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THE OX-BOW INCIDENT

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Frank Conroy, Anthony Quinn, William Eythe, Henry Morgan, Jane Darwell
Director: William Wellman
Audio: English stereo/mono, Spanish mono
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full frame 1.33:1
Studio: Fox
Features: Commentary track, Henry Fonda: Hollywood's Quiet Hero, stills gallery, restoration comparison, trailer
Length: 75 minutes
Release Date: November 4, 2003

"Justice?  What do you care about justice?  All you know is you lost something and somebody's got to be punished."

Film ****

Henry Fonda was one of Hollywood's legendary leading men.  A fine actor with a simple and earnest style, Fonda epitomized for many audiences the qualities of the ideal and good-hearted man - courage, wisdom, humility, and sincerity.  Like his best friend, James Stewart, Fonda's on-screen persona was Hollywood's interpretation of the All-American boy, and as such, Fonda was usually at his best in westerns, depicting the classic struggle between good and evil, and morality plays.

Fonda had initially been a stage thespian early in his career.  Following his first lead in the Broadway play "The Farmer Takes a Wife," Hollywood began to take an interest in the young and handsome actor.  Fox studio mogul Darryl Zanuck was particularly keen on acquiring the play and its young star for a film adaptation with the studio's leading actress of the time, Janet Gaynor.  The eventual 1935 film would become Fonda's Hollywood debut, with his status as a bona fide star fully established by the time of his film Young Mr. Lincoln four years later.

Over the course of Fonda's consequent film career, the actor would split his time between the cinema and the stage.  A conscientious actor, Fonda preferred complex and challenging roles as opposed to the inconsequential but commercial fluff pieces in which Zanuck generally liked to cast his star.  Despite Zanuck, Fonda was able to appear in several important films during his early Hollywood years, including The Lady Eve and The Grapes of Wrath.

One of the best of Fonda's early films was The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).  An unusually dark and pessimistic western based upon a Walter Van Tilburg novel, The Ox-Bow Incident was a personal project championed by director William Wellman, who persuaded the reluctant Zanuck for studio permission to make it.  Zanuck had felt that the film was too depressing for war-era audiences (and rightly so; the film was a critical smash but a commercial flop).  Nevertheless, Zanuck eventually capitulated to Wellman's persistence.

In The Ox-Bow Incident, Henry Fonda portrays Gil Carter, a frontier drifter circa 1885.  One day, he rides into a Nebraskan frontier town with friend Art Croft (Henry Morgan).  The town is a sparsely-populated and somewhat desolate locale, its few inhabitants being well acquainted with one another.  Lately, they have been troubled by cattle rustling which threatens their very livelihood, and there is a great deal of unspoken anxiety on the part of these cowboys to capture and persecute the perpetrators.

On the same day of Carter and Croft's arrival, news reaches town of the sudden murder of Larry Kinkaid, a well-liked local rancher.  One witness recalls seeing some of Kinkaid's cattle being laid away not too far from town, and the furious townsmen, seizing upon this tragic news, succumb to the baser elements of their nature and decide to seek quick retribution of their own.  A wrathful posse is assembled to track down and lynch Kinkaid's murderers, the presumed cattle rustlers.

Carter senses the potential injustice of the impending bloodlust.  However, he is but one man among many, and his voice alone cannot sway the enraged men from their determined vigilantism.  A few other folks in town - a shop owner, a local judge, and a preacher - all feel as Carter does, that the posse must take care not to fall into a mob mentality.  The murderers, should they be caught, must be given a fair trial and must not be summarily hung without due process.

The opposing voices, however, are too strong.  The local deputy, in the absence of the regular sheriff who is out of town, deputizes a lynch mob.  Among them is the headstrong Farnley (Marc Lawrence), who demands a culprit to punish for his friend's murder.  Assuming leadership of the posse is Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), a retired military officer with an agenda of his own.  Tetley sees the entire, wretched affair as an opportunity to test his somewhat effeminate son's fitness to carry on the family tradition.  As such, Major Tetley is determined to bear witness to a hanging, with his son Gerald (William Eythe) as an active participant to make a real man of him: "I'll have no female boys bearing my name."

By dusk, the posse tracks down three suspicious traveling companions - Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) and his two presumptive ranch hands Juan Martínez (Anthony Quinn) and an old and senile man.  Martin is new to the area and so is a stranger to these closely-knit men.  He also has in his possession fifty head of Kinkaid cattle, while Martínez possesses Kinkaid's pistol.  Martin insists that Kinkaid has sold the cattle to him, but without a bill of sales and Kinkaid dead, Martin has no witnesses to support his claim.  The evidence is strongly against Martin and his friends, even as he desperately proclaims their innocence.

