The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): Classic Movie Review

The Ox-Bow Inciden starring Henery FondaGuest blogger Colin McGuigan writes:

The western is a film genre that often gets a raw deal in the image stakes. And it’s not just a matter of waning box-office popularity in recent times. It’s rarely afforded the respect that other genres seem to court so easily and instead finds itself weighed down by the notion that it’s somehow unsophisticated. The term oater is applied in an affectionate way (I’ve used it myself), yet it carries a certain air of condescension when you stop and think about it. I guess the stereotype of uncouth figures riding horses, firing guns and chasing Indians is such a strong one that it’s managed to sideline the genre in the minds of many people. The paradox is that the western is actually one of the richest forms of cinema around. Leaving aside the frequently breathtaking visuals, the setting offers the opportunity to tell an almost unlimited range of stories and explore as many themes as it’s possible to imagine. The vast geographical expanses and the absence (or at best the bare rudiments) of civilization create a kind of nearly blank canvas onto which a skilled filmmaker can paint, with both bold and subtle strokes, whatever he likes. William Wellman was certainly highly skilled and his westerns are never less than interesting, and usually challenging too. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a powerful and memorable piece of work that stays with you and is one of those films that proves the western is capable of being not only an entertainment but an intellectual stimulant, as well.

The plot is a simple one and it’s that lack of complexity in the storytelling that’s one of its greatest strengths. The film has a moral point to impart and too much narrative trickery would only be a distraction and water down the central message. Events begin to unfold in a little backwater settlement where the neighbouring ranchers have been struggling with the perennial problem of cattle rustling. When a youngster comes racing into town to breathlessly announce that one of their own has been apparently murdered and his livestock taken, a tragic chain reaction is set in motion. The jaded and bitter populace experience disbelief and outrage and are teetering on the edge, poised to ride out and hunt down like animals the alleged killers of their friend. For a brief moment, it looks like reason and decency may prevail as the aged storekeeper Davies (Harry Davenport) appeals to their better nature. But this is not to be – ex-soldier Tetley (William Eythe) soon turns the townsfolk back to their base instincts, and a rag-tag posse is formed. Not wanting to draw the ire of the town upon themselves, two cowboys–Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan)–reluctantly join the eager hunting party. It’s not long before the posse cut the trail of three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford) who seem to fit the bill of the murderers. From this point on the movie becomes a kind of ethical struggle between the ineffectual Davies and the implacable Tetley for the souls of the posse members, with the fate of the three captives hanging in the balance.

The Ox-Bow Incident is based on the novel of the same name by Walt Van Tilburg Clark and, although it’s been quite a few years since I read the book, I recall it as being a pretty faithful adaptation. Wellman’s direction captures the heavy, moody and ultimately tragic tone of the novel very well. There aren’t many true exterior scenes, most of the film seeming to have been shot on sets, and this (along with the high contrast photography) helps to pile on the sense of claustrophobia and doom. While the outcome is fairly predictable, the director still maintains the tension and, crucially, that isn’t lost even with repeated viewings.

In fairness, a lot of that comes down to the performances too; Dana Andrews, as the leader of the suspected murderers, was billed below Henry Fonda but his work plays a large part in the success of the movie. His initial disbelief and growing desperation at the nightmare situation he finds himself in is built steadily. He did a fine job of conveying an awkward mix of fear and nobility that positively demands the sympathy of the viewer. In a sense, Fonda plays something of a supporting role in this one, only taking centre stage at a few points. Perhaps his best moment is in the saloon at the end when he reads Andrews’ letter to his illiterate friend. The letter itself is a powerful and emotive one that expertly outlines the author’s twinned concepts of justice and conscience. Fonda’s delivery of the words, as Wellman shot him in extreme close-up – partly obscured at first and then full face – is perfectly timed and enunciated to maximise their impact. However, for long stretches, he’s portraying the confused man in the middle, caught between the opposing ideals of Tetley and Davies. It’s this conflict that’s at the heart of the picture: how reasonable and civilized men can be browbeaten into submission, how the cult of personality can sway the masses and turn them into an unthinking mob, bereft of ethics and robbed of conscience. It’s both an indictment of the failings of the law – the sheriff has left town, the judge is a procrastinator, and the deputy is little more than a barbarian – and a warning that that same law is all we have to prevent our descent into inhumanity.

