The Ox-Bow Incident
You’re a new arrival in a small, suspicious town, having just ridden in with your pal from a long cattle run. While you are kicking your heels at the local saloon a breathless messenger arrives through the swinging doors. The local, much admired, ranch boss has been murdered and his killers are on the run. The sheriff is out of town so a posse quickly forms under the aegis of his thuggish deputy sheriff, a charismatic retired General and a ranch hand long employed at the dead man’s stable. In part to make sure no suspicion lands on you, you join the posse, but you’re also disturbed by the intemperate mob and hope to be able to pour some oil on the vengeful waters if the guilty party is found.
So opens William Wellman’s superb The Ox-Bow incident, a film that despite the brief running time of only 75 minutes, manages to hold a mirror up to human frailties as effectively as any you’re likely to see. Henry Fonda’s is the name above the title but as events progress it becomes clear he is not the main focus of the story. In the vast majority of his other westerns Fonda plays a classic white hat; strong, principled and dependable. But here he is shown in a much less worthy light. His introduction is as not so much as a drunk but certainly someone who operates at his peak with a few bourbons inside him and while he takes an early stance against the more brute elements of the mob, he is as interested in deflecting suspicion away from himself as he is in seeing justice done.
The posse rides out and soon happen upon a trio camped out in the eponymous Ox-Bow canyon. Two of the gang are a wild-haired, mumbling old man and a suave yet taciturn Mexican who claims he can no hablo Ingles. As such it’s left to the third man, Dana Andrews to defend them from the double charge of murder and rustling that the horde throws at them. At first he is stupified at the accusations. They are, he explains on their way back from a legitimate cattle sale and have heard nothing of any murder. However the herd they are in possession of belong to the dead man and when pushed for a receipt cannot produce one. “When did you ever know Larry Kinkaid to sell cattle without a bill of sale?” asks one of the posse. “Never.” comes the reply. More probing reveals that Andrews’ pal, Anthony Quinn for once playing an actual Mexican, is not only a gambler with a notorious reputation but also in possession of Kinkaid’s pistol.
An immediate call is made to string the men up and in the blink of an eye three noosed ropes are looped over the ominous branch of a nearby tree. Calmer elements implore for justice and a reprieve until sunrise is won, which gives the trio a few hours to make the case for their lives. As the moments tick away, lit by the flickering flames of the campfire, the camp sunders into two. The majority has already been won over by the raft of evidence, however circumstantial, while a rump faction argues to wait for the return of the sheriff.
Their case is weakened by the deranged ramblings of the old man who makes a confession of sorts, though it is but one statement amongst nonsense, and is strengthened by the unwavering dignity of Andrews who argues eloquently then, when he realises all is lost, quietly requests some paper to address his final thoughts to his wife and daughter.
It’s this central performance that provides the core attraction of the film and it’s here too it becomes clear that Fonda’s character is a mere cipher. He is us, the audience who must watch these proceedings and make a decision which way to vote: for death by kangaroo court or justice by a recognised one; for the rule of law or the rule of the mob.
It is to Wellman’s credit that he creates a situation where that decision is not an easy one to make. Andrews remains a pillar of decency throughout and when Quinn finally deigns to admit he can speak ‘American’ to the mob he proves he is no fool. Hovering over all this, however, is evidence which does seem to indict overwhelmingly. Which way would any of us vote in such circumstances?
The film’s end is a bleak yet satisfying one and for a long time afterwards you are left pondering the fine line between the fragile law of man and the abject barbarity beyond.
The Ox-Bow Incident directed by William A. Wellman (1942)
A posse is fired up for vengeance after a local man is killed. They come upon a trio who appear guilty and propose to hang them where they stand.