The Ox-Bow Incident (1942)


(director: William A. Wellman; screenwriters: Lamar Trotti/based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark; cinematographer: Arthur Miller; editor: Allen McNeil; music: Cyril J. Mockridge; cast: Henry Fonda (Gil Carter), Dana Andrews (Donald Martin), Mary Beth Hughes (Rose Mapen), Anthony Quinn (Juan Martinez), William Eythe (Gerald Tetley), Harry Morgan (Art Croft), Jane Darwell (Ma Grier), Matt Briggs (Judge Daniel Tyler), Harry Davenport (Arthur Davies), Frank Conroy (Maj. Tetley), Marc Lawrence (Farnley), Victor Kilian (Darby), Willard Robertson (Sheriff), Chris-Pin Martin (Poncho), Leigh Whipper (Sparks), Dick Rich (Deputy Butch Mapes), Francis Ford (Old Man), Frank Orth (Kinkaid); Runtime: 76; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lamar Trotti; Twentieth Century-Fox; 1942)
“It holds up as the best anti-lynching film ever made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director William A. Wellman (“Wings”/”The Public Enemy”/”Battleground”) bases this stark, lyrical and somber Western about frontier justice on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. It’s tautly scripted by producer Lamar Trotti. It holds up as the best anti-lynching film ever made, and makes a good companion piece to LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget and Lang’s Fury. The film was shot entirely on sound sets in the studio, as studio head Darryl F. Zannuck had no confidence such a serious Western could make money. This would normally bum a Western picture out that depends on location shots, but in this case it set a noir mood of claustrophobia and only added to the tension. It’s the story of three innocent men in 1885, in the small sleepy Nevada town of Bridger’s Wells, who on flimsy evidence of rustling and then killing the rancher are hanged by a blood-thirsty lynch mob.

Warning: spoiler to follow in this paragraph.

While free-spirited cowboys Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), from a nearby town, are in the bar at Bridger’s Wells, word comes that beloved rancher Kinkaid was killed and his cattle rustled. Kinkaid’s best friend Farnley (Marc Lawrence) stirs up a lynching party, but is opposed by liberal storekeeper Davies (Harry Davenport) who insists they wait for the sheriff (Willard Robertson) to return and that Judge Tyler (Matt Briggs) speak to the men to tell them the suspects cannot be hanged without a fair trial. But there’s been a number of recent rustling incidents and the men are impatient, so they get Deputy Sheriff Mapes (Dick Rich) to illegally swear them in as a posse (we are informed that only a sheriff has that right) and pompous ex-Confederate soldier Maj. Tetley (Frank Conroy), dressed in his army uniform, to lead them. The three cowboys—new to the territory rancher Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), his Mexican hired hand (Anthony Quinn) and a feeble-minded old man (Francis Ford)—are quickly found in Ox-Bow and their fate is decided when the posse refuses to believe Martin’s story that he bought Kinkaid’s cattle without a bill of sale and that the Mexican found Kinkaid’s gun on the trail. The posse ignores the obvious that the three were in no hurry to flee, as they were caught sleeping by a campfire, and then refuse to wait until the next day to verify Martin’s story with Kinkaid’s wife and question Martin’s wife. Only seven men in the large mob oppose the hanging, and that seven includes Gil and Art. Davies is convinced that the men are innocent after reading Martin’s farewell letter to his wife and child, saying no man this sensitive can commit such a crime. After haggling with the men’s fate through the night, they are strung-up at dawn. On their way back to town the posse runs into the sheriff, who informs them that Kinkaid is not dead but was wounded by someone now under arrest and his cattle was not rustled.

The acting is first-rate all around: with Fonda’s compassionate performance taking center stage as the rough and tumble cowboy made an unwilling member of the lynching and Andrews’ moving performance as the victim of a mean-spirited ugly mob. While the posse members intensely display how their ability to reason and act human were curtailed by the fever of the mob. Jane Darwell, as the only woman in the mob, proves she can be even more brutish than the men, while the fake major is shown to be an inept leader who has made life miserable for his effete son (William Eythe) by forcing him to participate in order to make a man out of him.

The film played as a simple parable and was far more pessimistic about frontier justice than the usual Western. It served as a turning point for how the modern Western now had different ammunition to fire. Some may find it lacking action in the typical Western way or too filled with preaching; but, even if this is so, there’s a certain gripping power that makes this superior Western a landmark film and one of the most poignant.

Wellman bought the rights to The Ox-Bow Incident for $6,500, but was turned down for years by every producer he approached to put up the money to make it until a reluctant Zanuck had the guts to film the out-of-the-ordinary story for the prestige rather than the dough. But to seal the bargain from Zanuck, Wellman had to agree that he would also direct two pictures for the producer—Thunder Birds (1942) and Buffalo Bill (1944)—that he was not that enthused about.

This film inspired Sidney Lumet’s courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men (1957), which also starred Fonda.