Monday, 8 February 2010

The Ox-Bow Incident

by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Arrow edition, 1973
First published, 1940

A cloud of suspicion and anger lies over the dusty little cattle-town of Bridger’s Wells, for the herds are being systematically pillaged by elusive thieves who manage to spirit the animals away over the high sierra. In the saloons and streets of the town dark speculations abound and tempers are on a hair-trigger when what appears to be an act of murder touches them off. The cattlemen decide upon rough justice and set out to round up the outlaws. Legal niceties, proper proof, pity – none of these counts for anything anymore.

Walter Van Tilburg Clark has written a book that challenges both views on the legalities of lynch-law, can a posse be judge and jury or should the accused men be taken to stand before an official judge? There is a lot of dialogue as the characters try to convince each other which way their decisions should sway. Another thread of the story sees this argument used to decide whether someone is a man or a coward.

The book is filled with colourful characters, and no-one person stands out as being the hero. All  go through many emotional changes and question their own deeds and beliefs as the incident of the title is played out and how it effects them afterwards, for some these events will prove to be to much to bear.

This isn’t a book filled with shoot-outs and action. It’s a psychological study in human nature that is beautifully portrayed. A story that will make you think.

I did fell the book could have been shorter, as the author spent a lot of time describing everything in minute detail, such as the painting hanging above the bar, the clothes the characters wear, the lines of age on their skin. I’m not sure the love / jealousy parts of the book were needed either – and the stagecoach scene that supports this thread of the tale – unless this was just a way to involve a woman in the story, but this is probably down to personal taste.

Having said all that I did enjoy the book and can see why it is held is such high esteem.

After finishing the book it just seemed natural for me to delve into my movie collection and dig out the film version of The Ox-Bow Incident.

The film came out three years after the book and didn’t seem to deviate from the book that much until the end and perfectly captured the bleak and psychological elements of the story. It’s a short film, clocking in at 75 minutes, and probably due to it’s length seems to move forward faster than the book, even if it does contain the scenes involving the stagecoach and the love interest – again I felt these could have been missed from the film without compromising the effectiveness of the story.

So what differences are there between book and film? The major elements are that the film doesn’t include all the effects the hangings have on the members of the lynch party, and sees a change in how many commit suicide at the end. The other big alteration was that the contents of the letter written by one of the accused men isn’t made known in the book, although it does play an important part. In the film this letter is read out at the end, shamelessly playing for a sentimental ending that fills the posse members full of guilt that does provide a powerful finish to the film.

If you’ve never seen the film, or read the book, then I’d suggest you consider doing so, as I doubt you’ll be disappointed in either.


Laurie said...

I haven't read the book but the movie is one of my favorite Westerns, although I have a very hard time watching it. Does that make sense? If you've seen the movie then you know what I'm talking about.

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hi Laurie and Steve,
In a perfect world, this novel would be required reading of schoolkids--it's well written and treats real themes without cliche. And in my opinion, the book is far superior to the movie.

This post has reminded me I've wanted to track down his other work.

This is a highly recommended book, Steve. Thanks for reminding me.


Steve M said...

The film has always been one of my favourite westerns, but, like Matt, I think the book is better - which I guess is often the case.

Bruce said...

One of the few books that we read in English class in HS that was enjoyable. Much better then reading those Sophocles plays talk about one giant bummer after another.

David Cranmer said...

Such a fine story and like Laurie I haven't read the book but the Fonda film is one of my favorite westerns.