“The Ox-Bow Incident”
w-Lamar Trotti d- William Wellman
Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan play two drifter cowboys who blow into town just as a local rancher is found to have been murdered and his cattle stolen.This rancher was well loved in town, so the local townsfolk form a posse, which quickly turns into a lynching mob, bent on revenge for their friend’s death.They come upon three transients in the wilderness and quickly assume them to be the guilty parties, and make ready to hang them. Conflict comes when several of the posse, including Fonda and Morgan, who have fallen in with them, voice objections to the apparent lack of due process, particularly since to anyone with a rational mind, it’s clear that these men are anything but guilty of the crime. Unfortunately, the mob posse is headed by a bloodthirsty deputy, a failed phony civil war officer, who’s trying to compensate for his son’s obvious homosexuality, and an uber butch cowgirl dyke from hell, played by Jane Darwell (Ma Joad from “TheGrapes of Wrath“), Who’s only interested in hangin’ the bastards, guilty or not.
Through the everyman character of Fonda, it puts its audience into the dilemma of what to do when you know what’s happening is dead wrong. Will you face the possibly deadly consequences of opposing the mob? Or will you acquiesce, assuming that there’s nothing you can do to stop it?Dana Andrews plays the bewildered head of the little group of drifters who protests his utter innocence and only asks for time to write his wife a note of farewell before they force the noose on him.
In the end, sanity fails and the men are hanged, only to have the Sherriff ride up from town (he was away when they rode out) to tell them that the thieves have already been caught and confessed.In the final, powerful scene, the horrified, guilt ridden mob posse are assembled in the saloon, awaiting their fate. Fonda pulls out the letter that Dana Andrews had written to his wife and reads it to the stricken group.
William Wellman directed the extremely economic and tight script, and he was a director known for a tremendous social conscience. The Black and White photography is some of the best I’ve seen. Why is this film not a better known classic? Well, for one, it bombed at the box office. Made in 1941 and released in 1942 -after the outbreak of WWII – audiences were really not in the mood to be preached to about restraint of anger. Darryl Zanuck sensed this and didnt promote this film at all. it slipped off the radar and was buried for many years. Pity. It’s a great film, one I’m glad to have in my collection.