After a hard winter on the range, cowboys Gil Carter (Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into a fleabitten small town. By and by, word reaches town that a local rancher has been killed by rustlers. With the sheriff out of town, a lynch mob is formed. Worried that they’ll be strung up, Carter and Croft reluctantly join the mob and head out of town. In the dark of night, the group comes across three sleeping transients, and their guilt is immediately assumed by nearly all those in the mob.
There are movies that are thought-provoking.
And then there are movies, like ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’, that are really thought-provoking.
The main reason for this is the film’s chillingly accurate depiction of mob mentality, how far people will go when led by one or two (or more) strong personalities, which in turn leads you to ask the question “If I were in their shoes, what would I do?”. Viewing the story from an objective point of view, it seems impossible that you – or anyone else, for that matter – could go to such lengths, stoop to such levels, all under a stubborn, self-serving sense of justice. Such a thing can’t be true, can’t really be based on fact…right?
The answer is that it has to be based on fact. It has to be, or else why would the whole thing be so uncomfortable, so horrific to watch? As much as we might try to brush away the fact, lynchings such as the one in ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ did happen, and I’m sure similar things still happen all over the world. Vigilantes executing innocent people. You don’t need an old rope, horses, and a Wild West setting for that.
Not by a long shot.
Henry Fonda – Gil Carter – is the protagonist of ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’, and I will certainly be discussing his role in the film, but I want to talk about Dana Andrews first. Because without his heartwrenching performance as husband/father Donald Martin, the movie might not have had the same impact. In fact, I’m sure it wouldn’t have. Dana Andrews’ portrayal of Martin walks a fine line between sympathetic and pathetic, and in the hands of a less talented actor, Martin would most likely have become more of a cringing coward than someone the audience can really root for. But, thankfully, that’s not what happened. Instead, we see a man, waking up to find himself in a hellish nightmare that gets worse and worse as the sky lightens; a man who’s scared for himself, certainly, but even more so for his wife and children; a man who isn’t afraid to stick up for himself and others against the vicious mob as much as he’s able to. You can’t help but hope against hope that somehow, some way, he’ll be saved at the very last moment. This is the first Andrews role I’ve seen, and I can’t tell you how impressed I was. He does a fantastic job.
Just as ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ was my introduction to Dana Andrews, it was also my introduction to Henry Fonda. (I won’t venture the number of his films I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, because it’s embarrassingly large.) Gil is an interesting character. He’s not pure as the driven snow, by any stretch, but he’s a worthy protagonist because he doesn’t go with the flow of popular opinion. Sure, he gets ‘sworn in’ as deputy right along with the rest and it might look like he’s taking the mob’s side at first, but he doesn’t. Gil thinks for himself, takes a stand with the other six, and is the one to deliver the ending monologue in that clear voice of his. Henry Fonda often plays this type of character – someone who doesn’t agree with the majority – and he was excellent here.
Art, Tetley, Farnley, Juan/Fransisco, and all the other characters were good or horrible or unfeeling as the story called them to be. I haven’t a complaint to make with the acting, in any of the roles. On a side note, I found it interesting that Jane Darwell played such an awful person in this film, and was also Ma Joad in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Both Henry Fonda movies, but she has a totally different role in each, as well as a different relationship with Fonda’s characters. (Also, “Red River Valley” was played semi-frequently in both movies.)
How the film ended was genius: it closed exactly as it began, only in reverse. Two guys riding out of a small, dusty town, on their way to a new destination, a lonely tune playing in the background. The parallels show that, as much as it made an impact, the Ox-Bow incident really was just an incident in the grand scheme of things.
Even though the story is fascinating, as are the characters, ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ isn’t the kind of movie you can throw in the DVD player on a Friday night when you want to relax after a long, hard week. It will jolt you awake. It will keep you tense and spellbound until the last moment. It will make you feel all kinds of emotions. And it will make you think. This is the kind of film that makes me angry, that has me rising up in a sort of righteous fury at the absolute injustice and stupidity of it all. Three men dead, and for what? To satisfy a thirst for revenge, to hide a weakness, to salvage wounded pride.
“What do you care about justice? You don’t even care whether you’ve got the right men. All you know is somebody’s got to be punished.” ~Donald Martin
Watch it. You’ll never forget it.