The DVD of The Ox-Bow Incident from Fox is an excellent presentation of the film; there’s hardly any damage to be seen, the detail level is fine, and the crisp image has the kind of strong contrast necessary for this type of movie. There’s also a fine selection of extras: a commentary track by William Wellman Jr and Dick Eulain, a biography of Fonda, and a gallery  of images. As I said in the intro, The Ox-Bow Incident is a good example of a thinking man’s western, yet for all that, it never loses sight of the fact that it has to entertain and grip the viewer, too. A superb film.

Colin McGuigan is an avid movie fan who likes the idea of sharing his thoughts on the films, both good and not so good, that catch his attention. For more information, visit Riding the High Country.

  • Susan

    Excellent post of a wonderful film. One of the striking components of a film of this caliber is the way that the skilled William Wellman draws outstanding performances from every one of his actors. He built tension and despair from a beautifully written script. Mr. McGuigan has given this film a powerful review. It isn’t easy to describe a story that is delivered here on so many levels. He has done a terrific job. Thank you

  • JIM RICK

    ONE OF MY FAVORITE FILMS…..THE THING ABOUT THIS FILM IS THAT THE BASIC STORY IS SO STRONG IT COULD HAVE BEEN MADE AS A STRAIGHT FILM, RATHER THEN AS A WESTERN….WONDERFUL FILM MAKING…..

  • Juanita Curtis

    An excellent film and a fine review. Henry Fonda had a powerful emotional range in all his roles . I agree with Jim that it would work in any genre which is probably why this is one of the few westerns that I would revisit again.

  • mike jaral

    this could have taken place in any time period. I find that it is a bit like spartigus, the good guy looses at the end, and I personally don’t like endings like that. even though thats life.reminds me a little of the old Spencer Tracey movie where he was in jail, and they thought he was killed, and he kept silent, just before the end produced himself to the court. at least the movie the Wrong Man ended good. that also was with henry fonda.

  • Steve Rothstein

    One of my favorite westerns. Great casting of so many good actors. I also thought Jane Darwell was a standout. I’m always amazed to see Harry Morgan (aka Colonel Sherman Potter) always popping up in character roles like in this movie. I enjoyed reading your post.

  • eddie quillen

    One of the all time greats. IIRC, the film was criticized over the years for its use of sets, as opposed to locations. I agree with Mr. McGuigan that using sets added to the claustrophobic feels, but at the time, many felt that John Ford would have done the novel more justice. The story goes that, after seeing the film, Mr. Ford wrote a letter the “Wild Bill” stating that he couldn’t have done it better himself.

    Of course, if John Ford did direct it, because of the complex relationship with his brother Frances, he probably would have eliminated what few word Frances Ford says in the film.

    Henry Fonda’s performance as the “everyman” persona he frequently portrayed was superb. In a film about “manliness,” mob mentality and just going along, it was the perfect use of this star’s quality.

    Of course, to get political, and upset some readers, let me just say that nowadays I figure the teabaggers who watch the movie would cheer the lynching. After all, they seem to want to go back to “frontier justice,” and most of the cattle rustlers who got lynched were guilty, so the hanging of innocents (including a probable illegal immigrant) wouldn’t bother them in the big picture. And I could see a George W. Bush or even a Rick Perry as a perfect Farnley.

  • Martin Stumacher

    What a wonderful film! The story in a western setting, could be applicable to any genre. It showed how in our quest to punish swiftly, we overlook that a society needs to respect the rule of law. Having Fonda snd Andrews and the entire cast, made this a memorable film.

  • ganderson

    I agree and compliment Colin on a fine post. It’s certainly one of the best movies in an unfortunately fading genre — I especially agree with the idea of the western as the broadest canvas a movie-maker can use. It reminded me of an oddly similar modern genre in some post-apocalyptic movies; ‘The Road Warrior,’ ‘The Book of Eli’ and even ‘The Mist’ have similar motifs, could all easily be set in the old west, and do an excellent job in exploring the thin veneer that separates civilization from barbarism. One of the best scenes in motion pictures is that of Fonda reading the letter in the saloon, with its heart-breaking mood lighting and his face almost completely obscured by Harry Morgan’s hat brim — only Fonda’s mouth is visible. I have a tiny quibble with the ending. In Clark’s book I believe the ending had Gil and Art agreeing to deliver the letter to the widow with a last line something like “I’ll be glad to leave this town.” There’s just a tad too much Hollywood sugar-coating in the movie, with Fonda’s character promising to care for that widow and help her run her ranch and herd her cattle. Minor complaint about an otherwise fine film.

