The western isn’t often thought of as a genre that delivers a lot of message films. There are exceptions of course, like The Searchers (in a way) or Dances With Wolves (good but heavy-handed). One of the best was released in 1943, The Ox-Bow Incident.
It’s 1885 in Nevada as small-time cattle ranchers Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into a quiet, small town in the hills looking to get a drink and a good meal. Rustlers have been working in the area, putting the ranchers and townspeople on high alert, especially when news reaches town that a popular rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen. An angry, murderous posse forms, led by a former Confederate officer, Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), that heads out on the trail, following reports of three men herding cattle into the mountains. Are they the rustlers? If they catch up, will they be brought to justice or promptly lynched?
Based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel of the same name, ‘Ox-Bow’ is a western ahead of its time. A box office flop, there’s no action, no romance (except for one odd exception), and a story that is bleak and depressing to say the least. What’s not to love?!? From director William Wellman, it’s a gem, an honest look at the wild west. There’s no romance, no perception of the glory or honor of America’s history in the west in the late 1800s. Just an indictment of mob mentality who thinks they know what is right and wrong.
Wellman filmed ‘Ox-Bow’ on basically two sets, one a western town in the Hollywood backlots and the other an indoor set standing in for the spot where the posse catches up to the believed rustlers. It’s equal parts uncomfortable, quiet and claustrophobic, all wrapped up in a 75-minute movie. There’s one odd scene where Fonda’s Carter meets a former love on the trail, but other than that, it’s a tight, well-executed final product.
Throughout his career, Fonda had a knack for playing the Everyman, the average Joe thrust into not so average situations. He can underplay a part (in a good way) and then come to life in a flash. That’s his Gil Carter, a cowboy and rancher who wants to know the truth before acting, to think things through as much as possible. Morgan is solid as his sidekick, equally quiet and worried they might be thought of as rustlers if they start acting funny.
The rest of the cast is broken down into 2 groups, the posse and the believed rustlers. The trio of potential rustlers includes Dana Andrews in a scene-stealing part, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford (John Ford’s older brother). Three very different parts, but the best kind of variety as the trio tries to convince the posse that they’re innocent. Andrews delivers a memorable turn especially, desperately trying to convince the posse they’ve got the wrong guys. The posse is frightening, a group of men who get angrier and angrier, their fury and rage blinding their decision-making. Along with Conroy, look for Jane Darwell, Harry Davenport (a voice of reason), Marc Lawrence, Paul Hurst, William Eythe (Tetley’s son) and Dick Rich.
When I think of dark movies like this, I describe them having a “sense of doom.” You just know watching ‘Ox-Bow’ that things aren’t going to end well. You just don’t know how it’ll go down. No spoilers here, so go in fresh without any knowledge of where the story goes. It’s a movie and a story that will no doubt stick with you long after viewing. A western classic for a reason.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): *** ½ /****