William A. Wellman’ The Ox-Bow Incident is a landmark film in many ways. It was the first to use the western genre as its canvas for telling a morality tale. It is a courtroom drama without a physical courtroom, with all the action seen through the eyes of the system of justice built by a posse confronted with whether or not to believe the stories of innocence concerning the people they plan to execute. One of the most significant things about the film is its landmark of racial equity. Leigh Whipper (pictured above with Henry Fonda) plays a pastor who could have just as easily been played a white actor. There was no reason for a 1940s movie studio to hire a black actor for this role, yet somehow they did and the results are miraculous.
Leigh Wipper’s character, Rev. Sparks, is the heartbeat of The Ox-Bow Incident. When a posse announces its plan to find and kill a group of cattle rustlers that include one person thought to be an infamous murderer, Rev. Sparks takes it upon himself to join them. Local law enforcement tried to stop the posse but they refused to be hindered in their pursuit of justice. Rev. Sparks wanted no part in the posse’s zealous ambition for what they call justice, but he went in hopes of being the group’s moral compass.
Rev. Sparks continuously reminds his companions that God said “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.” He tries unsuccessfully to persuade their decisions, yet every character shows (at least on the surface) unswerving respect for the pastor and for all that he stands for. Most of them certainly don’t agree and won’t submit to his desire for pacifism, but they protect him in dangerous situation and take his claim as a minister of the Word of God very seriously. The racial implications of this are un-heard of in 1943. Also the obvious respect for Christian spirituality represented in the film is something rare in the films of any time.
Throughout their journey, Rev. Sparks makes two converts to his non-violent cause, including the main character Gil, played by Henry Fonda. As the rest of the posse attempts to carry out their plans, Rev. Sparks plays an intercessory role. We see him sincerely praying for the members of the posse, for the people they have accused. He pleads for divine wisdom, justice, and love to move in the midst of the desires for vengeance that appear to be controlling situations. He recites appropriate Scripture passages to bring perspective into the decisions being made by the posse. He makes disciples of his two converts, not so much in a spiritual sense but in a social one. They follow him in his pursuit for true justice and freedom.
Rev. Sparks is a leader, a hero, and a great man. To be able to say these things about a character in a 1943 movie played by a black man who leads white men shows what an amazing social achievement this film is. What it has to say about justice, morality, and spirituality is equally beyond compare in the world of film. The Ox-Bow Incident is not only a great story but is also one of the most socially and spiritually important films ever made.