30 Great Westerns
The Ox-Bow Incident

Dana Andrews and company are headed for the hanging tree in The Ox-Bow Incident.

The dark, cloudy opening credits of William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) set the filmís somber mood as the epitome of Mid-Western integrity and honesty, Henry Fonda, will struggle against the forces of darkness to save three men from a lynching.

Gil Carter (Fonda), a moral man, is established early on as an insider/outsider figure. Absent for a year, he returns to his small Nevada town with his sidekick Art (Harry Morgan), two lonely figures on horses trotting down a cold desolate street. They represent downtrodden hope in an amoral world.

When rumors swirl that Larry Kincaid has been murdered a posse is formed and Carter, afraid that he might be accused of cattle-rustling because of his long absence, joins in. But during the journey, he speaks his mind and questions the will of the majority.

Carterís integrity is mirrored in his quiet disdain for false appearances. About Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), a "southern general" who leads the lynch mob, Carterís carefully chosen rhythms (he tends to stress verbs and nouns) deconstruct false concepts of honor. "And that renegade Tetley. Strutting around in his uniform, pretending heís so much. He never even saw the South until after the war, then only long enough to marry the kidís mother and get run out of the place by her folks." Moreover, after a series of bad circumstances conspire against the Mexican (Anthony Quinn), a feeble old man, and Don Martin (Dana Andrews), Fonda refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the lynch mob and one of its co-leaders, "deputy" Mapes (Dick Rich). With hands clenched, he gracefully intones, "That ainít true . . . the sheriff didnít even know that we were coming." And finally, as the mob decides to hang the men, Fonda vainly pulls his gun and shouts at the sadistic Tetley, "No, you stop it," while being tackled by the overzealous mob. Fonda may represent one of the first strongly moral but ultimately impotent western heroes.

But the greatest moment for Wellman and Fonda is the exquisite ending, as Lamar Trottiís script takes us to new metaphysical heights for a Western. Fonda leans against the bar, reading the letter that Martin wrote to his wife. Many of the guilty conspirators hover around listening to the dead manís epitaph, and Wellman, daringly chooses to photograph Fonda with his eyes shielded by Morganís hat, so that the trembling decency of the actorís voice has to carry the scene. And carry it he does, as he speaks Trottiís eloquently emotional words: "If people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience and what is anybodyís conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived."

--by Grant Tracey