The Ox-Bow Incident (1942)
“Tough! True! Terrifying!”
The Ox-Bow Incident (1942)
Director: William Wellman
Cast: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes
Synopsis: When a posse catches up three men suspected of killing a local farmer, some of them become strongly divided on whether or not to lynch the men.
That a film like The Ox-Bow Incident was even made by a mainstream studio in the 1940s is something of a miracle given its inflammatory theme and lack of commercial potential. As it was, it was filmed on a shoestring budget on sparse sets which, perhaps accidentally, add immeasurably to the stark content of its story. There’s little sign of hope or light, a reflection of the story’s sour opinion of the human condition. Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath, The Lady Eve) plays Gil Carter, a hot-headed drifter who has to be one of screen history’s least sympathetic heroes. Our Gil isn’t averse to stomping on a man’s head when he’s down as we see in an early scene set in the seedy bar of a dusty, dead-end town called Bridger’s Wells. The recipient of this drunken assault is Farnley (Marc Lawrence – The Kremlin Letter, The Marathon Man), a local rancher who suspects Gil of cattle rustling. Farnley will later be one of the main antagonists urging the lynching of three men that fall foul of an illegally assembled posse of Bridger’s Wells’ townsfolk, of which Gil and his friend, Art Croft (Harry Morgan – The Well, High Noon) are members only because they feel compelled to join in order to deflect suspicions that they are the rustlers the party is hunting.
The posse is led by General Tetley (Frank Conroy – Grand Hotel, The Little Minister) an officious former Confederate officer, who dons his old uniform for the occasion even though the story takes place in 1885, twenty years after the end of the Civil War. He also forces his pacifist son, Gerald (William Eythe – The House on 92nd Street), to come along. Also present are Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport – You Can’t Take it With You, Foreign Correspondent), the group’s voice of reason who constantly urges restraint when most other members of the posse are keen to string up their helpless captives, and black preacher Sparks (Leigh Whipper – Road to Zanzibar), who serves as the group’s conscience. The luckless trio who fall foul of the posse’s determination to avenge the death of one of their own represent those most prone to injustice: the outsider, Martin (Dana Andrews – A Walk in the Sun, The Frozen Dead), who has only just moved to the area, Martinez (Anthony Quinn – Against All Flags, Warlock), a foreigner with a questionable past, and Harvey (Francis Ford – Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath), an old man grown feeble-minded.
As well as being largely unsympathetic, Gil barely qualifies as a hero in the conventional sense. He’s afraid to protest too strongly against the proposed lynching of the three men for fear of joining them, and it’s this failure of people to speak out against injustice for fear of becoming victims themselves which is at the core of The Ox-Bow Incident’s story. Lamar Trotti’s screen adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clarke’s novel is tight and concise, but even at a brief 75-minute running time, there’s a curious scene in which Gil encounters his former sweetheart (Mary Beth Hughes) which feels largely superfluous. Nevertheless, The Ox-Bow Incident is almost unique in its unflinching depiction of the deadly consequences of vigilante justice; it’s a powerful indictment of our natural desire for revenge – passed off as justice – when something happens to one of our own, and a call to rise above it which is neatly – if highly improbably – encapsulated in a poignant letter Martin leaves to his wife. Recommended viewing.
(Reviewed 29th April 2015)