The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Directed by William A. Wellman
Written by Lamar Trotti

While I entered this marathon a novice within the genre, and I would argue that I still am, there were a handful of titles which I had seen before. I contemplated skipping them, given the sheer size of the marathon, but I felt it was important to not only re-evaluate these films, but also to see their inclusion within the history and development of the genre in a chronological sense. Plus, the few I have seen are mostly high points of the genre from all indications. The Ox-Bow Incident was one of those films, even though I remember very little about it, other than being less than impressed despite its stellar reputation. My revisit of the film is exactly why I wanted to include the titles I have seen. It switched! The Ox-Bow Incident is good!

Set in a sleepy, antebellum Nevada town, The Ox-Bow Incident finds Gil (Henry Fonda) and Art (Harry Morgan) amble into town looking for something to do. With nothing else on the agenda, they stroll into the local saloon to have a drink. Soon enough, the town hears news that a local rancher, Larry Kincaid, has been murdered and his cattle stolen. Impatient with the sheriff out of town, a posse forms and soon enough to encounter three unknown men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, Francis Ford) in the desert who claim they’ve recently purchased cattle from Kincaid, while the posse suspects they are to blame for the murder.

I’ll try to keep this short, as director William A. Wellman did the same for his viewers at just 75 minutes in run time. This film reminds me a great deal of another, perhaps more famous Henry Fonda film, 12 Angry Men, which was released over a decade after The Ox-Bow Incident. Here, we get to see Fonda play part of another great ensemble, with no man, not even Fonda himself, where the threat of miscarriage of justice looms large. It makes more sense in a barren western landscape where law barely exists to begin with, compared to the confined jury room in 12 Angry Men.

There is a lot of maneuvering by various members of the ensemble, most notably Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), to serve the justice they so deeply desire, but there are a few reasonable members of the group, like Fonda’s Gil, who prefer to err on the side of caution, especially after learning of Donald Martin’s (Dana Andrews) story. The strongest aspect of the film is easily its script, which unfolds piece by piece and plays with the emotions and perspectives of its audience. There were times I was both for and against the posse, its wishes, and its methods. The cast is also fairly universally strong, including enough meat for each character to care, like Tetley’s son, who tags along to learn what it means to be a man, which ends up to be a little more than ironic in the end.

The story elements tie this taut film together. Each line, each movement is deliberate and plays a part in telling the story, which helps make it an impressively efficient film with both great form and entertainment value. The moral dilemma at the center of the film is really the star, as no one cast member plays a big enough part on their own, but this decision is rather important because that means there is no hero. In this story, there shouldn’t be a hero. There are plenty of moments, mostly well written lines, that are lasting and memorable, from the man in the painting above the bar, to the fittingly moving letter which Gil recites at the end. The Ox-Bow Incident is a grade A western.

*** 1/2 – Great


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