  • Gary Vidmar

    A fine appreciation of this Wellman classic. There is now a superb, German blu-ray edition, for those that have all-region players.

  • richard finn

    I now look forward to seeing this movie. The actor Dana Andrews also appeared in another movie where innocent men were convicted and sentenced to death. The movie, The Purple Heart, which was about Doolittle Raiders. This crew was captured by the Japanese and put on a show trial and convicted as war criminals for have bombed Japan.

  • Colin McGuigan

    I just wanted to say how nice it is to see so many appreciative comments on this great movie, and also to express my thanks for all the kind compliments on my post. Cheers all.

    Colin

  • Lisa C

    One of my favorite westerns. Its portrayal of mob mentality over reason could be set in any time period, any place. How many of us would “do the right thing” when faced with an angry mob?Would we sit on the jail steps with Atticus?

    Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews were standouts, but I don’t think there was a bad performance in the movie. Jane Darwell’s character was especially troubling to me, because women are supposed to be “better” than that.

  • Sheryl

    Westerns, normally, not my favorite but this one changed my mind.

  • Gord Jackson

    For me, “The Ox Bow Incident” centres on vigilante justice, guilty until proven innocent (if one is given the chance to prove their innocence, that is.) It’s a little more refined today, but it certainly still goes on. For example, who isn’t familiar with the media’s propensity to tar and feather people arrested for heinous crimes, or their sheer delight in putting the boots to public figures who may be accused of some misdeed. Yes yes, I know, they use the word ‘alleged’ but that’s just lawyer-speak to keep them safe from a libel or slander suit. The Ox Bow Incident’s hang-em-high crowd could just as easily be comprised of the newsroom of your favourite daily, local television station or tv network. Vigilantyism did not die with the old west – it simply moved indoors.

  • George M. Goforth

    A very good review. However, the former soldier who incited the mob was Maj Tetley play by Frank Conroy. William Eythe played his son.

  • fred buschbaum

    Been awhile since I’ve seen this film. Quite a while….. Mr Quillen overall gives some good comments. However, his obvious dislike of “Teabaggers”, seems to paint him as a shirt rending, progressive liberal democrat. And as usual,”They”, never miss a chance to show their ignorance and disrespect for a neutral place like this. If I offend you, go suck eggs! from someone very far right from a republican.

  • mickey

    Just watched it again recently. One of my favorite reviews and this was a great write-up. Another movie that I don’t think would have been as powerful in color.
    And another great performance by the wonderful actress Jane Darwell as Jenny Grier who is as ruthless or worse than most of the men. The sound of her laughing with the men in the backgrouund while the 3 “murderers” are struggling with what’s about to happen always gives me a chill.
    Great performances by everybody. Love this movie.

  • chris

    classic movie, classic acting.

  • Mike B

    @eddie quillen

    Your review of this film was fine, right until you expressed your ignorant views on us ‘teabaggers’. Your comment shows that you have no clue to what the movement is about, just lunatic rantings fueled by the liberal media.

    Do us all a favor, stick to the movies.

    • RichardFan

      I seem to have missed the “teabagger” reference. Did you recognize yourself?

  • ChicagoGary

    I agree that Dana Andrews was even better than Henry Fonda in the movie, and it is a terrific film about the dangers of vigilante justice.

