The Ox-Bow Incident – 1943
Director – William A. Wellman
Starring – Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, and Anthony Quinn
The Western, as of late, has gone through a bit of a transformation. What was once a nice clean depiction of black and white, good and evil, has changed over the years flitting across many different themes and archetypes into the metaphorical and allegory laden period pieces that they have become today. As I’ve said in my review for the fantastic McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I have tended to discount westerns in general, and early westerns in particular as being fluff, and devoid of value. My appreciation for the genre came to me fairly recently, and I’ve been working to shake my initial impression ever since. The Ox-Bow Incident goes a very, very long way in repairing my misconceptions of what the western is capable of, as well as make me wonder why I haven’t seen Henry Fonda in more films.
As the title suggests, the plot centers around a single horrific incident, that we the audience don’t even see. Everything that inspires what we see happens off-screen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Quentin Tarantino took a little inspiration for how to achieve the bank heist from Reservoir Dogs from watching this film. There is not a word of dialog wasted in this almost too-brief potboiler that deals with fear, anger, and the tenuous connection between the two. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (better known as, and from here out, referred to as Col. Potter from the M*A*S*H TV show) play a couple of ranchers who, fairly new in the area, come into town for a bit of relaxation and a bit of drink. Conversation in the saloon quickly turns grim when word comes that a local cattleman has been shot to death and his herd stolen. Fear quickly turns to anger, and despite the best efforts of the few level-headed townsfolk, a posse forms and rides on the word of rumor to intercept the criminals. Soon enough, the lynch mob happens upon a group of three sleeping men, who quickly become a target for the aggression and fear of the scared towns folk.
So we have a typical western-ish set up, and a cast of characters that also seem a little typical for your average western, so what makes this one so different? Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews. Henry Fonda’s character, Gil, is neither good nor evil. He doesn’t moralize, blindly standing up to do “the right thing”, nor is he driven by nefarious motives toward the typical tying of a helpless maiden to the railroad tracks. He is a cynical observer who is no more exempt from the actions of the mob than the rest of them. Despite his objections, he believes without question that there will be no redemption, no help for the three accused men. He is a beaten man from the beginning. The real hero, “Good Guy” is played by Dana Andrews, as Donald Martin, one of the suspected cattle rustlers. He tries to reason with the mob for the lives of him and his companions, a senile old man, and a Mexican man (played soulfully by Anthony Quinn) who is instantly demonized by the crowd due to his race. Together Gil and Donald juxtapose the humanity of individuals as well as the monstrosity capable of indifferent men, a struggle that wouldn’t creep into mainstream cinema consciousness till the noir films that came out later, after the war. It is in these two men, that we see victory battle defeat, and true good versus true evil.
As far as the artistry and construction of the film, it is economical, taking place in two main locations (the Saloon, and at the accused men’s camp site). The film doesn’t rely on flash, massive set pieces, or spectacle. Instead, it simply lets the solid, well-told story play out as it should. The fact that it was shot in black and white (although probably more of a decision based on when it came out rather than as a conscious artistic choice) really helps to underpin the fact that the characters see each other as well as themselves in terms of black and white, good and evil. Similarly, the “trial” of the three men takes place out in the wild, literally and figuratively outside the bounds of civilization. Civility is not a quality that the mob has going for it, and the creaky, shadowy setting suits this subtext perfectly.
I chose to watch this movie via my streaming Netflix choices mainly based on it’s length (it’s only 74 minutes), but I was wowed by everything about it. The message of the film can be seen in both the overt imagery, the subtext of the plot, and the finely honed dialog. Each element of this film works together so incredibly efficiently, that 74 minutes was all it needed to do the job right. You owe it to yourself to watch this film, I promise it won’t take long and you’ll be happy you did.