We know the score. Two drifters ride into town. They sidle up to the bar for some shots, looking for something to do in a lazy Nevada dust-hole. Their faces are equally familiar to anyone who has ever seen even a few of the old oaters. Feisty Henry Fonda as Gil Carter and his more even-keeled pal Art (Henry Morgan). Though folks question what they’re doing around, it comes to nothing except an exuberant fist fight for Fonda just itching for some thrills. He’s not disappointed.
Soon the community catches wind of the death of a beloved local named Kincaid at the hands of cattle rustlers. The wheels are set in motion as the sleepy town awakens and a lynching mob forms under the guise of a posse. With the sheriff out of town doing his duty and the local judge incapable of stopping them, they ride off looking for vengeance and some excitement to liven up their one-horse town. As the deputy illegally swears in the entire crowd as temporary deputies, our boys Gil and Art reluctantly sign on as not to draw more suspicion to themselves.
A Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) tries to take charge forcing his callow son (William Eythe) to join in as they begin their hunt. The two most reluctant and subsequently the most interesting additions to their party are the African-American preacher named Sparks (Leigh Whipper), whose own brother was lynched when he was a boy, and then the rational-minded Old Man Davies (Harry Davenport) who desires for true justice to be upheld. He is wary of the repercussions of a mob mentality.
Ultimately, they happen upon three strangers and circle them like ravenous wolves practically willing them to be guilty. In these crucial interludes, Wellman deliberately focuses on close-ups instead of scenery to ratchet the tension. It’s evident the bread and butter of this picture are within the characters themselves.
The crowd begins peppering the suspects with questions though they’ve already drawn up their answers for them. It doesn’t help that the trio’s leader (Dana Andrews) must try and explain some extenuating circumstances, namely how he acquired some of Kinkaid’s stock, which he purportedly bought off the murdered man without a bill of sale.
True, the posse doesn’t go off absolutely nothing but the integrity of democratic justice, as flawed as it might be, in the day-to-day, still maintains people are innocent until proven guilty. It’s not the other way around. That’s key. It also calls for not dealing in emotions like anger and hatred but impartial wisdom. Again, that might be impossible to attain but we must try our best. Otherwise, the consequences are potentially dire.
William A. Wellman was so eager to adapt Walter van Tilburg Clark’s original novel he agreed with Daryl Zanuck to direct two other pictures that are now all but forgotten. The Ox-Bow Incident might be small but it’s no less mighty thanks to the teaming of Wellman and Lamar Trotti. In fact, its volatility was so great no one knew how to market it during the war years. How do you try and redeem the debasement of humanity originating out of our own traditions, even as we try and reconcile that with the evil going on overseas? It’s a tall order.
The equally horrifying thing is the fact lynchings had yet to be exterminated from American society and the blood of such injustice still soaked American soil. Though this is a showing of three men getting hung, one white (Andrews), one old (Francis Ford), one Mexican (a defiant Anthony Quinn), this could have just as easily been racially charged with African-American victims.
Regardless of guilt or innocence, justice was never meant to function in this fashion where lawlessness is masked by perceived legitimacy. Nothing good can come of it. Fonda’s own memories drew him to the material as he supposedly witnessed the lynching of a man named Will Brown in Omaha, Nebraska on September 28, 1919. You can only imagine how the images scalded him for life. 12 Angry Men (1957) is indubitably another film which dealt with comparable themes very close to his heart.
His part, along with Morgan by his side, remains crucial because they essentially act as impartial bystanders and their choice is faced by anyone at the crossroads of such an issue. Because good can be quantified by commission and omission just as evil can be perpetrated through action and inaction.
The final wallop of the film is, of course, finding out what the actuality of the matter is — knowing full well they acted in error. To cap off the most moving showing of his generally hardboiled career, as the dying family man, Dana Andrews touches them from the grave with his words one last time:
“A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world, ’cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?”
Even if his words serve the film more than they are the authentic words of a husband, their affecting nature is undebatable. Every man standing around the bar sullenly has been given a costly lesson — a lesson requiring the lives of three men. It’s fitting for our two drifters to ride out of town just as they came in the same hound dog sulking across the road. And yet so much has changed. If anything our hero has found his conscience in a sea of injustice.