for genuine real people.

If you made the film today it would probably be called Abraham Lincoln: Origins, as Ford shows Lincoln building up all the weapons that would become central to his political artistry. Fonda starts the film gangly and physically awkward, finding it hard to know what to do with his height or long arms while giving speeches (Fonda wore platform shoes to increase his height). But even at the start his words are warm and genuine, even if his delivery is awkward. It’s something he masters to a far greater degree by the mid-way point of the film, when he skilfully diffuses a potential lynch mob with wit, gentleness, calm and a bit of righteous shaming. By the time he hits the courtroom, he’s overwhelmingly confident in his physicality and able to match it up with his oratorical brilliance and his skill at using seemingly rambling, inconsequential stories to suddenly hit home a sharp and painful truth.

Fonda’s impressive performance as Lincoln makes the film. Fonda gives Lincoln not just these positives but also hints at his sharpness of mind and his cunning. Negotiating a legal disagreement between two farmers (which he does with such skill that both end up paying him), he not only gives a fair sentence, but shows how he is not above manipulating men to achieve his ends (and, in biting one of the coins that he is given, that he may be honest himself but he’s not always trusting). He has a romantic regard for the mother of his clients (played very well by Alice Brady), but can still gently patronise her with his romantic ideal of her as an ideal American mother.

But when the push comes, Lincoln is a man of principle, wrapped in a skilful performance. The idea of mob justice is anathema to him, while Fonda makes clear he’s smart enough to not say that outright but to guide the crowd to agree with him. During the selection of the jury for the courtroom scene, he will accept men honest enough to say they favour hanging for the guilty, but turn down equivocators or those who believe they are better than the accused men. During the trial scene, he erupts in moral outage when the boys’ mother is pressured into naming one of her sons as the killer so as to save the other from the death penalty.

But he’s also a clever and brilliant player of the game, able to charm both the working classes and the rich, even if he’s not comfortable with either. During the trial scene, his quick wit and relaxation run rings around the government prosecutor (a good role of absolute convictions from Donald Meek) and he easily wins the crowd over with a series of gags and light touches that also carry with them a real, deep truth. Ford is also able to show his ambition – over the grave of Ann Rutledge he lets the fall of a stick decide whether he will continue his career or stay at home, and he all too clearly lets the stick lean over one way before letting it fall (he even acknowledges this himself).

Ford’s film is only very loosely based on actual true events – only the final coup Lincoln uses to win the case is really based on fact. The film is covered with smatterings of what look now like clumsy droppings in of key facts or persons from Lincoln’s life – from the cowpoke who plays “Dixie” (“Sounds like a song you could march to” is Lincoln’s comment) to Lincoln meeting future-wife Mary Todd, to his legal (and romantic) rival being none other than Stephen A Douglas his later rival for the presidency. There could have been a lot more, but afraid that it would make the film ridiculous, Ford kept these to a minimum by simply refusing to shoot them (such as a planned scene where Lincoln met John Wilkes Booth).

It all works because the audience knows who Lincoln will become, and it’s told with an earnestness and a certain amount of pace. Ford however really crafts a modern American myth and it even ends in a suitably epic scale: having won the case, Lincoln strikes off for a walk up a hill, trudging into the distance while a storm brews, heading onwards and upwards away from us and into his future. Sure it’s corn, but it works.

The Ox Bow Incident (1943)

Henry Fonda tries to change the fate of a lynching, in gripping social-issue drama The Ox Bow Incident

Director: William A Wellman

Cast: Henry Fonda (Gil Carter), Dana Andrews (Donald Martin), Harry Morgan (Art Croft), Frank Conroy (Major Tetley), Harry Davenport (Davies), Anthony Quinn (Juan Martinez), Francis Ford (Alva Hardwicke), William Eythe (Gerald Tetley), Mary Beth Hughes (Rose Swanson), Jane Darwell (Ma Grier), Marc Lawrence (Jeff Farnley), Paul Hurst (Monty Smith)

Spoilers: Can’t quite believe I am saying this about a film that is over 60 years old – but I’m going to give away the whole plot here. Because you can’t really talk about the film without it. It’s a film that’s well worth watching not knowing what is going to happen, so you are warned!

