The Ox-Bow Incident—Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, Anthony Quinn, Frank Conroy, William Eythe, Jane Darwell (1943; Dir: William Wellman)
This is one of those movies that is more admired than watched these days, much like Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel on which it is based. But it’s an excellent character study and a searing indictment of mob justice. It’s all the more remarkable when one considers that it predates the McCarthy era by a decade. It can be taken as one of the excellent examples of social commentary from its period, along with such films as The Grapes of Wrath and Sullivan’s Travels. It probably gets less respect than those because it’s a western, and it is less watched by western fans because it’s heavy on the social commentary—lots of talk and not so much action.
The film’s action, such as it is, takes place in Nevada in 1885. Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and his partner Art Croft (an early appearance by Harry Morgan) are regular cowhands and small ranchers, making one of their infrequent stops in the small town of Bridger’s Wells one spring, when they with others hear of rustling and the murder of Larry Kincaid, a well-thought-of local rancher. The sheriff isn’t readily available, so a posse is formed with his deputy under the leadership of Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), apparently a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. Carter and Croft join the posse in part so they don’t become suspects themselves. In pursuit of the supposed murderers, they encounter a stage carrying Carter’s less-than-faithful intended and her new San Francisco husband.
In Ox-Bow Canyon, the posse catches fifty head of Kincaid’s cattle in the possession of three men, led by Donald Martin (a young Dana Andrews), who claims to be a new rancher from a nearby town. Nobody knows him, though, and they don’t buy his story. Martin says he bought the cattle from Kincaid but doesn’t have a bill of sale. After hearing a little, the posse decides to string up the three of them. There is an extended sequence while one of the three, a Mexican (a young Anthony Quinn), makes a break for it and is shot in the leg. The third turns out to be a feeble-minded old man (Francis Ford, brother of the more famous director John Ford). Seven of the posse, including Carter, Croft and Major Tetley’s cowardly son Gerald (William Eythe), have misgivings about the lynching and stand up against it, but to no effect. Martin is given time to write a last letter to his wife, and the hanging is done.
Quinn, Andrews, Fonda, Conroy and Darwell: A necktie party.
As the posse heads out, the sheriff unexpectedly turns up. He says that Kincaid is not dead, and they caught the ones who shot him, meaning that those the posse lynched were innocent, just as they claimed. From what the sheriff says, he intends to take action against those responsible for the hanging. The chastened posse makes its way back to town, where Carter reads Martin’s last letter to them as they reflectively drink in a saloon. The split between Tetley and his son has become irreparable, and the major shoots himself. As the movie ends, Carter and Croft head off to deliver Martin’s letter to his widow.
That the film contains so many good performances must be attributed to William Wellman, the director. Henry Fonda in particular is superb as Carter, and this performance ranks among his best. But a number of new, young actors (Andrews, Morgan, Eythe, Quinn) are also very good in this film. As Farnley, the hothead who continually incites the posse, screen villain Marc Lawrence is deliciously unlikable. Henry Davenport, as Davies, the leader of opposition to hanging, is very good. Jane Darwell as Ma Grier, the female member of the posse, has none of Ma Joad’s warmth. Sparks (Leigh Whipper, uncredited) provides a bit of humanity as a black man tolerated on the posse who is one of the seven objectors and prays as the men are hanged. His character later says that his brother was lynched, accounting for his sympathy with those hung.
One scene that stands out is Carter’s reading of the Martin letter to the other posse members in the bar, after they have returned to Bridger’s Wells. As a dramatic moment, it ranks with Fonda’s Tom Joad soliloquy in The Grapes of Wrath, despite the fact that (a) the contents of the letter are never revealed in the novel, and (b) the letter doesn’t sound much like an 1880s rancher, but much more like a 1940s screenwriter (Lamar Trotti, in this case). Fonda’s face is deliberately obscured by a hat brim for much of the reading, so his words are the focus. This is one of Fonda’s best performances, although his character starts out fairly unlikable and is merely a witness for much of the movie. In Fonda’s career, this film invites comparison not only with The Grapes of Wrath, but with the later 12 Angry Men. Immediately after making this movie, Fonda enlisted in the U.S. Navy for the remainder of World War II. Harry Morgan had a solid and long-lived career as a character actor, showing up as an unhelpful townsman in High Noon and as a quasi-comic mayor in Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter.
It’s a fairly short movie at less than 75 minutes. Even so, it’s hard to know what to make of the early subplot with Carter’s supposed fiancée. Made with a small budget and not a commercial success upon its release, the film was nevertheless a Best Picture nominee in that year’s Academy Awards. It lost to Casablanca, as it should have.