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. Written by
David Levene <D.S.Levene@durham.ac.uk>
The rights to Walter Van Tilburg Clark's book were originally acquired in 1941 by Harold Hurley, a former Paramount producer who tried unsuccessfully to make a distribution deal with United Artists. Modern sources note that director William A. Wellman bought the rights from Hurley and then interested Twentieth Century-Fox production chief Darryl F. Zanuck in producing the story. Zanuck agreed on the condition that Wellman direct two other films for the studio, Thunder Birds (1942) and Buffalo Bill (1944). See more »
Major Tetley enters the parlor of his home where he is presumably alone. A shot is heard and it is clear that he has committed suicide. However, a split second before the scene changes the right-hand door of the room can be seen being opened by someone inside the room. See more »
[First lines: Gil Carter and Art Croft have just ridden into town]
Deader than a Payute's grave!
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At the end of the credits an ad for U.S. war savings bonds is shown on the screen. It says that "15,000 movie theatres are now selling U.S. war savings stamps and bonds! Buy yours in this theatre." See more »
The Ox-Bow Incident can be safely ranked as one of classic cinema's great treasures. Applauded by critics worldwide, it has still received very little public recognition and appreciation and it is about time this changed. While the theme of the movie may not be extremely original by today's standards, it is as timely as ever. The issues of mob psychology and the miscarriage of justice which can occur when passion overcomes reason and logic were not new even at the time of the filming of the movie, but even then, few were willing to listen to such a sobering tale of morality and justice while America was at war. Yet this is a tale which must be told often and well, lest we fall prey to errors resulting from forgetting its lesson.
This being said, the tale itself and its delivery makes The Ox-Bow Incident more than a film with a message. By casting its characters in a shadow of moral doubt, rather than in the traditional bright light reserved for western heroes as modern knights in shining armor, this movie truly marks a departure from classic western movies filmed until then, and sets the precedent for future "revisionist" westerns which were to come nearly 15 years later. In many ways this film is actually more a tragic play in the theatrical sense than a typical Hollywood movie. The classic elements of unity of time, space and action are used here with great effectiveness and emphasize the dramatic nature of the story and its ultimate, almost inexorable outcome, in the great tradition of Greek or Shakespearan tragedies.
Indeed one of the most surprising moments in the film does not occur in the middle or at the end of the movie, but at the very beginning, as the main character and his partner enter the saloon in the small town which is the center of the drama. Thanks to Fonda's superb characterization, we are confronted from the very start with a bitter, angry and essentially anti-heroic protagonist, quite unlike most typical western "good guys". Even though we are invited to identify with Gil Carter, he is not a particularly likeable guy. Surly, edgy, reticent, and at times, gratuitously violent, he does not present a very effective resistance to the evil he witnesses, even as he disapproves of it. Truly, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone good or likeable here, save for the black preacher, probably the most innocent and morally pure of the characters. Indeed, all the characters are drawn with several layers of psychology; which can sometimes only be revealed after several viewings of the film. One may draw for example some quick conclusions regarding the infamous Major Tetley or his son, but the true villain may be in fact the judge, who even as he realizes a gross injustice is about to be committed, choses to do nothing out of laziness and indifference.
The movie was never provided a big budget, which accounts for its set location and the size of its cast, limited in number but of epic proportions in talent (featuring a young and great Anthony Quinn, Dana Andrew at his very peak, a surprisingly unmotherly Jane Darwell, and a powerful Harry Morgan). But do not let the modest filming conditions fool you. This is a true masterpiece.
One last note: one of the most memorable and enduring scenes is the reading of a letter by Gil Carter. This scene rightly belongs among the treasures of classic cinema, along with Citizen Kane's Rosebud and Tom Joad's "wherever there's a fight" speech.
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