#38) The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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#38) The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

OR “Not Quite Fonda This One”

Directed by William A. Wellman

Written by Lamar Trotti. Based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.

Class of 1998

The Plot: In 1885 Nevada, drifters Gil & Art (Henry Fonda & Harry Morgan) ride in to town and learn of some recent cattle rustling. When word spreads that a local rancher has been murdered, the townsmen form a posse comitatus with the intent of hanging the killers. Gil & Art tag along and eventually find three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn & Francis Ford) with the rancher’s cattle and gun. The men claim innocence and the town’s hasty sense of justice is called into question.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a quiet yet intense study of the mentality and interpersonal dynamics of mobs.” Boy, that makes you want to go out and grab some popcorn, don’t it?

But Does It Really?: This is one of those films that I’ve always heard of but couldn’t tell you why it’s a classic. After watching it…I still can’t tell you. Not that it’s awful (there’s some impressive cinematography from Arthur C. Miller throughout), but it never goes to that next level you want from a classic film. Its scope is almost too small for film, it feels like a short story adapted for television. Fonda has given us films about society’s moral compass before and after this one (“The Grapes of Wrath”, “12 Angry Men” etc.). He’s even got better westerns on the list – “My Darling Clementine” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” come to mind. “The Ox-Bow Incident” is a story that needs to be told, but it has been, and by much more memorable movies.

Everybody Gets One: Due to everyone being a contract player during the Golden Age of Hollywood, pretty much everybody in this film has at least one more NFR entry on their resume. I’m sure I’ll even see some of the horses in another film. But I’ll give special mention to Frank Orth as Larry Kinkaid (aka “the vic”).

Wow, That’s Dated: For his performance as Poncho, Chrispin Martin gets to speak broken English in what I can only describe as a “Speedy Gonzales accent”.

Seriously, Oscars?: The film was nominated for Best Picture and…that’s it. In fact, it’s the most recent film to only receive a Best Picture nomination. It lost to “Casablanca”, because duh.

Other notes

  • The novel is over 300 pages? How?
  • San Francisco is the name of a saint. Don’t call it “Frisco”.
  • Umm, Fonda just punched a guy and then stomped on his face.
  • Nope, definitely not a fake backdrop behind the saloon set. Definitely didn’t start rustling when the actors walked past it. Nothing to see here.
  • Surprise uncredited appearance by Margaret Hamilton as the judge’s housekeeper! I guess the “Wizard of Oz” residuals hadn’t started coming in yet.
  • Jane Darwell is playing the role that today would go to Kathy Bates. Surprisingly, despite spending a lot of time in the film, Darwell does not directly interact with her former film son Henry Fonda.
  • As a MSTie I feel it should be noted that Rose and her new husband (Mary Beth Hughes & George Meeker) would reunite a year later to film “I Accuse My Parents”.
  • He’s played Greek, Italian, Arabian and even French, but this is one of the rare films where Mexican-born Anthony Quinn actually plays a Mexican!
  • “This is only slightly any of your business” has got to be one of the least effective threats in film history.
  • And of course, buy your War Bonds in this theatre!
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Legacy

  • Sure I didn’t go for it, but “The Ox-Bow Incident” is one of the favorite films of Clint Eastwood and even Henry Fonda himself. So what do I know?
  • The film is referenced by Hawkeye on an episode of “M*A*S*H”. One wonders what Colonel Potter made of Art in this film.

Further Viewing: Now’s as good a time as any to showcase one of those Henry Fonda clip retrospectives. This one comes from TCM and features tributes from his children Jane and Peter.

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