The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

  • Time: 75 min
  • Genre: Drama | Western
  • Director: William A. Wellman
  • Cast: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes


Two drifters are passing through a Western town, when news comes in that a local farmer has been murdered and his cattle stolen. The townspeople, joined by the drifters, form a posse to catch the perpetrators. They find three men in possession of the cattle, and are determined to see justice done on the spot.

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  • Watching The Ox-Bow Incident brought back strong memories of another film which is superior to William A. Wellman’s supposedly acclaimed masterpiece – Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). Both films address the theme of human rights and the gross misuse of authority. But Kubrick’s work resonates to a far greater effect and is more emotionally affecting (quite an irony as Kubrick’s filmmaking style is often thought by critics as cold, soulless, and distant). Wellman’s film is not exactly bad but it seems to have aged quite a bit as compared to films from that era.

    The Ox-Bow Incident is set in 1885 and is based on a depressingly true story of the hanging of three innocent persons by a group of angry townspeople hell-bent on making sure that swift justice is met. Told through the eyes of two drifters, Gil (Henry Fonda) and Art (Harry Morgan), who arrive at a Western town only to hear that a local has been murdered and his cattle stolen. They become involved in the formation of a posse to hunt for the culprit led by Major Tetley (Frank Conroy).

    In the second and third acts of the film, the posse finds three men in possession of the “stolen” cattle. They are found asleep by a smoldering fire in the middle of a freezing night in the wilderness. Despite protesting their innocence and the right for an accused to have a fair trial, their pleadings fall on deaf ears. On the authority of the sadistic Maj. Tetley and the votes of the heartless majority, the accused are forced to die by hanging.

    Wellman’s cinematographer, the three-time Oscar winner Arthur C. Miller (How Green Was My Valley, 1941; Anna and the King of Siam, 1946), creates a sense of forebodingness through the careful use of shadows, nightlight, and intentionally vague shots of the wilderness. The bleakness of the picture (both visually and textually) is obvious but it somehow lacks the power to compel viewers into connecting with the characters emotionally (especially towards Gil’s conflicted own). We feel sympathy for the accused and are frustrated that such a thing could happen. But there is no Kirk Douglas figure for us to identify with.

    In Paths of Glory, Colonel Dax (Douglas) plays a “moral absolutist” who carries our collective hopes that perhaps there are still some traces of humanity left in the most inhuman of us. In Wellman’s film, however, we are left to carry this hope ourselves. It is simply too much of a burden to bear and thus we would prefer to let this incident go. The Ox-Bow Incident shows the extent to which humans “gratify” themselves at the expense of others. It is a film touching on a morose subject matter but it could have been a more potent experience. Its message is evergreen, but that can’t be said of the film.

    GRADE: B- (7/10)

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