The Ox Bow Incident has so much intense, dramatic focus that even its flaws, like the crappy studio lighting, only seem to lend to it a stripped down authenticity. Based on the novel of the same name by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, William A. Wellman’s brutal masterpiece about three innocent men lynched by a mob of Nevada ranchers stars Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Dana Andrews, and a young Anthony Quinn. That such a film could be made in the middle of a war against fascism speaks highly of American culture. That such a film could be made at all reminds us that there’s a dark, sinister side of American history that we often ignore.
It’s 1885, two cowboys, Gil Carter, Fonda, and Art Croft, Harry Morgan, ride into a small town in Nevada called Bridger’s Wells. Bridger’s Wells is not a friendly place. Not only have the local ranchers had to deal with ongoing epidemic of cattle-rustling, there’s something deeper going on. After Gil Carter learns that his favorite prostitute has been driven out of town, he picks a fight with another cowboy, an angry reaction we don’t entirely understand until we realize that there’s a big shortage of available women in town. Bridger’s Wells, like many towns on the American frontier, has a toxic, masculine culture that comes from having no women or children.
We find out just how toxic Bridger’s Well is when a young man arrives with the news that Larry Kinkaid, a popular local rancher, has been murdered. In a matter of only minutes, a posse forms. The posse, led by Major Tetley, an ex Confederate army officer, Deputy Butch Mapes, and a genuinely frighting Jane Darwell as a hardass, butch cowgirl named Jenny Grier, is an obvious lynch mob from the very beginning. A local judge does make a token effort to stop it, but gives up at the first signs of resistance. Arthur Davies, a shopkeeper, pleads with the mob to wait until the sheriff gets back into town, or, at the very least, bring anybody they catch back for a fair trial. Gil Carter and Art Croft, not being popular, solid citizens, and fearful they might be themselves accused of rustling, decide to tag along in order to avoid looking suspicious. The mob bullies Sparks, an African American preacher, into being their unofficial chaplain. They ride out to look for suspects.
After an abortive attack on a stage coach — which contains Gil Carter’s prostitute ex-girlfriend and her newly acquired rich husband — the lynch mob comes upon three men in sleeping bags, a half senile old man, and two men who appear to be in their 20s or 30s. One is a white man named David Martin, who’s played by Dana Andrews. Earlier that day he made the mistake that will cost him his life. He bought a stock of cattle from Larry Kincaid and didn’t get a bill of sale. The other young man, a Mexican named Francisco Morez, Anthony Quinn, is a gambler and petty thief David Martin had decided to hire without checking into his background, another fatal mistake.
The real heart and soul of the Ox Bow Incident is how differently both men react to their inevitable deaths. Francisco Morez, as a brown skinned Mexican, has no illusions about what a posse of thirty, heavily armed white ranchers means. It’s a lynch mob. He’s not going to get a fair trial. He’s never going to see a judge or get a lawyer. They probably don’t even care if he’s innocent or guilty. They want their blood and they’ll get it. After a token attempt to escape, Morez concludes that fate has quite obviously punched his ticket and his time on earth is over. All he needs is a priest, or, in lieu of that, a Spanish speaker who will take his final confession back to a priest. His final prayer, in Spanish, is so moving you can see the blood lust in the eyes of the lynch mob briefly dissipate.
For David Martin it’s not that easy. Martin is a solid, middle-class citizen from out of town, an educated family man who composes a letter to his wife that’s so well-written that the shopkeeper Arthur Davies thinks if it’s only read out loud it will prove his innocence. Davies doesn’t understand that Major Tetley, the deputy, and Jenny Grier, the three ringleaders, don’t really care if he’s innocent or not. The contrast between Dana Andrews and Jane Darwell is revealing. All the strength that Darwell exhibited as Ma Joad has become toxic. She’s a cold Maggie Thatcher of the frontier, a stone face woman without any sign of feminine gentleness or compassion. Dana Andrews, on the other hand, even though he made his career playing macho war heroes, is soft, feminine, vulnerable. At first he can’t believe what’s really happening to him. Then he pleads with his soon to be murderers to have mercy on him because he’s a husband and a father, pathetic in his inability to see that he’s no longer in a civilized country where things like that matter. They may invoke law and order, but this mob is nothing more than a gang of serial killers. David Martin is not only every solid middle-class citizen who can’t believe it when the law doesn’t realize he’s innocent. He’s a human sacrifice to the blood lust at the heart of frontier America.
Gil Carter and Art Croft represent the rest of us. A pair of everymen who know what they’re witnessing is wrong, they make the right choices. Carter especially, who tries, and fails, to stop the lynching, acts heroically. But Wellman’s vision is too uncompromising and darkly Calvinist for any kind of happy ending. All we get is a brutal, ironic twist. The cavalry, the town sheriff, finally arrives, but 5 minutes too late. Then we learn what really happened to Larry Kinkaid.