The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Genre: Western and Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 15 min.

Release Date: May 21st, 1943 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: William A. Wellman Actors: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, Mary Beth Hughes, William Eythe, Harry Morgan, Jane Darwell, Matt Briggs, Harry Davenport, Frank Conroy, Marc Lawrence




n Nevada in 1885, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and his pal Art Croft (Henry Morgan) stop in to Darby’s Saloon and Hotel to inquire about lost love Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes), who claimed she’d wait for Gil, but apparently left town some time ago. With a bottle of whiskey and a bad attitude, Gil picks a fight with a bar regular, Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence), who suggests that the two newcomers could be members of a band of rustlers who recently stole 600 head of cattle. When the bartender knocks Gil unconscious, he awakes to a frantic young man stirring up a crowd.

Larry Kincaid, Farnley’s partner, was shot in the head. The sheriff has already departed for Kincaid’s ranch, but the townsfolk don’t want to wait for official paperwork, meddling lawyers, and sworn-in deputies. Instead, they insist upon forming a posse for a quick lynching, certain that the first man they come across will be worthy of hanging; a fair trial is of no concern to the heated mob.

Based on the Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel, “The Ox-Bow Incident” may be set in the Old West, and the cast may consist of a number of veteran Western actors, but the plot is very much a timeless ordeal. Jumping to hasty conclusions without all of the facts is certain to spell misfortune. To illustrate this concept, the posse is a well-represented conglomeration of differing viewpoints – some are there to ensure a sense of fairness; many are angry, hotheaded friends of the deceased; others aren’t too keen to go along, but are afraid not to be on the “right” side of the law; one brings a bible so that the disorderly necktie party has a modicum of godliness; and one is forced to be there to witness death, so as to make a man of him.

“The law’s slow and careless around here, sometimes.” A cautionary tale of rage, impulsiveness, and mob mentalities (coincidentally comparable to “Twelve Angry Men,” which would also star Fonda), this small in scope yet sizable in morality picture packs a wallop with its heavy-hitting drama. Innocence and guilt are blurred together, with the law enforcers soon burdened with the weight of flawed judgments that cannot be reversed. From confessions under duress to making a mockery of the accused to granting a couple of last requests, the collection of sensational character actors (Paul Hurst, Matt Briggs, Harry Davenport, Frank Conroy, William Eythe, Jane Darwell) and recognizable stars (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn), each with striking personas, turn this heady adventure into an unforgettable foray into the horrors of snap decisions.

Even with its swift running time, there are moments devoted to the calm before the storm, with fear, regret, uncertainty, and contempt all expressed without wordy dialogue. It’s particularly poignant when one of the accused, an elderly, feeble-minded man, breaks down in tears before his execution, as well as when the most bloodthirsty of the group refuses to whip the horses out from beneath the men in nooses. By the tragic finale, “The Ox-Bow Incident” proves to be a powerful, sobering, haunting epic of human frailty and cruelty – a staggering, unequaled masterpiece of such intrinsic traits.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10