THE OX-BOW INCIDENT
Review by Ed Nguyen
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
Features: Commentary track, Henry Fonda: Hollywood's Quiet Hero, stills gallery, restoration comparison, trailer
Length: 75 minutes
Release Date: November 4, 2003
What do you care about justice? All
you know is you lost something and somebody's got to be punished."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Man taking on himself the vengeance of the Lord."
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
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.
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."
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.