Directed by William A. Wellman
One of the movies that often gets named when people list great westerns is The Ox-Bow Incident. As the movie began, I confess I was wondering why. It seemed a very conventional, formulaic 1940’s western.
But then it found its legs and became increasingly enthralling.
In the end, I could see why it is named as one of the great westerns though it should be said this is more for its story than for any film-making technique. (It does look great, though, even if the majority of it is done on sets.)
Two cowboys come into town (Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan). They’re not up to date on what has been happening lately in the area. They soon find out the town is upset about rustlers and stolen cattle. There is a deep anger over this.
Then someone rides into town and informs everyone that one rancher, a Kincaid, has been shot. Cattle may have been stolen too.
Everyone’s enraged by the news of Kincaid’s death. A posse quickly forms with lynching in mind, despite the protestations a small few.
They catch up to three men who are sleeping by a campfire (including Dana Andrews and an Anthony Quinn as a Mexican).
The posse (really a mob) grab the men and prepare to hang them. The men plead their innocence but no one takes them seriously.
The majority of the film centres around the question of their innocence and mob’s unwillingness to listen or wait to determine one way or another if what they are saying is true.
It eventually comes down to a handful of men who stand up for holding the men and waiting for answers, or at least for the sheriff to arrive, and the majority of the posse who can’t hang the men fast enough.
So while the movie begins in a typical western fashion it soon veers off in another direction. Like most really good westerns, it becomes a morality play. It focuses on the individual versus the crowd and standing up for what is right.
Henry Fonda is great in the movie as a quick-tempered man who does have a moral centre.
There is a particularly good scene toward the end where he reads the letter of one of the men accused of rustling. Not only is his performance wonderful, it is also shot brilliantly by director William Wellman.
In the end, The Ox-Bow Incident is a great movie about reason set against mob thinking and an articulate argument for law in society.
- The Ox-Bow Incident — Amazon.com (U.S.)
- The Ox-Bow Incident — Amazon.ca (Canada)