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The Ox-Bow Incident

The Ox-Bow Incident
Fox Home Entertainment
1942 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 75 min. / Strange Incident / Street Date November 4, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Anthony Quinn, William Eythe, Harry Morgan, Jane Darwell, Matt Briggs, Harry Davenport, Frank Conroy, Marc Lawrence
Cinematography Arthur Miller
Art Direction James Basevi, Richard Day
Film Editor Allen McNeil
Original Music Cyril J. Mockridge
Written and Produced by Lamar Trotti from a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Directed by William A. Wellman

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. There 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 de-emphasized, 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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