Not Rated| 1h 15min | Drama, Western | 1943
Director William A. Wellman (“Yellow Sky,” “Battleground”) based his thought-provoking Western “The Ox-Bow Incident” on a book about mob justice (of the same name) authored by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Coming in at a mere 75 minutes, this tautly paced film was adapted for the screen by the brilliant scriptwriter Lamar Trotti. It’s a scathing indictment of mob rule and is perhaps the most powerful anti-lynching movie ever made.
The story takes place in the small town of Bridger’s Wells, Nevada, in 1885. Two rough and tumble drifters, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), ride into town and commence to drink a bottle of whiskey at the local saloon. After Gil gets plastered and starts a fight with local cowboy Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence), the two drifters learn that another local man, rancher Larry Kinkaid, has been killed and had all of his cattle stolen.
Furious to the point of not thinking rationally, Farnley gathers a posse to catch those responsible for the murder and cattle rustling. One of the only voices of reason belongs to a kind-hearted, elderly shopkeeper named Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport). He implores the men to wait until the town’s chief lawman, Sheriff Risley (Willard Robertson), returns from a trip, to properly and legally get to the bottom of the matter. Davies also insists that Judge Daniel Tyler (Matt Briggs) calm the men so that any suspects they do catch will be hanged only after a proper trial.
However, since there’s been a recent rash of cattle rustlings, the men have grown impatient. Therefore, they have Deputy Sheriff Butch Mapes (Dick Rich) illegally swear in the angry group as a posse.
The mob eventually includes an arrogant ex-Confederate soldier Maj. Tetley (Frank Conroy), who leads the group while wearing his uniform, as well as a single scurrilous woman, Ma Grier (Jane Darwell), who turns out to be one of the more ruthless posse members. Since both Gil and Art were initially suspected of being cattle rustlers, they reluctantly join the rapidly expanding mob.
Although Judge Tyler and Davies make one last ditch effort to convince the lynching posse that what they’re about to do is illegal, the surly group wants what they consider justice and ride out of town in a cloud of thick dust.
As night falls, the posse comes across a stagecoach and attempts to stop it in order to see its passengers. But in the darkness, the stagecoach’s guard mistakes the posse for bandits and attempts to outrun them. One of the guards shoots at the group and strikes Art in his shoulder.
When the lynching party catches up to the stagecoach, they find that it’s occupied by Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes) and her new husband, a well-to-do gentleman named Mr. Swanson (George Meeker).
After treating Art’s shoulder, the posse rides into the titular Ox-Bow Canyon, where they come across three men sleeping near a campfire with what they assume are Kincaid’s stolen cattle nearby. Maj. Tetley orchestrates the capture of the three men—which consist of a rancher named Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), his hired hand Juan Martínez (Anthony Quinn), and old codger Alva “Dad” Hardwicke (Francis Ford).
After the posse captures the suspected cattle rustlers, it becomes apparent that the trio probably didn’t commit the crimes. But the posse is too fired up to listen to their pleas of innocence. Will cooler heads prevail?
The acting in “The Ox-Bow Incident” is fantastically convincing all around, with Fonda’s performance as an unwilling member of a thuggish lynching party taking center stage. Andrews is also outstanding as a suspected cattle rustler trying to appeal to any shred of humanity in the ugly posse.
As a whole, this film is a brilliant exposé on mob “justice” and how emotions can sometimes interfere with rational thinking.
‘The Ox-Bow Incident’
Director: William A. Wellman
Starring: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Release Date: May 21, 1943
Rated: 4 out of 5 stars