Martin's pleas fall upon deaf ears.  The town's cowboys, frustrated and looking for an easy scapegoat, are easily manipulated by Major Tetley into venting their anger upon these strangers, and the events of the night progress to their fateful conclusion.  Whether these three men are truly guilty or not becomes irrelevant - the true message of The Ox-Bow Incident is a damning indictment of mob mentality and the dangers of self-righteous men and their grandiose orations.

There are stand-out performances all around in the film's cast.  Henry Fonda is solid as the haunted and impassionate observer of the horrors before him, and Frank Conroy is the very face of evil as Major Tetley, a man so absorbed in the righteousness of his own cause that his hubris and "good" deeds lead the men down a path of evil.  Dana Andrews is extremely good as the frightened Donald Martin in what is probably the best performance of his film career (even eclipsing his role in the film noir classic Laura).  Likewise, one can sense the high quality of the casting even in the supporting roles, such as a young Henry Morgan (of MASH fame) as Carter's friend, the great character actress Jane Darwell as a heartless woman (she had previously won an Oscar in another Henry Fonda film, The Grapes of Wrath), and even Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of The Wizard of Oz) in a small but chilly cameo as Major Tetley's maid.

Guilt and a shamed conscience have been known to destroy individuals, if not whole societies.  The small Nebraskan town of The Ox-Bow Incident can never be the same after the events of one dark evening in 1885.  Yet this film is an allegory for more universal societal truths - the need for due process, respect for one's fellow man, and peaceful co-existence, among others - and the poignant consequences which arise when people fail to uphold such virtues.

While The Ox-Bow Incident was not a commercial success on its initial release, the film has since developed a reputation as one of the finest and most thought-provoking westerns of the Hollywood studio era.  Henry Fonda starred in many westerns during his illustrious career, but his role as Gil Carter was perhaps the most conscientious and tragic of them all, a man caught in the vises of evil and helpless to alter the inevitable destiny.

BONUS TRIVIA:  After The Ox-Bow Incident Fonda would not make another film for three years.  The actor, true to his nature, had set aside his thriving Hollywood career to enlist in the navy, his self-sacrificing contribution to the then on-going and dangerous Pacific Theater war effort.

Video ***

Regrettably, the original camera negative for The Ox-Bow Incident no longer exists.  This DVD was created from a safety black & white fine grain master print struck from the original negative.  In general, the restoration looks quite good, the details of the restorative process being outlined elsewhere on this disc (in the "restoration comparison" featurette).  The bit transfer rate averages 5-6 Mbps.  Dust and debris marks have been minimized, the image has been sharpened and looks less muddy and indistinct than in the previous restoration from 1993.

Audio ** ˝

Sound quality for The Ox-Bow Incident is about what one can expect for a film over sixty years old.  Sound and dialogue are clear with some background noise but nothing intrusive.  The audio track is available in its original monaural format or a new stereo mix.  A Spanish dub track is also available.

Features ***

"It's Man taking on himself the vengeance of the Lord."

The Ox-Bow Incident is the thirteenth film in the on-going Fox Studio Classics series.  Other films featuring Henry Fonda in this series include The Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine.

This particular DVD has a few interesting extras.  First is the commentary track by Duck Eulain, a film scholar specializing in westerns, and William Wellman Jr., son of the film's director.  Junior provides an early anecdote about how his father first became interested in The Ox-Bow Incident and how he interested Zanuck in the project as well.  Junior also describes his father's life, career, and his relationships with actors.  Eulain provides the bulk of the analytical commentary, particularly concerning the story's themes and differences between the novel and the film.  Both commentaries appear to have been recorded separately and then edited together.  There are several huge silent gaps in the commentary track after halfway through the film.

Henry Fonda: Hollywood's Quiet Hero (45 min.) is a Biography episode following the actor's life from his early, formative years through his film career, one that would eventually span five decades.  This documentary traces Fonda's young ambitions as a writer and early praise for his stage thespian skills, such as his first lead in the stage play "Merton of the Movies."  Comments and anecdotes from Fonda's children Jane and Peter are interspersed throughout the feature.  Old photographs, home movies, rare clips of a young Fonda acting on stage, and clips from his numerous films complement these reminiscences.  Interestingly, Fonda was not always happy during his contractual years with Zanuck's Twentieth-Century Fox studio; he sometimes referred to the studio as "Penitentiary Fox."

Henry Fonda himself introduces the novel and brief clips from the film in a vintage trailer for The Ox-Bow Incident.  A stills gallery with seventeen photos from the set and production is also included.  Lastly, there is a restoration comparison which outlines the complicated steps involved in bringing this classic film to DVD.  This brief featurette includes over two minutes of before-and-after footage for the restorative process.

Summary:

The Ox-Bow Incident is a morality play dressed up as a highly untraditional western.  A revisionist masterpiece about the social injustices of vigilantism and mob mentality, this timeless film is as relevant today as it was over sixty years ago.  Strongly recommended!

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