Monday, February 07, 2005

The Ox-Bush Incident


There’s nothing like an old movie to teach you a lesson about modern times.

I discovered this the other night when I sat down to watch “The Ox-bow Incident,” a classic western directed by William Wellman. The 1943 film stars Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan, Anthony Quinn and a cast of fine character actors straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

I thought I was just going to sit back and enjoy a fine old movie, but instead I found myself looking at a frontier rendition of George Bush’s war in Iraq.

Sounds crazy? Tell it to Sponge Bob Squarepants—just as soon as he comes out of the closet.

Based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel, “The Oxbow Incident” tells the story of a group of Nevada cowboys in 1885 who, upon hearing about a rancher’s murder, form a posse and inflict some hangman’s justice upon three hapless cattlemen they capture on the trail.

In contrast to today’s multiplex McMovies, “The Oxbow Incident” has no digital effects, comic book heroes, vicious mutants, alienated aliens or murderous cyborgs from the future who run for governor of California.

No, the characters here are all too human: ignorant, angry people driven by bloodlust and rage to do some pretty terrible things.

Illegally empowered by a corrupt deputy, the vigilantes barrel ahead even though the evidence against the three men is highly questionable at best.

They insult and intimidate anyone who gets in the way of their necktie party. One townsman who has the nerve to plead for sanity is mocked as an old woman and beaten for his efforts. It’s thug rule on the range.

Sound familiar? Okay, well, how about this: the mob’s leader, bent on proving himself and making a man out of his son, struts around in a Confederate officer’s uniform, even though he’s never been anywhere near a battlefield.

The only thing missing is a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

Now I know it’s been a while, but does anyone remember how our fearless cowboy president barreled ahead into Iraq, shouting “weapons of mass destruction” even though the evidence was highly questionable at best?

And do you remember how anyone who challenged the would-be warriors was branded a traitor, a coward and worse—all by people who, like George Bush, never fought in any war?

In his constant chatter about terrorism, Buckaroo Bush has demonstrated a fondness for cowboy lingo, spouting such gems as “smoke ‘em out,” and “wanted dead or alive.”

However “The Oxbow Incident” doesn’t have these simple-minded white hat/black hat confrontations. In this story, the bad guys aren’t all that bad and the good guys learn they’re a lot closer to the evildoers than they realized.

Lately Bush and company have been riding tall in the saddle, waving their purple fingers in the air in celebration of the Iraqi election.

But anyone who has followed this wild bunch knows the danger of such early celebrations. We’ve suffered through a series of false finish lines, like the fall of Baghdad, the flight suit fandango, Saddam’s spider hole surrender, and the battle of Fallujah, to name a few.

Every time Americans think this misguided war is coming to an end, the neo-con cowboys strap their shooting irons onto somebody else’s son or daughter and cry “head ‘em off at the pass!”

There are some important differences between film and reality. You can’t rewind the Iraq war. You can’t undo the damage, reclaim the lost young lives, or re-attached the severed limbs. And you can’t bring back the thousands of dead civilians or yell “cut!” at the obscene images coming out of Abu Grahib.

Unlike the movies, no one in real life seems to have learned anything either. Bush’s Hole-in-the-Head Gang still seeks other places to throw up their rope.

My favorite scene in “The Oxbow Incident” occurs near the end of the film when a black preacher who has accompanied the mob falls to his knees before the swinging bodies and sings the spiritual “Lonesome Valley.”

The camera tracks the lynch mob as they ride off with the song’s haunting lyrics hanging over their heads.

You got to go tothe lonesome valley…you got to ask the Lord’s forgiveness, nobody can ask Him for you.

And the lonesome valley we’re riding through now seems like it will never end.

1 comment:

Calamity Jen said...

I got a chill when I read the "lonesome valley" lyrics. I believe that eerie song is on the soundtrack for "O Brother Where Are Thou?" (a terrific movie).

I have a cassette on which I recorded the sad, solemn words of a radio station deejay in 1991 announcing the start of the next big war: Desert Storm. I remember the sinking feeling I experienced upon hearing the news. Here in Canada there was no sense of justified might. Meanwhile, my American cousin embodied what I feared was the prevailing sentiment in the States: "We gotta get dem Iraqs!" (Sadly, that's an exact quote.)

The current story is Desert Shield. Eyes are opening now. Voices of protest are rising. If nothing else, you can take comfort in the fact that you are far from alone in your views.