"Don't let's go off half-cocked and do something we'll be sorry for. We want to act in a reasoned and legitimate manner, not like a lawless mob."—Arthur Davies
Director William A. Wellman's (The Public Enemy) Western, closely adapted from the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, was so far ahead of its time that it turned audiences off during its theatrical release. Critics were smitten, though, and the reputation of the film grew over the years. Today, it's rightly viewed as a masterpiece, and one of Henry Fonda's finest forays in the genre.
Facts of the Case
Dusty cowboys Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan, M*A*S*H) roll into a little town in Nevada in 1885. Stopping off at the local saloon, they discover area ranchers have been plagued by raiding rustlers. They've scarcely finished their whiskeys when word arrives that a rancher named Larry Kinkaid has been brutally gunned down and his cattle stolen.
Gil and Art join a posse to chase down the murderers. The group is led by a surly deputy who abuses his power in the sheriff's absence, its quest for vengeance driven by Kinkaid's close friend Farnley (Marc Lawrence) and a one-time soldier full of bluster and bad will named Major Tetley. The voices of reason in the group are a storeowner named Arthur Davies and a black preacher named Sparks. Debate begins early on whether the expedition's goal is to bring the criminals to justice or lynch them on the spot.
In the dead of night, the posse catches up with wayward trio Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn), and Halva Harvey (Francis Ford—director John Ford's brother). The men are in possession of Kinkaid's cattle for which they offer an explanation both flimsy and somehow believable. Each man in the posse, including Gil and Art, must decide for himself how he defines justice and whether he will align with those eager to hang the accused, or those who want to take them back to town for a trial before the judge.
The most extraordinary thing about The Ox-Bow Incident is that it was made only four years after John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) and preceded the Gary Cooper/Grace Kelly classic High Noon (1952) by nearly a decade. Stagecoach is the quintessential example of the old Western, those made in the era before the genre became aware of itself as a mirror of the American psyche. High Noon has long been considered a benchmark in the genre, the first of a new brand of Western that was lean, incisive, and unflinching in its portrayal of the uglier aspects of humanity. It's the daddy, in many ways, of later entries in the genre by directors like Clint Eastwood, Sam Peckinpah, and even Sergio Leone. But The Ox-Bow Incident came first, and it has the same psychological density and raw simplicity, not to mention a similarly brief running time and cloistered production design (the traditional Western is about expansive vistas) as the later film. It was, in many ways, High Noon before the country was ready for High Noon. If Fred Zinnemann's tale of a sheriff standing up to outlaws on behalf of a thankless citizenry is a study of cowardice, courage, and duty in the face of betrayal, then Wellman's film is about the tension between law and frontier justice, the often hazy line between rational justice and vengeance, and the tug-of-war between the conflicting human needs to grant grace and dole out judgment. High Noon posits duty as a fundamentally male characteristic, Cooper's need to carry out his—even if it leads to death—anathema to Kelly. Conversely, the posse in The Ox-Bow Incident consider the rational, less expedient legal justice of courtrooms and judges feminine and weak. The film is one of the first Westerns to condemn frontier machismo.
Henry Fonda's performance in the film is superlative. His easy-going persona melds in interesting ways with Gil's ornery nature to create a moral ambiguity that leaves the character's loyalties in the vengeance-versus-justice debate draped in mystery until the moment he's forced to explicitly choose sides. Relegating the film's moral backbone to secondary characters Davies and Sparks, not Gil, lends the proceedings a chilling ambiguity. Given little clue from the tale's hero about how we're to assess the often conflicting evidence regarding the guilt of the accused, we're forced to decide based on the facts and our own moral compass. That the orthodoxy of Stagecoach-era Westerns may have enticed some members of the 1943 audience into siding with the frontier justice crowd might explain why the film was so coolly received at the time of its release.
Excellent, complementary performances by Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn as two of the suspected murderers also leave the audience twisting in the moral wind. Quinn's brash confidence and fearlessness as a Mexican outlaw named Francisco Morez, operating under the alias Juan Martinez, undermines any faith we have in the men's innocence. But it's impossible not to feel for Andrews' Donald Martin, heartbroken over the prospect of his wife and young children being left to fend for themselves in a rough frontier if he is hanged. These precise performances, coupled with an intelligent and tightly-written script, keep our hearts and minds at constant war with one another. The weight of having to make a life-and-death decision weighs on the entire being of each man in the posse, and we're forced to share their burden.
The film has been carefully restored for this DVD release, and the full screen transfer of the original 1.37:1 black-and-white image is stable. Contrast is right on the money, providing crisp detail, glistening whites and deep blacks. All major damage or dirt is gone. You'll see the occasional speck here and there, but nothing distracting. Even dissolves between scenes are perfectly stable for the most part (one or two were a little shaky in the gate but, again, nothing unreasonable for a film this old). English audio is provided in both 2-channel mono and a new stereo mix. Side-by-side comparison reveals little difference in the two. The important thing is that both provide clear discernible dialogue, and next to nothing in the way of hiss, crackle, or distortion. There's also a mono track in Spanish that's decent enough, although it's hollow with a highly artificial ambient space (it sounds like what it is, in other words: a dub).
Subtitles are available in both English and Spanish.
The Ox-Bow Incident is the 13th release under Fox's Studio Classics banner, and they've treated it well in terms of supplements. Western scholar Dick Eulain and William Wellman Jr. provide a feature-length commentary. The track hops back and forth between the two men, who were recorded separately. Eulain analyzes the story and narrative construction of the film, while Wellman provides anecdotal information about his father, Fonda, and the production of the film. It's all fascinating, though little of it is screen-specific.
The feature's brief running time allowed the inclusion of Henry Fonda: Hollywood's Quiet Hero on the single-sided dual-layered disc. The 45-minute documentary is an episode of the Biography television show, sans Jack Perkins' introductory and closing remarks.
Restoration Comparison offers a text-based explanation of the restoration of a fine grain master for the DVD release. The text is followed by 40 seconds of split-screen comparison between a 1993 film transfer and the 2002 film restoration, then 1 minute and 45 seconds of comparison between the 2002 film restoration and the 2002 final digital video restoration, which included the digital removal of damage to the film's emulsion. The contrast is striking, and the revelation that the film negative no longer exists ought to make us thankful The Ox-Bow Incident has been delivered to the digital realm as beautifully as it has.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer and a small photo gallery with 17 stills.
Let me say it outright: The Ox-Bow Incident is a top-tier Western, one of the best ever made. It's as powerful, unsentimental, and thought-provoking today as it was when released 60 years ago.
Don't even think about getting a posse together and going after The Ox-Bow Incident. It ain't guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Dick Eulain and William Wellman Jr.
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