As one of the first examples of the anti-western, and perhaps the best, William Wellman’s magnificent The Ox-Bow Incident is a perfect film, a dark and cynical tale of old-west justice gone bad. It's probably even Wellman’s best film....period, and it also contains one of Henry Fonda’s best performances…..although his list of BEST performances is pretty lengthy to begin with. Wellman holds a stake as part of the group of directors who added lasting impact to the western genre in particular. His best work occurs when he takes a clear-eyed, unadorned look at things, and weaves a deft, emotional weight throughout that reflects a certain human understanding like here in this film, or in Yellow Sky, or Westward the Women. There is a reality-based element on display in these works that de-mythologizes the west, particularly in this film, which is filled with a certain nasty sort of basic human instinct gone unchecked.
Wellman’s film was written by Lamar Trotti, based upon a novel by the same name by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. It stars Henry Fonda as an aimless drifter named Gil Carter, who with his friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan), ride into Bridger’s Wells, Nevada and stop at the saloon. Talk of cattle rustling and suspected criminals talked about. In no time, Art and Gil begin to be suspected by others at the saloon. Later that afternoon in town, it is announced that a local rancher, named Larry Kinkaid has been murdered, and the town assembles a make-shift posse to pursue the villains. This posse is warned by the local judge to bring the men back to trial in town if they are found, and not to lynch them on the spot. It’s clear though, that the town wants quick justice and determines to go on a majority vote to lynch or not, once the perpetrators are found. A man who has just come down from the mountains tells the posse he has seen three men heading up that way with a bunch of cattle bearing Kinkaid’s brand. The posse then heads to find the men, with Art and Gil joining to avoid any sorts of suspicion from the local, blood-thirsty crowd. After traveling up the mountains through the night, the posse happens upon three men sleeping. They hold up these men at gunpoint, and convinced that they are guilty, the posse begins to use their interrogations and accusations to serve their own need for quick justice. Those accused are a farmer named Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), a young Mexican Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn), and an older gentleman named Alva Hardwicke (Francis Ford). The cattle Martin has is indeed Kinkaid’s, but Martin claims he paid for it and that he and his men had nothing to do with the crime. The ugly nature of human instinct is on full display in the second half of the film, as the three men plead their innocence, while most of the posse are determined to lynch them, despite the fact that none of the evidence suggests that the men are guilty. Pleas from some of the posse who disagree with the proposed lynching go mainly unheard.
This scenario in this film previews Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, and even contains the continuity of Henry Fonda (whom Lumet must have seen in The Ox-Bow Incident), but there are some key differences. In 12 Angry Men, there is a modern safety-net of the jury and due process. In The Ox-Bow Incident, the lynch mob mentality is on full display, and even the actions and intentions of the so-called “good” people, really can have very little impact once the lynch-mob finds it’s target. In this way, it’s almost like the opposite of 12 Angry Men……this is what happens when we let the actions of a few headstrong, vengeful people play jury, as opposed to the lone hold-out in 12 Angry Men who can impact the outcome all by himself. What The Ox-Bow Incident does is basically present to us the anti-western concept….there are no heroes, the good people can do nothing to impact the final outcome, and the pleading cries of the innocent are drawn out, reminding us continually that this is unjust, making the viewer cringe with sympathy and realize that the “wild west” wasn’t called “wild” for no reason. When watching many westerns, we forget to reflect upon the certain level of fear that one may have had to live with in an era when frontier justice was still ruled with a gun. One of the best elements of the plot structure is the fact that we as the audience are kept at a parallel understanding with the accusers regarding the suspected criminals and their guilt or innocence. We do not know any more or less than anyone else in the film knows, providing an element of suspense to the script which positions us as needing to decide for ourselves what we would do if we were put into this same sort of situation. At least that’s how I think about it. I must admit that it’s a tremendously moving script, especially once we get to know that Martin has a wife and kids and is just getting his start in the local area. This becomes even more pronounced when we learn Martin wants to write a parting letter to his wife. In the film's final 30 minutes on the mountain pass, we witness a series of confrontations, debates, and propositions, in one of the most memorable scenes in any western ever made.
Henry Fonda is cold, and stand-offish as the lonely drifter, but also clearly has a good heart. Fonda’s able to present both of these elements in his performance and it’s extremely nuanced. There are few actors better than Fonda was in the western genre, as he was able to do everything from the hero, to the villain and all shades of gray in between. His range is probably the best of any actor in the genre, including John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. But the entire cast here is effective, including Dana Andrews as the falsely accused Martin, and a young Anthony Quinn, as the headstrong Mexican. Wellman’s direction is lean, mean and distinct, displaying his typical brand of dark humor throughout the realist action (mostly courtesy of Jane Darwell’s cackling laugh as Jenny Grier, the lone woman among the posse). Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography contains some remarkable framing (he was a 2-time Oscar winner for The Song of Bernadette and How Green Was My Valley), using the old Academy ratio. Of particular note is his ability to frame multiple faces in one shot, and for making the frame seem to hold more information than we normally see in this ratio, as his camera pans across the faces of the posse and the faces of the accused, often with the ropes and nooses in view behind them, creating a visual gallery of roguish fear. All told, the film is a sobering and depressing look at the west and a film that gets better with each viewing.