It was unusual for the Hollywood of yesteryear to offer the public so gritty and realistic a Western as 1943's "The Ox-Bow Incident." Based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark that is still taught in many high schools and colleges around the country, the story is an uncompromising look at the horrific effects of mob violence and a mob mentality. Starring one of Hollywood's most respected actors, Henry Fonda, the movie can rightly be regarded as a genre classic and thereby takes its place in Twentieth Century Fox's line of "Studio Classics."
Yet the film is no museum piece or ancient artifact to be enjoyed only by film connoisseurs. It remains remarkably moving and highly entertaining, comparing favorably with any of today's so-called "message" pictures. But it is a message picture, make no mistake about it. The film has an agenda that it maintains with a dogged determination.
The story is set in Nevada, 1885, in as dusty a little cow town as you could imagine. Director William Wellman ("The Call of the Wild," "Beau Geste," "A Star Is Born," "The High and the Mighty") never shirks from showing us cowpokes who look and act like real cowpokes, not the sanitized, white-hatted protagonists of most other Westerns of the day.
As the movie opens, Gil Carver (Fonda) and his buddy Art Croft (Harry Morgan), two itinerant ranch hands, are seen riding into town to the music of "Red River Valley." John Ford had gotten a lot of mileage out of the melancholy tune a few years earlier in "The Grapes of Wrath," so Wellman reprises it here to set the tone for what will be a brief but decidedly somber seventy-five minute tale.
Fonda's Carver is no solid, heroic, upright citizen, either. He's an ornery cuss who gets in a bar fight moments after he arrives in town. Yet he's one of the few people in the story who has a conscience and uses it. You see, the plot involves the shooting of a well-liked local rancher by persons unknown, persons who also steal his cattle; and the good townspeople decide to go after the murdering, rustling varmints who did it and string 'em up, no questions asked. Well, the West was like that, and a lynch mob is formed to go after somebody, anybody, to satisfy their blood lust. Carver is all for it, too, just as long as they're sure they get the right culprits. Trouble is, once a makeshift posse finds the folks who supposedly did the deed, Carver isn't so sure anymore.
The movie becomes a treatise on the dynamics of mob rule and vengeance for vengeance sake, and for the last half of its running time it's as gripping as any movie around. Tensions run high as the posse corners its prey, Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn among those charged, in the little valley known as Ox-Bow. The accused men claim to be ranchers recently moved into the area who have just had dealings with the victim and just bought cattle from him. Their cattle has the victim's brand on them all right, but the accused have no deed of sale. It looks pretty incriminating, and the mob is unwilling to listen to reason.
Then comes the inevitable point at which the members of the posse must take sides: hang the accused on the spot or bring them in for a fair trial. Of the several dozen persons present, only seven stand against the hanging, Carver included. When the leader of the posse grumbles about Carver's objections to the executions, complaining that it's none of his business, Carver replies, "Hanging's any man's business that's around."
"The Ox-Bow Incident" builds to a shattering climax and is unrelenting, almost brutal, in its determination to be both realistic and faithful to the book. It postulates that each man must stand up, stand apart, and be counted in this life for what he knows is right, even if it means not following the will of the majority.
The plot digresses momentarily with the peripheral issues of Carver's ex-girlfriend and her new husband and of the weakling son of the posse's leader, but otherwise it remains on track. Taking its cue from the title, the movie is short and to the point, mainly following the one "incident" and wasting little energy on unnecessary characterizations or extraneous action. It's all the better and all the more effective for it.
Harry Morgan, who plays Fonda's sidekick in the movie, is the same guy who co-starred for years as Officer Bill Gannon in television's "Dragnet" and Col. Sherman Potter in "MASH." Margaret Hamilton, uncredited as a grumpy housekeeper early on in the picture, would forever be playing grumpy ladies after her stint as the Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz." And the familiar face of Jane Darwell, who plays the crusty old lady, Jenny Grier, dead set on hanging the accused, had already been seen in movies for over thirty years before "Ox-Bow" and would be seen for the next two decades as well. Among the actress's most famous roles were those of Dolly Merriwether in "Gone With the Wind" (1939), Ma Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940), Ma Stone in "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1941), Kate Nelson in "My Darling Clementine" (1946), and, amazingly, the ancient bird woman in "Mary Poppins" (1964).
Although Fox didn't make a cent on "Ox-Bow," Fonda always said it was one of the best films he ever made.
The people at Fox do a good job preserving their old films, and they do an equally good job when they have someone clean them up and remaster them. "The Ox-Bow Incident" is a restored print, so any traces of fade, scratches, specks, dirt, lines, or other age signs have been removed. The result is not quite in the category of the best black-and-white DVD remasterings of old movies, nor does it compare with a modern black-and-white production like the Coen brothers' "The Man Who Wasn't There," but it's good. Like most of Fox's movies, this one is transferred to disc at an exceptionally high bit rate, producing a picture that is clean and free of grain, with B&W contrasts nicely heightened. But object delineation is still slightly fuzzy or smeared, perhaps a condition inherent to the original print. Not to worry; a classic remains a classic.
The sound is presented in two formats, the film's original monaural and a new stereo transcription, both done up in Dolby Digital. Neither soundtrack is particularly noteworthy, however, the mono sounding hard and edgy, the stereo sounding slightly smoother and wider (but not much wider), basically the mono spread across the front speakers. In either case, the audio is brighter and more forward-sounding than we are used to in most modern movies, with a small degree of background noise accompanying the quieter passages. Don't get me wrong, though. Compared to what the sound must have been like before the Dolby Digital cleaning and restoring, what we have is fine, limited frequency range, constricted dynamics, and all. Dialogue is dialogue, in any case, and it doesn't take super audiophile fidelity to convey it.
The Fox Studio Classics line continues to provide some good bonus items to accompany the studio's older films, this one no exception. First, there's an audio commentary with Dick Eulain, a professor of history at the University of New Mexico and a specialist on the background and literature of the American West, and William Wellman, Jr., the son of the director. Their comments are generally earnest and illuminating, making them all the more entertaining for the serious film buff. Second, there's an A&E Biography, "Henry Fonda: Hollywood's Quiet Man," lasting forty-four minutes. Third, there's a still gallery. Fourth, there's a restoration comparison. And fifth, the only disappointing part, there are a meager sixteen scene selections. To be fair, though, it is a very short film. English and Spanish are the spoken language and subtitle choices.
Conscience can be a terrible thing. Cross it and it will haunt you forever. "The Ox-Bow Incident" reminded me of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" and of Sidney Lumet's 1957 movie "12 Angry Men." All three stories bring to mind the terrible consequences of blindly following a majority rule while asking neither the right nor the wrong of the circumstances. Yes, we in America live in a democracy. But we live in a country of moral principles, too, and the movie suggests we had better look to doing the right and decent thing before we act on a majority decision made in the heat of the moment. If that notion sounds familiar, the movie resonates with truth even today.