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USA 1943
Directed by
William Wellman
76 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

The Ox-Bow Incident

William Wellman had a long and diverse career with The Public Enemy (1931) and A Star Is Born (1937) today his best remembered works. This Western is somewhat of an oddity for although the director makes use of many of the standard trappings of the genre, mainly with respect to the weather-beaten, whiskey drinkin’ dustbowl cowpokes (the film is set in Nevada in 1885 but was largely shot a studio lot), it is in fact a rather over-earnest morality play about the role of justice in society.

Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan play a couple of said cowpokes who come into town for a bit of a shin-dig when the news comes in that a local rancher has been killed and his cattle rustled. The locals get all het up, put together a posse and go ahuntin’ the culprits. Coming across three men (including Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn as his Mexican hired hand) with a mob of the rancher’s cattle and his gun, they want to immediately string them up but a small number of men, including Fonda and Morgan object.

The film moves with mechanistic resolve to illustrate its point – the folly of mob rule and the necessity of due process, throwing in a woman (Jane Darwell) on the mob side and, seemingly a homosexual (William Eythe), or as his father (Frank Conroy) calls him a “female boy”, on the side of the protesters. A sub-plot involving Fonda and a young lady (Mary Beth Hughes) simply evaporates.

The project is clearly one important to Wellman who spent years trying to get the film made and although it is boldly different as a Western it is also dramatically unconvincing. It was however apparently the inspiration for Sidney Lumet's much better handled courtroom drama, Twelve Angry Men  (1957), in which Fonda also played the protesting lead, steering his over-hasty peers towards reason.




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