On Saturday, a close friend (I call him my movie buddy) sent me a text that The Ox-Bow Incident (Wellman, 1943) was on TCM at the moment. I own the movie, but since it was already on, I went ahead and tuned in for the rest of the film.
I first saw The Ox-Bow Incident after a trip to the local library. When I go to pick up DVDs, I usually have something in mind to grab during the trip, but I’ll go ahead and scan the rest of the shelves to see if there is anything else I want to borrow as well. I ended up picking The Ox-Bow Incident because: 1. It had Henry Fonda in it, and 2. I vaguely remembered it being nominated for Best Picture the same year as Casablanca.
I was in for a treat. I wouldn’t say watching the movie was a pleasant experience, because it is one of those movies that will make you think. I think it also challenges you to experience the injustices being done through the characters, and I definately had emotional connection to the film. This is achieved through the story content, the way it is told, and the performances of the cast.
The film is adapted from the 1940 novel of the same name by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (which is sitting on my bookshelf, still unread). Henry Fonda is “star” of this film, but while he gives a wonderfully understated performance (and the film’s concluding monologue) the show belongs to Dana Andrews in my opinion. They are joined by Jane Darwell and Harry Morgan in an ensemble cast.
The film opens with Gil Carter (Fonda) and Art Croft (Morgan) riding into a little western town. They hitch their horses up to the local saloon, and enter to find the townspeople on edge because of suspected cattle rustling. Gil and Art, being strangers in the town, have to watch their actions around the restless citizens as they might be accused with being connected to stolen cattle.
At that moment, another man rushes into the saloon with news that local rancher Larry Kinkaid has been found dead in a ditch with part of his herd stolen. The sheriff being out of town on business, a posse is formed immediately to go hunt down the murderer. Warned that any accused must be brought back to stand trial for their crimes, it is obvious that the mob has no intention to do this. Gil and Art quietly join the group, feeling that it would call unwanted attention to themselves if they don’t. The mob is headed by steely Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) who forces his quiet son, Gerald (William Eythe) to join. Loud Jenny Grier (Darwell) is the lone woman in the posse.
Later that night, the group rides up to three sleeping men with cattle grazing nearby. Assuming they must be Kinkaid’s murderers and his stolen cattle, the posse takes them in. One man is Donald Martin (a curly haired Dana Andrews). His group includes a Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn), a Mexican who says he doesn’t speak English when interrogated, and an old man (Francis Ford).
Martin is asked about his background, since no one in the posse recognizes him. He says he just moved to the area with his wife and family. The cattle were purchased to replace some of his stock that had become weak with travel. The cattle bear Kinkaid’s brand, and when asked about a bill of sale, Martin says he was to receive one in the mail from Kinkaid since they were purchased in the field. Martinez is found to have Kinkaid’s gun on his person as well.
The posse doesn’t believe Martin’s story, and they decide to hang the men at sunrise. Desperate, Martin asks to write a letter to his wife. Davies (Harry Davenport), the man Martin entrusts to deliver the letter, reads it and is convinced of the group’s innocence because of its content. However, Martin is angry that his private message has been read, and prevents it from being passed around.
During the night, Juan Martinez, who is really another man wanted for murder, tries to escape and is shot in the process. Major Tetley decides that the men should be hanged that moment instead of waiting until sunrise. A last vote is taken on whether the men should be taken back to town for trial, and only seven men vote to stop the hanging.
The three men are led to a tree for hanging, and the nooses are already in place. Each is placed on a horse underneath the branch with a rope around their neck. Tetley forces his son to whip Martin’s horse from under him, but once the time comes, the boy refuses. Martin is killed by gunfire instead. The other two men are left to hang.
After the hanging, the posse meets the sheriff on their way back to town. They announce that they have found the men responsible for the stolen cattle and Kinkaid’s death, and have dealt with it. The sheriff says Kinkaid isn’t dead, only wounded, and they have already caught those responsible. He asks Davies who in the posse supported the hanging, and Davies responds, “All but seven.”
The posse returns to the same bar, solemnly reflecting on what they have done. Major Tetley and his son return to their home, where Gerald stands up to his father by letting him know what he thought of his conduct during the lynching. Tetley walks into another room, shuts the door and shoots himself.
After pooling together donations for Martin’s widow, Gil reads Martin’s letter out loud.
Art and Gil then exit the saloon and ride off to deliver the money and letter to Martin’s family. The film ends just as it opened, the two men riding together to their next destination.
The Ox-Bow Incident runs a short 75 minutes, but it gets it’s story and message across succinctly. It is a startling portrayal of the mob mentality and the consequences of blindly going along with the rest of the group. I think of it as a period piece as well, one that illustrates the vigilante justice of the Old West.
One thing I love about classic film is how I so often fully buy into a film emotionally. I just don’t feel that as much in a lot of the mainstream movies we have today. The Ox-Bow Incident is one of those films that I have a true response to every time I watch it. I can’t believe the actions of most of the characters, and it can be somewhat difficult to sit through.
That being said, for those reasons I also feel it is an great film to watch. It really has an important message and it is well-acted. Acting needs to carry a film like this, where most of the action is set around a confined area for most of the film (and it looks to be a soundstage dressed up as the outdoors), and the leads do just that. I remember reading that Henry Fonda was proud of this movie looking back at his storied career, and I can understand why.