The book- the movie – that changed Westerns forever

August 3, 1909

On this day the author who would rewrite the rules for Westerns, Walter van Tilburg Clark, was born in Orland, Maine, just about as far from the American West as you can get.

Clark’s  ground breaking 1940 novel “The Ox-Bow Incident,” is considered by critics to be the first modern Western novel and was the basis for the Oscar nominated movie by the same name.

Despite his “Down East” birthplace, Clark was actually raised in Nevada.  At the age of nine his father, Walter Ernest Clark (left), became the fifth president of the University of Nevada.

Beginning his literary career as a poet, his scholarly, character-driven debut novel won critical acclaim.  It examined the dangers of mob mentality when two drifters, Gil Carter and Art Croft join a posse to hunt down cattle rustlers for murdering a rancher.  The film, destined to be a classic, starred a lineup of screen legends.   The cast included Henry Fonda as Carter, Harry Morgan of M*A*S*H* fame as Croft, Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn.   Andrews, Quinn and Frank Ford, brother of famed director John Ford are the suspects, found camped in the desert with a herd of cattle near by.  Presumed to be the murderers, Fonda’s character tries and fails to stop the vengeful  hanging of  innocent men.  

Director William Wellman (left) concentrated on the cinematic aspects of the hunt, filming the chase in the rugged foothill locations near Chatsworth and Lone Pine, California.  The novel, set in 1885, places more emphasis on the make-up of the posse and the consequences of their hasty actions.

Actually made in 1941, the film  apparently sat in the vault at 20th Century Fox for two years.  It wasn’t a hit at the box office either.   But the film received a Best Picture nomination by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1943 and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1998. 

Clark’s 1949 novel “The Track of the Cat” was also made into a movie.  starring Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright.  Produced by John Wayne and Robert Fellows, the 1954 film was designed in black and white and photographed in color, resulting in moody vistas of snow-covered landscapes of on Mount Rainier.

Clark was a high school teacher in Cazenovia, New York when his ground-breaking book was published,   A number of his short stories and poetry had met with modest success but  “The Ox-Bow Incident” catapulted him into the limelight as a national literary figure. 

He returned to the city of his boyhood following the book’s publication, teaching two stints at the University at Reno and serving as the college’s writer-in-residence in 1962.  

Clark continued to write in to the 1950s but published little later in his life.  He held a number of academic positions until his death at age 62.   He died of cancer on Nov. 10, 1971 in Virginia City, Nevada, nearly two years to the day after the death of his wife, Barbara. 

Clark received the short story O’Henry Award in 1943 for “The Wind and the Snow of Winter,” joining a list of luminaries including Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Stephen Vincent Benét  and Dorothy Parker.  One of the first two writers inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 1988, he was also included in Texas Christian University’s Literary Chronology of the American West  in 1998. 

The Alabama Hills National Recreation Area, near Lone Pine, California, has starred in more than 400 movies and television series including “The Oxbow Incident.”  Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the  park is open year-round, it’s pet friendly and admission is free.  In addition to camping, hiking and rock climbing, the area’s Movie Road is a guided tour of locations familiar to film and TV fans. 

Detailed maps are available in nearby Lone Pine, home to The Museum of Western Film History.   For more information go to, call (760) 872-5000 e-mail or write Bishop Field Office, 351 Pacu Lane, Suite 100, Bishop, CA , CA 93514 US

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.