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The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident. Feature film. (1943, 75 mins) IMDB

...Justice and the wrongly accused. A story that won't go away....

T

he film is currently ranked 213 in the top 250 on imdb.com. It's not hard to see why.

The film centres on the issue of justice. In this instance vigilante justice in a frontier town in Nevada in 1885.

Henry Fonda made at least three films about justice that I'm aware of. This film, where three innocent men are hanged by a mob. THE WRONG MAN. A 1950s film directed by Alfred Hitchcock based on real events where a man in NYC is wrongly accused of a series of robberies. His life is turned upside down in the process. Then there is 12 ANGRY MEN where Fonda plays a juror. His fellow jurors are quick to condemn the man, but Fonda puts forward his arguments that show the accused isn't just not guilty, but innocent. In all the films, the message is simple: we want justice at an individual level, we want it quickly and in the process we make grave errors.

THE OX-BOW INCIDENT is a straightforward story told in a linear manner over the course of a day.

Henry Fonda and his sidekick played by Harry Morgan ride into a small town in Nevada. It's 1885. Cowboys, horses, six-shooters strapped to your leg, a saloon for whiskey and poker. A dirt road running up the middle of town of wooden buildings.

The two quickly learn there has been a murder. Some rustlers shot Larry Kincaid in the head. We never meet Kincaid, but we're told he's a fine gentlemen. His buddies are angry at his murder and want revenge. Immediately people talk of finding the killers and hanging them. A mob forms, the sheriff isn't around to control them. A couple of men try to talk them out of this lawless act, but to no use. A group of thirty men ride out of town searching for the killers.

It doesn't take long to find three men camped out over night. The mob surrounds them and questions them and well it's a kangaroo court. The three plead their innocents, yet there is circumstantial evidence the men are guilty. Nothing they say can convince the leaders of the mob. The dissenters can't or won't stop them.

We see an impromptu court session, but it's a joke. There is too much anger for any justice. There is an agreement to wait until dawn. Perhaps the sheriff will arrive with news, but he doesn't arrive in time. The three are hanged for murdering Kincaid and for rustling his cattle.

As the three men dangle from the nose, the mob rides off. Not long after they meet up with the sheriff who brings them news. Kincaid is still alive. He was shot, but not killed. The ones who shot him had been arrested. There were no cattle stolen.

The mob, bent on justice, were criminals.

A new round of justice is forthcoming.

You can say the film is heavy handed, that it's liberal, that it's crafted to send one message, but so be it. It may be all those things, but it works.

The film ends with the two men (Fonda and Morgan) riding their horses out of town on the same route they took to arrive at the start of the film. Bookends. There is even a bloodhound crossing the street in both instances.

I highly recommend watching this film. If anyone thinks crime and justice are easy matters, well they are part of the mob.

From a production point of view, most of the scenes take place outside, but they are filmed primarily on a backlots and sound stages. There are only a few scenes filmed on location. On a sound stage, they added dirt and shrubs and trees and even a running creek to make the Ox-Bow area look like it was outside. In another scene, a path around a cliff was done on a sound stage.

Posted 2009/02/09 at 19h50ET in Movie Commentary.

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