Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The modern social issue story gets a Western workout in this austere and uncompromising story of
a pitiless lynch mob, based on a famous novel. With only a couple of nods to star Henry Fonda's image,
William Wellman's little film avoids Hollywood sensationalism to center on America's violent
core. A forerunner to later civil rights films, the tale is all the more remarkable for being
released at the beginning of WW2 when studio fare was almost exclusively rah-rah in nature.
Saddle tramps Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Henry Morgan) drift into
town just as a posse gets up to find the killers of a well-liked rancher. Out for blood are the
victim's best friend Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence) and the bigoted local bigshot 'Major' Tetley (Frank
Conroy), who sees a vigilante killing as a way of imposing manliness on his cowardly son Gerald
(William Eythe). Bitter over losing his girl to a Frisco heel, Carter goes along with
the mob, partly to keep them from suspecting him. But the illegal posse has no logic but its
own worst motives, a chemistry that becomes perfectly clear when they 'apprehend' three cowpokes
(Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford) cursed with problems of circumstantial evidence.
In Johnny Guitar, Sterling Hayden says that posses are like a wild animal. They ride and
ride and get tired out, and after awhile they don't care who they hang.
The Ox-Bow Incident was known as Strange Incident in England, perhaps because the
idea of a lynch mob just never happened over there. They must have had their own forms of lawless
violence, I suppose. Walter Van Tilburg Clark's grim tale of the breakdown of civil order is an
open indictment of an American mentality we all recognize. Most everybody in the crummy little
town pictured is an embittered, bored jerk easily led by self-appointed leaders eager to find
somebody to punish, for a crime nobody bothers to verify really happened.
Nobody's minding the store, and with the only authority away, the sensible voices of
the storekeeper (Harry Davenport) and a pompous judge (Matt Briggs) are ignored.
Previous ventures into the idea of lynch mobs were few and far between. A famous incident in
California in about 1933 inspired Fritz Lang's Fury, an excellent movie that blended
American hysteria with German expressionism. The same Depression lynching would later be used
for the noir
classic Try and Get Me! (The Sound of Fury), a movie that matched gut-wrenching
dramatics and a gnawing subversive streak with clumsy liberal preaching.
The Ox-Bow Incident is a pure civics lesson that showed certain talents in Hollywood were
interested in civil justice. Trotta and Wellman place a black character conspicuously in their tale.
I forget if he was part of the original story. It's the closest they can come to the untold truth -
that the overwhelming number of lynchings in kill-crazy America were racial attacks against
minorities, mostly blacks.
The rest of The Ox-Bow Incident is liberal issue
work at its best. The film has no heroes. Henry Fonda is a good-hearted guy but not much less
cranky than the rest of the mob. He doesn't see himself as a defender of virtue. The script does
give him a moment of rebellion just before the lynching, but he's as ineffectual as the only
truly noble man in the group, Harry Davenport. The mob feeds on its own stupidity, and after
committing themselves to their violent aim, pride and pigheadedness are too strong to let doubt or
sanity intervene. Only seven out of perhaps 25 men vote to wait for authority to take control; the
rest are too eager to exercise their eagerly siezed power to play executioner. The emotional
instigator (given sympathy by Marc Lawrence) is the only killer with anything like an excuse.
Many of the others just plain want to kill somebody.
It's an ugly bunch in a West desperately in need of a female influence. The only women on view are
Margaret Hamilton's dried-up crone, the two-timing golddigger that upsets Henry Fonda, and Jane
Darwell's wretched character. She's right from the book, and is a wicked turnabout from Darwell's
salt-of-the-Earth The Grapes of Wrath image. She must have had fun doing something
different, and she certainly makes The Ox-Bow Incident's West bleak and hateful.
The victims are very nicely drawn. They're unlucky but not entirely innocent. Young Dana Andrews
(was this picture a break for him? I don't think he was a star yet) exudes character and honesty
but Anthony Quinn's shows a prideful contempt for his captors and sad sack Francis Ford (a silent
movie director who got his brother John into the biz) is quick to try to weasel his way out by
accusing his friends. It wouldn't matter who they were or how they behaved, the story insists.
After the grim final scene that refuses to let anyone off the hook, The Ox-Bow Incident ends
in a very non-Hollywood way. The rotten Major Tetley doesn't jump on his sword as he did in the book:
here it's implied that his soldier act may be phony. Fonda and the wounded Harry Morgan (Hollywood's
most consistent sidekick) limp out of town, passing the same draggy dog that dragged by when they
rode in. William Wellman adds a masterly wrinkle to the sentimental scene of Fonda reading Andrew's
final letter by obscuring Fonda's eyes with Morgan's hat brim. Wellman did this often when he
wanted audiences to focus on a message instead of a personality.
Fonda appears to be heading off in the direction of Dana Andrews' widow, an idea similar to
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
are the aforementioned nods toward protecting Henry Fonda's star image, and I don't remember
the book ending with anything more optimistic than Gil and Art wanting to forget all about the
whole miserable experience. But for faithfulness to an uncommercial book adaptation, this must
have been a revelation for 1942 Hollywood.
Fox's Studio Classics release of The Ox-Bow Incident replaces Laura in the
lineup; hopefully that winner has been delayed to make it better, and not for some legal snag. The
restoration on this 'Western' is excellent, and the economical interior sets don't look as gloomy
as they once did in 16mm prints. It's great to have a classic like this in such good condition.
The main extra, besides the 'it's a classic!' trailer, is a welcome Biography rundown on
Henry Fonda that touches nicely on the main points of his life. His familial failings are
with the testimony of Jane and Peter to back up the idea that he just didn't have the personality
to be the best husband or father, even though in films he came across as supremely sensitive
and loving. The film alludes to his liberal leanings without mentioning his radical effort in
Walter Wanger's Blockade or his
late-career triumph in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, a DVD that's currently hotly
awaited. A lively commentary is provided by Western Scholar Dick Eulain and William Wellman Jr., both
excellent choices; I saw Wellman's docu on his famous father and it's very good.
Look close in the lynch mob and you'll catch sight of the famous Rondo Hatton. I'd get into the
tale of his appearence, but as Lou Jacobi said, that's another story.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Ox-Bow Incident rates:
Supplements: Biography piece on Henry Fonda, trailer, commentary with Dick Eulain and
William Wellman, Jr.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 2, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson