As part of my Father’s Day Guide, I’m reviewing the entire Henry Fonda Collection box-set. In the interest of time, I will be combining reviews in twos or threes before reviewing the set overall.
My first two reviews from 20th Century Fox‘s Henry Fonda collection comprise the best and the worst of the set. My last Henry Fonda experience was the Jane Withers film The Farmer Takes a Wife in which I called Fonda “medicated” and didn’t enjoy the movie, overall. And while I didn’t enjoy Immortal Sergeant, it was swept under the rug by The Ox-Bow Incident. The mark in film quality is also evident by the bonus content which is included with each disc. Here’s The Ox-Bow Incident and Immortal Sergeant.
Immortal Sergeant follows Canadian corporal, Colin Spence (Fonda) as he enlists to fight in WWII. After his commanding officer dies, Spence has to muster up his courage to lead his men to safety and get back home to his beloved lady Valentine (Maureen O’Hara).
I’ll start with the film I liked the least. Where The Ox-Bow Incident was a brisk hour and fifteen minutes, this has the audacity to be an hour and a half. The film comprises two distinct personalities: Colin before the war, and Colin after. The problem is that once the audience sees Colin before the war we immediately understand where he’ll be by the end. A running theme in the flashbacks from his life at home is that his beloved, pointedly called Valentine, is being courted by another man who Colin is constantly in competition with. Fonda plays the doormat well because he’s so unassuming, but it’s apparent that the character is meant to evoke images of the person who’s neutral to the war. Before Colin enlists he’s ignored and doesn’t want to rock the boat by complaining; this, of course, causes him to continuously lose Valentine. The romance is okay, but not built up sufficiently (or too much by the end) for this type of movie. The constant make-up/break-up between the two, via a third-party, becomes repetitious and boring. Maureen O’Hara is gorgeous, but her signature fight is gone. She’s watered down, whether to be in the same league as Henry Fonda, or because she’s the thankless “girl waiting at home.”
The rest of the film introduces the men, and places them in the desert before their commanding officer is killed. Fonda is the lone Canadian in the group, meant to calm criticism for his lack of British accent, and ends up having to find his masculinity in order to lead the men to safety. There are some nice moments here and there, particularly a noteworthy sequence of the men eating from a lone can of beans; you see the appreciation on their faces, and the eerie feeling that death is hanging around. Of course, the flag-waver moment comes when Fonda is safe and sound (no depressing endings here) and finds that he’s not taking no for an answer and demands Valentine’s hand in marriage. It’s a sweet ending, but not surprising; there’s effectively nothing memorable or touching about the film. Fonda was forced to make the movie in order to secure funding for The Ox-Bow Incident, and it’s reported that Fonda hated this film most of all. I can’t argue with him.
The Ox-Bow Incident follows a posse as they attempt to round-up the murderer of a local cattle baron. As they go into the desert they discover three men who all have circumstantial connections to the murdered man, and as the mob mentality starts to spread, only the patient Gil Carter (Fonda) is aware of how dangerous the posse can be.
It’d be amazing to watch a double feature of this and Bad Day at Black Rock because the two have similarities that cannot be coincidence. They both discuss the horrors of mob mentality and deal with racism. In a nutshell, the story is a condemnation on the rise of Hitler and the belief (on both sides of the pond) that someone needs to pay. Dana Andrews gives a powerful speech at the conclusion that “You don’t even care if you’ve got the right men or not…All you know…is somebody’s got to be punished.” The posse that’s assembled are clear in their ideology; if they allow one murderer to go free, who’s to say that it won’t lead to anarchy? Furthermore, what’s stopping the murderer from coming back and taking everyone’s land and women? It’s a theory that plays out today with the idea of domestic or foreign terrorism and, much like Bad Day at Black Rock, the Western genre works perfectly to explore that.
Speaking of Andrews, he blows everyone out of the water! This may have been in the Henry Fonda box set, and Fonda is strong as the reasonable man with a perfect face for the film noir lighting that’s utilized, but Dana Andrews gives the role that the audience is bound to. Andrews is Donald Martin, a family man who believes in the law. When he’s captured by the posse he immediately asks for a fair hearing; mind you the posse condemned the trio of men they minute they were discovered, and throughout the rest of the film they’re crafting nooses. Andrews was well-known for playing the everyman, and I was heartbroken by the end for him. The other two men are equally compelling; Anthony Quinn (in a better role than he was given in Viva Zapata!) plays Juan Martinez and Francis Ford is Halva Hartley. The latter two men play off fears and burdens of the time period with Juan being the foreigner and Halva the feeble-minded old person. The society that’s comprised in the two sees them as burdens and outcasts, and even today foreigners and the elderly are commonly cast aside. In the final sequence, as you watch Juan pray and Halva cry it’s a sobering tableau that shocks the audience, particularly with the nooses hanging ominously in the background.
In the interest of keeping things short for these double reviews, I would recommend purchasing The Ox-Bow Incident however you have to. It’s a downbeat, intense story of frontier justice with no winners or losers. Immortal Sergeant is jingoistic dreck. In terms of bonus content, Immortal Sergeant has a trailer attached; The Ox-Bow Incident includes scene-specific commentary, a featurette on Fonda, a comparison of the restoration of the film, stills, and a trailer.
Ronnie Rating for Immortal Sergeant:
Ronnie Rating for The Ox-Bow Incident:
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.