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The Ox-Bow Incident, directed by William Wellman, is an excellent 1943 Western Noir that presents an unflinching look at the cruelty of mob rule.
A town in 1885 Nevada is on edge after a surge of cattle-rustling incidents. When news that a local rancher named Larry Kinkaid has been murdered spreads, a posse is immediately formed to track down and hang his killers. With the sheriff out of town, the posse risks turning into a lawless mob, hellbent on revenge – and the lives of innocent men hang in the balance (some pun intended).
This is a bleak, cruel film about how easily people can succumb to mob rule, even if it’s literally a matter of life and death – or perhaps, especially so. The plot is straightforward and easy to predict, but that transparency works in the movie’s favor – there’s an overwhelming sense of dread to the inevitability of what goes down at Ox-Bow Canyon.
Henry Fonda stars as Gil Carter, a weary cowboy that rides out with the posse and is among a handful that are conflicted about the whole affair. He serves as the moral center of the film and does a damn good job. The best performance of the movie however, is Dana Andrews as Donald Martin, one of the three men the posse decides are guilty of the crime. Andrews perfectly captures Martin’s growing sense of despair, and with a wife and two kids waiting back home, it’s easy to feel sorry for the man. A letter that he writes for his family bookends the story in one of the movie’s most gut-wrenching sequences.
Even at a breezy 75 minutes, there are parts that could have been cut. A scene where Carter encounters his old sweetheart and her new husband while with the posse serves little purpose. The movie does suffer from a lack of female characters, but that sequence was just shoehorned in.
Made at the height of World War II, The Ox-Bow Incident is characterized by a desire for more authenticity in Westerns and more mature storytelling to boot. It’s a movie that asks us to reflect on human nature and condemns cruelty and lawlessness.
I personally would have preferred if the movie didn’t reveal the truth about the crime that took place. The ending, as it stands, is far from a happy one and brings closure to everything that happened, but there is a case to be made for leaving things on a more ambiguous note to truly hammer in the bleakness of the whole situation.
Nevertheless, the final scene of a group of haggard-looking men sitting in a saloon, wracked with guilt as Carter reads Martin’s letter aloud sure does pack a punch.
This is a beautiful restoration of a classic film by Arrow Films that comes with a short introduction by Peter Stanfield and a handful of special features, that are listed below. The Ox-Bow Incident, said to be a favorite of star Henry Fonda and Clint Eastwood, truly stands the test of time. It’s a fantastic movie and a cautionary tale that still rings painfully true today.
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Audio commentary by American West historian Dick Etulain and William Wellman Jr
– Introduction by Peter Stanfield, author of Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s: The Lost Trail and Horse Opera: The Strange History of the Singing Cowboy
– Scene-select commentaries by Stanfield
– Henry Fonda: Hollywood’s Quiet Hero, a 45-minute documentary on the actor from the Biography series