We all like to believe that, when push comes to shove, we live in a civilised world. That when the chips are down, we would behave nobly and stand for what was right. The Ox Bow Incident is a challenging western, because it defiantly says the opposite. The world is a cruel and judgemental place – and sometimes good people are ineffective, regular people panic and lash out and decent people pay the price.

Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into town. Cattle rustlers are plaguing the town and a popular rancher has been gunned down outside his home. With the sheriff absent and the judge ineffective, the townspeople take justice into their own hands. Led by a faux-Civil War major Tetley (Frank Conroy) and aggrieved friend of the dead rancher Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence), they form a posse and ride out to lynch the three suspects (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford). Carter and Croft follow, reluctant, but worried that if they protest too much suspicion will fall on them.

The Ox Bow Incident is a film you keep expecting to make a veering turn towards positivity – you keep expecting it to suddenly draw breath and for everything to turn out okay. Instead, it’s a grim insight into how mob mentality can drive people into sudden and cruel actions. It’s equally a testimony to how ineffective protest and principles can be in the face of anger and revenge. It’s a Western that feels years ahead of its time – there is no romanticism here, just grim everyday life.

In many ways it’s a po-faced and serious morality tale, and revolves around one long scene where the lynch victims are tried by mob justice, plead for their lives, are given a brief respite to say their prayers, protests from a few men are swept aside, and then they are strung up. Every time the viewer starts to think righteousness will slow things down, the certainty of the mob stops decency from taking hold. It’s a slippery slope towards the deaths of men we find out almost immediately afterwards were completely innocent.

The Ox Bow Incident is a film that preaches – and it feels very stagy, a feeling increased by the obviousness of its sets and the intense chamber feeling of the limited locations and scenes. But it works, because it’s so brilliantly put together and so grippingly involving. Wellman’s film is trimmed to the bone, the writing is very strong with Lamar Trotti’s script bristling with moral outrage at humanity’s weakness and fear. It’s a story of injustice and mob rage – and it works because it manages to tell a compelling story while also dealing with universal themes.

Henry Fonda listed this as one of his few early performances he felt was good. Fonda is often remembered as the archetype of American justice, so it’s fascinating here to see how ineffective and compromised Carter is. Carter knows what they are doing is wrong – but he lacks the decisiveness, strength of will or character to persuade people. In fact, his main contributions are quiet comments, or sniping from the wings of the action. 

It’s an inversion almost of Twelve Angry Men’s juror #7 – Carter can’t lead us to justice, because he’s a bit too afraid, a bit too weak, a bit too compromised. At the end, as he reads Martin’s final heartfelt and forgiving letter (beautifully filmed by Wellman with Croft’s hat obscuring Carter’s eyes while he reads, a shot that has multiple symbolic meanings), he projects not moral force but the shame and guilt of a man who, when it came down to it, didn’t have the determination to do what was right. It’s a perfect comment on what a writer may have felt was happening all over in 1943.

The real advocate of justice is Harry Davenport’s humane shop-keeper – but he can’t persuade anyone (Davenport is excellent). Instead, all the big personalities are leading the lynch mob, from Frank Conroy’s bullying Major, who just wants to see the action and stamp his domination on others, to Jan Darwell’s vile honking old woman excited by the killing, to Marc Lawrence’s just plain angry Farnley. Everyone who knows what they are doing is wrong – like Tetley’s weak-willed son (well played by William Eythe) – are just too weak, scared or uncharismatic to do much more than vainly protest. Their regular joe victims (all three actors are excellent as in turn, decent, old and confused and suspiciously alien) don’t stand a chance.

The Ox Bow Incident is a perfect little morality tale, crammed with brilliant performances and moments. It even has the guts (for the time) to reference that most lynchings didn’t have white victims, and introduces a sympathetic black honorary padre who is equally powerless. It’s a film that really feels like it came from an era when the world was going to hell in a handbasket, but it speaks to all ages. Because our fear and readiness to attack – and punish – those people we see as different hasn’t gone away. It’s chilling to think that the world hasn’t changed and this story could just as easily be transposed – with no changes – to half a dozen locations around our world today.