Star: Henry Fonda
Era: Classical Hollywood
Go-to Director: John Ford
AFI Male Star Ranking: #6
Historical Importance: High
When John Ford made a movie, the odds were pretty good that John Wayne was gonna play the lead. But Ford also had his famous "stock company" of character actors (Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Harry Carey Jr, Woody Strode, etc) who could take the lead if necessary. But before Wayne joined the company, and even after, there was one other actor who consistently took leading roles in Ford's movies: Henry Fonda
Like all the other actors we've discussed so far, Henry Fonda had a distinct persona. His character was the most fundamentally decent of all of them. For Ford he played a stalwart revolutionary soldier in Drums Along the Mohawk, one of literature's most sympathetic characters, Tom Joad, in The Grapes of Wrath, and the greatest political hero in American history in Young Mr. Lincoln. In each of these roles, his plain-spoken manner, his earnest delivery, and his sympathetic humanity shone through. If John Wayne represented the rugged, hulking Western hero, Fonda was a gentler model - the searcher you'd actually allow in your house after his journey was done.
But as with Wayne and Stewart, Fonda made his greatest Westerns when he defied audience expectations. As with Stewart, Westerns were a place where Fonda could be a bit more troubled; his Western characters were frequently, in the great Western tradition, not immediately willing to stand up for the good and the true. And like Wayne, his greatest role asked him to go to a well of savagery that had never before been apparent.
1. Once Upon a Time in the West
Sergio Leone revolutionized the Western with his Clint Eastwood Man with No Name Trilogy, but his final Western was his greatest. In this movie, Jason Robards gets to play the outlaw with a heart of gold, and Charles Bronson plays the nameless hero. But it's the 63 year old Fonda who steals the whole movie as Frank. We're introduced to Frank when he brutally murders a homesteader and his children. Leone gives us the haunting closeups of Fonda's face that we're used to - the closeups to emphasize his fundamental decency - but this time, Fonda's blue eyes radiate not earnestness but hate. Frank is without a doubt the greatest villain in the entire history of Western movies; he's a vicious, power-hungry outlaw who rapes, tortures, and murders with absolutely no signs of remorse. And worst of all: he's played in an utterly convincing manner by the man we know as Wyatt Earp, as Juror #8, as Abraham Lincoln.
2. Fort Apache
The consensus seems to be that the best Ford-Fonda Western is My Darling Clementine. Although I love that movie, I much prefer the first entry in the Ford-Wayne cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache. Wayne plays his standard persona: a wise executive officer who honors the cavalry's Indian enemies and seeks peace between cultures. Fonda, on the other hand, once again breaks from his traditional role: his Colonel Owen Thursday is a thinly veiled version of General Custer, which means he's vain, foolhardy, and driven by a thirst for glory. Just as Frank gives Fonda a chance to show us what a great man looks like if he's driven by hate, Thursday shows us a driven man whose only motive is personal accomplishment. The results are predictably tragic.
3.The Ox-Bow Incident
Finally, a movie where Fonda plays Fonda. The Ox-Bow Incident, directed by William Wellmann, is one of the many anti-lynching movies produced by Hollywood, like Fury, except it's actually good. Fonda plays Gil Carter, who is neither a lynchee or a lyncher. He's just a cowboy who happens upon the impending disaster and witnesses it. He's our representative; we see the lynching through his eyes, and the fact that he neither participates in it nor risks himself to stop it is an indictment of us. Again, Fonda's status as the best of us makes this role what it is: of course none of us condone the lynching, and Fonda's face reflects that. But his inability to stop it, or even to put his life on the line, condemns us as well. Like High Noon, The Ox-Bow Incident was made as a political critique; unlike High Noon, it was a box office bomb. Fonda and Wellmann didn't care: The Ox-Bow incident was a masterpiece, and they knew it. It's also an antidote to the conservatism of Hawks, Ford, Wayne, Stewart, Cooper, and most of the other Western masters.
My Darling Clementine - the best Wyatt Earp story ever told
Jesse James - a fun outlaw story, with Fonda as Jesse's brother Frank
The Tin Star - Fonda gets the Anthony Mann treatment