"The Ox-Bow Incident" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
Like most westerns "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943) is a story about law and order, revenge, the meaning of justice and masculinity. A struggle between cliche western macho ism vs modern liberalism. It is a film with a deep social conscience about men trying to do the right thing.
Under those terms "The Ox-Bow Incident" doesn't seem much different than any other western. The themes are the same. But this is a powerful film. A movie that has the ability to stir a lot of emotions within the viewer. It strikes a nerves. It makes the viewer ask who is right? Who is just? Is justice truly being served. The film clearly takes sides but it presents both viewpoints. Neither side is willing to give an inch.
In the most basic terms "The Ox-Bow Incident" is about a small community. The townsfolk find out one of their own has been murdered. A fellow rancher. Not only was he murdered but a rustler stole his cattle. A posse is formed by Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence), who has taken the news very personal, and Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), who fought on the side of the Confederate during the Civil War. He proudly wears his uniform on the hunt for the killer.
The conflict is the sheriff is out of town. For the posse to go after the killer and lynch him (as is their plan) would be against the rule of the law. Every man is entitled to a fair trial. This is what Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport) argues. The townspeople don't want to hear such talk. One of their own was murdered. Revenge needs to be taken immediately. This is not a time for law and order. No one wants to hear talk about a trial, a long legal process where people may gain sympathy for the killer. Better the seek revenge quickly and be done with the matter.
Two drifters ride into town on this very day; Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art (Harry Morgan. Best known for his TV work on the shows "M*A*S*H" and "Dragnet"). They reluctantly agree to join the posse out of fear of being accused themselves, though they tend to agree with Davies point about a trial.
The posse believes they have found their killer, Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) who along with Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn) has be caught camping in the mountain. He admits he has some of the dead man's cattle, but, he claims he bought it from him the day before. They are caught with the dead man's gun, but, claim to have found it.
What to do? Donald confesses to nothing. He shouts his innocents but the posse is already finding a tree to hang the noose.
With Henry Fonda in the film it is not hard to think of the Sidney Lumet courtroom drama "12 Angry Men" (1957) about a group of jurors debating a guilty verdict with Fonda as the only one among them who believes an innocent verdict should be passed. Here we are face with the same moral dilemma.
Of course with Dana Andrews in the picture, who knows, he could be the killer. Andrews didn't always play nice guys. Watch him in a pair of Otto Preminger noir films; "Fallen Angel" (1945) and "Where the Sidewalk Ends" (1950). At this point however Andrews really hadn't broken through yet. He would get a big break a year later in yet another Otto Preminger film, the classic "Laura' (1944).
Although Henry Fonda is given top billing, he is actually not the conscience of the film. It is Dana Andrews and Harry Davenport who give us the moral message. Andrews scenes are intense. His performance is a knock out. We can sense his fear and desperation. He is fighting for his life. He is faced against a crowd that has made up their mind about him no matter what he may say. Andrews' character delivers the stinging last words in the film.
Fonda on the other hand merely plays the outsider. He doesn't stick his neck out to protect the innocent. He follows the majority but knows in his heart what they are doing is wrong.
The other interesting theme of the film is masculinity. The major considers his son, Gerald (William Eythe) an embarrassment. At one point he calls him a "female male". The major forces his son to join the posse. The major is going to make a "man" out of his son.
With characters like Davies and Gerald, here we get the balance of "modern" liberalism against the western macho ism we expect in the genre. A "real" man joins the posse, carries a gun and is always prepared to kill in the name of defending his honor. A more "modern" thinking male talks about trials and due process. To the macho westerner these are the words a coward hides behind. A man who is afraid of the sight of blood. Real men shoot first and ask questions later.
It is these two ideologies which are competing with each other in "The Ox-Bow Incident".
I am someone who firmly believes movies are a reflection of their times. What would make 20th Century Fox and director William A Wellman (known for "Night Nurse" (1931), "The Public Enemy" (1931) and "A Star Is Born" (1937) with Janet Gaynor) want to make this type of movie? By 1943 the attack of Pearl Harbor had already occurred and depending upon which month this film was released we may have sent men overseas into the war. Is "The Ox-Bow Incident" a pacifist film? Is it saying men should not take arms against other men? Violence only leads to more violence. I'm not sure. These are merely ideas, suggestions.
"The Ox-Bow Incident" was nominated for one Academy Award, for best picture. It had some good competition that year going up against "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1943), "In Which We Serve" (1943, which I have reviewed) and the eventual Oscar winner, "Casablanca" (1943, which I have reviewed). Though it did win the National Board of Review award for best picture.
If you are interested in seeing another movie which plays around with some similar themes and is not a western, watch the classic Fritz Lang film, "Fury" (1936) with Spencer Tracy. That movie is a masterpiece.