In many ways, The Ox-Bow Incident is a darker, more pensive sibling to the much renowned 12 Angry Men.
Two cowboys come riding into a saloon. The atmosphere is tense and sober, plagued with heat and pent up masculine frustration. Our new visitors are Gil and Art (Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan). The saloon is dusty, the floor coated with rubbish and lots of what looks like broken glass, and when someone smashes a bottle over another’s head in a skirmish during the first 10 minutes of the movie, we start to understand why. Gil and Art are coming back into town from an unknown excursion, Gil hoping to meet up with his girlfriend. They find that all the women are gone. Gil’s girlfriend, in particular, skipped town and got married. Now it’s all bored, unfriendly men drinking, sleeping, and playing cards when they’re not throwing punches.
When they hear that local rancher Larry Kincaid has been murdered and his cattle stolen, they immediately form a posse to deal out their own form of Wild West justice. By nightfall, they come across three sleeping men in a clearing called Ox-Bow. It seems they have found a new outlet for their aggression. They apprehend the men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, and Francis Ford) and condemn them to hang. All but a few wish to hear their side of the story and ensure that justice is truly being served. The resulting events comprise a compelling and intensely watchable chamber piece, wherein reason and pacifism enters a turbulent battle with group think and hostility.
William Wellman, being one of those incredibly prolific working directors of old Hollywood films, was churning out title after title starting from the silent era. The Ox-Bow incident was what may have been his only passion project; the film he fought to get made. Released in 1943 with the country on the brink of war, The Ox-Bow Incident, while based off a popular novel, had little chance of making money due to its pessimistic viewpoint. True to the prediction of Darryl F. Zanuck, the film’s producer, it film barely made a dime upon its release, though it received critical praise. Today it’s even more lauded and holds a spot on the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress for being historically, culturally, and aesthetically significant. But it isn’t the prototypical Western. There’s an absence of stagecoach chases, firefights, and drawn out saloon brawls. Instead, the lawless West creates the backdrop for slow-building, suspenseful writing and masterful performances.
Henry Fonda’s doe-eyed face of wonder wears a mask of weariness and cynicism. Leigh Whipper plays the simple-spoken black Reverend who acts as the film’s moral compass. Frank Conroy leads the bandwagon of violence as the hard and unkind Confederate Major Tetley. The accused trio is perfectly crafted in the script and in casting. Dana Andrews professes empathy and reason with every line, Anthony Quinn is collected and mysterious, Francis Ford (the brother of director John Ford) invokes the deepest sympathy in our audience as the senile old man, distressed and terrified of the consequences of a crime he’s not sure if he committed or not.
In many ways, The Ox-Bow Incident is a darker, more pensive sibling to the much renowned 12 Angry Men, coming from the Western genre instead of the courtroom drama genre. Of course, the film is able to shine technically with brilliant lighting, aged and authentic looking sets and costumes, and a wonderful use of music. But these elements never outshine the real meat of the movie, the writing and the message. | Nic Champion
Kino Lorber has The Ox-Bow Incident, along with a few other Westerns by William Wellman, set to be released on July 14. This Blu-ray is a 4k restoration, and the audio and image quality are both great. Special features include a commentary by Western scholar Dick Eulain and Wiliam Wellman Jr., a short documentary on Henry Fonda, a comparison of the restoration to the older releases, and several trailers.