  • duke1029

    Although this writer calls the film version of “The Ox-Bpw Incident” a “faithful adaptation,” it diverges significantly from its original source in two important instances.
    If he read the novel, he should rermember that the two affable, open-mimded saddle tramps played by Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan ultimately vote with the mob to hang the wromgly accused trio, Isn’t that the most saliant piont about mob mentality made by Clark? Even though the two are otherwise honorable, fair men, they end up going along to get along for reasons that even they are not clear about. Fox obviously would not allow a valued contract player as Fonda besmeerch his screen image by making such a choice, so Lamar Trotti’s screenplay has him and his partner vote against the mob and even physically resist them but to no avail.
    A secomd major shift is the inclusion of the letter’s contents at the ending of the film. In the original novel, the specifics of Donald Martn’s (Dana Andrews’) letter to his wife are never revealed. Clark leaves it to the imagination of the reader. Although I’ve seen the movie dozens of times and once owned a 16mmm print which I showed annually to my students, I’ve always found the actual reading of the letter preachy and anticlimactic although I agree Wellman desrves great style points for the exquisite framing of the shot. Perhaps couching weighty philosophical concepts like justice in specific terms narrow and limit it for the audience. I think that Clark intended to nudge the audience toward formulating or reconsidering their own ideas of what constitutes an ehereal abstraction like justice. What we get in the film is a definition that’s been filtered through the attitudes and values of a socially conscious Hollywood screenwriter of the 1940s. Do Lamar Totti’s thoughts even coincide with Clark’s? In addition, the Andrews character objected to his intimate thoughts being ‘passed around,,’ even to save his life, .Clark honored that in his narrative, i wish screenwriter Trotti had too.
    These two points were concessions that Wellman had to make to get the picture made at all. He showed great courage in making what he knew would not be a commercially successful film. He resisted Darryl Zanuck and Fox’s suggestion to cast Mae West in the Jane Darwell role to boost box office.and had to agree to direct “Buffalo Bill” for Zanuck, a film and character he personally abhorred in order to get this,film he believed in made.
    In order to do “The Grapes of Wrath” Henry Fonda had to agree to a lengthy Fox contact in 1940 and becasue of it had to do some pretty lousy films. The only one he was proud of though was “Ox-Bow.” Although Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, and Jane Darwell give expectedly fine performances, it is many of the usually anonymous character actors in this film who do the best work of their long careers in “The Ox-Bow Incident.” Frank Conroy (as Major Tetley), William Eythe (as Gerald Teley), Harry Davenport (as Mr, Davies), Leigh Whipper (as Sparks), Paul Hurst (as Smith, the town drunk), Dick Rich (as Deputy Butch Mapes), Matt Briggs (as Judge Tyler), Victor Kilian (as Darby the saloonkeeper.), and Francis Ford (as Dad) vividly remain in the memory. If any of these nine.journeymen actors gave a better performance elsewhere in theitr careers, I certainly dob’t know of it. The credit for that should go to one of the most underrated directors in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Willam A. ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman. Wellman had to make some compromises to get the film made, but without his determination it neve would have been

  • http://twitter.com/Bryankr Bryan Ruffin

    Ox-Bow Incident is one of my favorite Westerns! It isn’t all that long, as movies go, but the theme behind it, the direction, the actors playing the roles all more than made up for the length it didn’t have. I love to pull this movie out and watch it just one more time!

  • rufnek43

    It’s a realistic western with a great story, well directed, and an outstanding cast including top supporting actors. But it’s a film I can’t stand watching again any more than I can sit through films about Holocaust victims.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.j.anello Vincent J. Anello

    I watched the Ox-Bow incident and enjoyed many times, I still hope they get saved every time, a very good movie.

  • Yves Fey

    I love this movie, and rewatched it just recently. It was a core film in my youthful moral education, along with Compulsion, Twelve Angry Men and Gentleman’s Agreement. I call myself a “Hollywood Liberal” but if other parts of the political spectrum feel this film fits their values, so much the better. It’s a powerful Western but feels as much courtroom drama – a la To Kill a Mockingbird.

  • Bill in Sinton

    This was one great movie. It shows how basically good people can be influenced to make hastily and regrettable mistakes.

  • thackeraybill@yahoo.com

    I remember this movie well with its powerful message after all the years since I saw it last. The OX-Bow Incident novel by Walter Van Tilberg Clark is equally or more powerful and convincing.
    I especially remember the subtle power and guilt that Henry Fonda projected so well.

  • SML

    Any film with Dana Andrews is worth watching. Although he had not yet reach the star status of Fonda, his day would soon arrive with Laura, Best Years of our Lives, Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Walk in the Sun to mention a few. I really love this film–AND wish it were even longer (David Lean & Stanley Kubrick take the hint). “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” (Alfred Hitchcock…who made some pretty hefty films himself, such as Topaz).

  • gingi

    I was nine yrs old when my dad took me to see ox bow incident. I was so impressed about innocent people that were hanged. couldn’t sleep for a wk after that