Justice can be deadly!
Written By: Lamar Trotti
Directed By: William A. Wellman
I can’t think of a stronger case ever made for the judicial system than the one made in The Ox-Bow Incident. Our judicial system may be flawed, innocent people go to jail or die, while guilty people walk away Scott free. But, our judicial system, or any judicial system for that matter, at least offers the chance for your side to be heard and the hope of innocence. The men in The Ox-Bow Incident don’t offer any chance for innocence to be proven and they quickly dash any chance of hope. They are in every way imaginable the perversion of justice and the death of hope. They are the ugliness of the Old West, the ugliness in people that we choose to believe doesn’t exist.
The Ox-Bow Incident is a very simple movie, but as I have often said there can be greatness in simplicity. By asking the questions of what justice is, how we perceive the Old West and if there is any difference between vengeance and justice in a direct and simple manner The Ox-Bow Incident retains its strength of message. Sometimes the power of a movie can be diluted by excursions and unnecessary story diversions, but none of that will be found in The Ox-Bow Incident. A key moment occurs when Gil meets up with his now married girl during the night. She is quickly tossed side, she serves no purpose in the story. This isn’t your traditional Western and there will be no time for romance or treks in love lost. Vengeance is about to be meted out, men are about to be wronged and we need to get there as quickly as possible.
The film also touches on the idea of what constitutes a man through the character of Gerald Tetley. This ties into the mob mentality and the real world idea of what makes a man a man. Gerald isn’t a man unless he is doing what is expected of him. If he is using his mind and speaking up for what he believes is right then he really isn’t a man, he’s being womanly above all else. The world we live in doesn’t value thinking and sound judgment when issues of manhood are concerned, the consequences of your actions don’t matter, only that you execute said actions in a manly fashion.
Henry Fonda is Henry Fonda and as such he gives a good performance. But, The Ox-Bow Incident isn’t Fonda’s movie as much as it is that of Dana Andrews as Donald, the leader of the three wrongly accused men, and Frank Conroy as the domineering and quick to judgment Major Tetley. Andrews is equally naive and sympathetic. He goes to just enough of a confused place so that we don’t know who to believe, maybe he is the leader of a troupe of killers, maybe he isn’t. Conroy is vicious as Tetly, always the dominant presence he keeps us rooted in sympathy for the three men. Even when we believe they may be guilty his rabid accusations allow us to think maybe they are innocent and to hope for their survival from this brute of a man.
The Ox-Bow Incident moves fast, perpetually so, but as I said earlier it has a point it needs to make and it must do so through timely means. To go along with the speed of the story, the dialogue is witty and sharp, but it is also frank and to the point. Words aren’t to be mixed in The Ox-Bow Incident, if justice is to be served then the verbiage needs to strike while the iron is hot and allow the three doomed men to meet their appointment with death.
There are a few small moments of exquisite beauty found in The Ox-Bow Incident. Most of that beauty is found in the acting and in the ideas being presented. The film for the most part looks like a stage presentation, but there is one moment that looks gorgeous indeed. When the posse gathers on horseback under a low hanging branch silhouetted against the sky is a beautiful, near breathtaking shot.
When I started watching The Ox-Bow Incident I wondered how such a short movie could have garnered such a large reputation. I became victim to an offshoot of judging a book by its cover. Run time doesn’t matter, the strength of your story and presentation is all that matters. The Ox-Bow Incident is massively strong in story, presentation and theme. It is a call for all to examine their ideas of the Old West, justice and manhood. Most of all, The Ox-Bow Incident is a call to think and use your brain, something that is rarely seen even in more modern times.