Published on June 18th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Ox-Bow Incident 
Summary: A thought-provoking western that's more interested in conversation than quick-draws and train robberies. Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews are powerfully real.
NR | 75 min.
Director: William A. Wellman | Screenplay: Lamar Trotti (based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel)
Starring: Henry Fonda, Frank Conroy, Dana Andrews
Studio: 20th Century Fox
In the first episode of The Sopranos, Tony asks Dr. Melfi, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type.” He’s simultaneously ripping psychotherapy and its patients, while yearning for what he feels is a bygone time when men dealt with their problems instead of talking about them.
Tony would have liked Gil Carter.
Henry Fonda’s character leads 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident, as a quiet drifter who drinks to get over a past lover and beats the hell out of anyone who utters a foul word about her. Carter is a fantastic character in a film that challenges its performers and its audience. Director William A. Wellman was famous for helming classic dramas like the original Oscar winner Wings and the gangster genre pioneer The Public Enemy (a verified favorite of the aforementioned mafioso).
Based on the 1940 novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, the film’s story follows Gil and his riding partner Art (Harry Morgan) arrive in a quiet Nevada town at the wrong time. There’s been a recent rash of cattle thefts and as the only strangers at the local saloon, they are immediately suspected as the culprits. From the opening scene, as this exposition is revealed in the barroom, there is a thick air of paranoia permeating from The Ox-Bow Incident. Things only get worse as news arrives that a well-liked rancher has been murdered in cold blood, turning the townsfolk into an angry mob out for vigilante justice on whomever they deem guilty of the crime.
As we follow the gang of riders, into the desert for this mission–it’s clear this is more witch-hunt than manhunt. A small minority of the mob, including Gil and several others, are interested in finding the guilty party and bringing them back to town for a proper trial, but most are simply out for blood. As the film progresses, a trio of men are found near the Ox-Bow canyon, and a mockery of justice is carried out while the lynch mob interrogates these suspects. This group of strangers includes a senile old man, a tough Mexican who doesn’t seem to speak English, and their de facto leader Donald Martin (a powerful performance from Dana Andrews).
From this point, The Ox-Bow Incident is more closely related to Waiting for Godot than True Grit. In fact, Wellman’s third act is like a mini-version of Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy–leading me to write in my margins ‘Waiting for Sheriff’. This is exactly what the characters do while debating whether to hang this group of suspects or take them in alive, as the oft-mentioned Sheriff is said to be riding back from the original murder scene. This Sheriff is arguably the most important character of The Ox-Bow Incident because he stands to represent the code of justice and honor that could rescue everyone, but like those abstract ideas, he’s nowhere to be seen.
Fonda is outstanding as the film’s protagonist, keeping a tight lid on his emotions while conveying a real sense of regret about the mob’s actions. However, Andrews is the actor that’s asked to provide more vulnerability, as he claims innocence and begs for his life from the ruthless group of deputized locals. Both performers dig deep in a cast that also features memorable turns from a frightening Jane Darwell and William Eythe as the timid son of mob leader Major Tetley.
Westerns are often thought of as a cartoony genre, chock full of masculine stereotypes where hard-living outlaws ride the plains while gunning down “Injuns”. The Ox-Bow Incident is a serious film presenting uncomfortable food for thought to its viewers–leaving you doubled-over after its punch-to-the-gut ending. Some genre purists may grow bored of its dull visuals and bare-bones sound mix but fans of straight drama will enjoy the heavy storyline and thoughtful themes. If you want to see stagecoach robberies and quick-draw theatrics, look elsewhere but if you’re up for a well-acted, short cautionary tale about law & order and the power of fear, The Ox-Bow Incident will be among your favorite westerns.
Regarding the mob mentality on-display throughout this picture, I turn to Godot‘s Pozzo who lamented, “That’s how it is on this bitch of an Earth.”