May 17, 2009
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
Grade: 77/100

Director: William A. Wellman
Stars: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn

What it's about. Rumors swirl in a sleepy, small, and remote town in the Old West. A cattleman has been shot, and his cattle stolen. Quickly, a posse is formed, led by humorless purported Civil War veteran Tetley (Frank Conroy), gruff deputy sheriff Dick Rich, mean-spirited Marc Lawrence, sadistic fool Paul Hurst, and loudmouth middle-aged tomboy Jane Darwell.

The posse includes a few dissenters. These include two surly drifters, Gil (Henry Fonda) and Art (Harry Morgan), who are under suspicion for the presumed murder. Also against mob rule is elderly storekeeper Harry Davenport, black town fool/holy man Leigh Whipper, and Tetley's sensitive grown son, William Eythe.

The posse first encounters a wagon train, which turns out to contain Gil's former girlfriend, fun-loving Mary Beth Hudges. To Gil's disappointment, she has just married George Meeker for his money.

The wagon train is released, and the posse continues in its hunt for the killer(s). They catch three strangers: well-spoken Dana Andrews, pathetic old man Francis Ford, and proud Mexican Anthony Quinn. Quinn has led a past criminal life, but the other two men are innocent, despite strong circumstantial evidence against them.

How others will see it. The Ox-Bow Incident received only one Academy Award nomination, but it was for Best Picture. Time has been good to the film, which has even found its way into the Top 250.

Understandably, its appeal is strongest among those over 45, who are old enough to recognize many actors in the cast through repeated viewings of classic movies on TCM. The cast is stocked with famous character actors, e.g. Fonda (12 Angry Men), Andrews (The Best Years of Our Lives), Quinn (Lawrence of Arabia), Harry/Henry Morgan ("M*A*S*H"), Davenport and Darwell (Gone With the Wind), and Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz).

How I felt about it. Many of Henry Fonda's best known films involve injustice (12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, The Wrong Man). Fonda was ideally cast for such films, because he could evoke silent righteous indignation as well as anyone.

As in 12 Angry Men, the majority is completely wrong, and all the jerks are in the majority. The film is a condemnation not only of mob rule, but perhaps of masculinity itself. This is an unusual stance for a western, usually the province of tough guys. Here, the good guys are all compassionate. Even Fonda, the disgruntled fence sitter everyman, is transformed into an unabashed good guy at film's end. For his sake, I hope Andrews' widow isn't short and overweight.