O ne of the great classic Westerns with a serious social conscience did not come out of the heyday of the so-called revisionist Western in the 1960s or ‘70s; this nearly forgotten hidden gem from 1943 is The Ox-Bow Incident, directed by William Wellman. Adapted from the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark by screenwriter Lamar Trotti, The Ox-Bow Incident is a haunting tale of a posse’s rush to judgment in seeking justice for the killing of a local rancher and the rustling of his cattle.
Set in Nevada in 1885, it deals with two drifters, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) who roam into a dusty town and quickly learn the town has been victimized by cattle rustlers.
Soon word is spread that local rancher Larry Kincaid was gunned down and his cattle was stolen. Swiftly, and without the guidance of the town’s sheriff, a posse is formed and even ignoring input from local Judge Tyler, the mob of more than 30 set out on horseback, lead by former Confederate Major Tetley.
Wellman and cinematographer Arthur Miller create a dark and sinister view of an unjust mob’s blatant disregard for due process, as miles out of town they come upon three men camping for the night at Ox-Bow. The vengeful majority quickly use circumstantial evidence to accuse them of the rustling and killing and declare a hanging will occur before the next day, even before the sheriff joins their group to officiate. The three accused are a young father of two, who recently purchased numerous cattle from Kincaid, an older rancher and a young Mexican. Dana Andrews plays Donald Martin of Pike’s Hole, the impassioned young family man who pleads for justice and his life. Anthony Quinn is Juan Martinez, who rides with him.
The elderly Mr. Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport) becomes the spokesmen for fair treatment and justice for these accused, but soon a vote is proposed for instant retribution and only 7, including Fonda’s Gil , stand against the hanging of these obviously innocent men. The tearful Martin writes a letter to his wife and kids and asks Davies to deliver it after he’s executed. Once the act is done, Gil reads Martin’s letter. With Fonda’ s deliberate slow pace and passionate cadence the film reminds others for a need of civilized conscience and justice and the guilt of those who followed the mob’s bloodlust.
This taut, simple narrative runs only 75 minutes , but its incredibly powerful message about the necessity for the rule of law for a civilized people was a theme that Fonda was attracted to time and again in his career. The Ox-Bow Incident received an Oscar nomination for best picture and was a film Fonda personally loved.