Two cowboys, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), ride off the range into a small western town when news comes in that a local farmer has been murdered and his cattle stolen. With the sheriff out of town, local rabble-rousers raise up a posse ignoring those pleading for calm and clear-thinking. Gil and Art are reluctantly conscripted into an unruly lynch mob who cast aside all regard for the law when they happen upon three drifters.
Although filmed in 1941, The Ox-Bow Incident sat on the shelf for two years because the marketing department had no idea how to sell a film with such inflammatory politics. Nevertheless the film stirred up a great deal of admiration upon its eventual release and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture even though it remains something of a cult film largely heralded by western aficionados rather than embraced by the mainstream. Adapted from the well-regarded novel of the same name written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, the film deals with themes similar to those in Fritz Lang's equally uncompromising thriller Fury (1936) being another savage indictment of the mob mentality. Ironically The Ox-Bow Incident reached cinemas at a time when introspection was seemingly out of fashion as most movies encouraged Americans to band together against a devious enemy, namely Japan at the dawn of the Second World War.
William Wellman, the first director to win an Academy Award for his aerial action classic Wings (1927), made his mark with a diverse array of landmark movies from gritty gangster thriller The Public Enemy (1931) to screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), the original version of A Star is Born (1937), and powerful war movie Battleground (1949) although he dealt his share of unremarkable potboilers throughout a prolific career. It was Wellman who pushed studio head Darryl F. Zanuck to buy the rights to Clark's novel before agreeing to direct a handful of more conventional entertainments first just so the film would be made. He later tried his hand at a second Clark adaptation with the Robert Mitchum western Track of the Cat (1954). Wellman imbues The Ox-Bow Incident with an earthiness and honesty rare in studio westerns with impassioned performances to match from the likes of Henry Fonda cast, as so often, as the voice of reason. However, unlike his conscience-stricken turn amidst a modern setting in 12 Angry Men (1957), here Fonda's character proves powerless to do much besides observe these grim proceedings.
The killing of Larry Kincaid sparks diverse reactions among the townspeople. Some seek to profit from the murder hunt while others are driven by a misguided zeal for justice or simple lust for blood. Most of the articulate, reasonable intellectuals prove ineffectual in the face of swaggering vigilantes or worse yet, elderly authority figures like formidable female trail boss Jenny Grier (Jane Darwell) or sinister confederate Major Tetley (William Eythe) who harbour their own agendas. On the opposite end of the moral spectrum, sole black character Sparks (Leigh Whipper, who received no screen credit, so much for liberal agendas) is understandably uneasy about the lynching given his brother suffered a similar fate while law-abiding Mr. Davies (Arthur Davenport) struggles vainly to rally the few other right-thinking people. Fonda serves as our identification figure, a man who knows right from wrong yet recognizes the futility in trying to sway the mob. Yet as Davies points out to him, disillusionment with the system is no excuse for not trying at least to make a difference.
Scripted by producer Lamar Trotti, whose diverse credits include John Ford's exceptional historical drama Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), family comedy Cheaper By the Dozen (1950) and musical There's No Business Like Showbusiness (1954), the film briefly diverts from the main plot when the posse run across a stagecoach bearing Gil's former sweetheart Rose (Mary Beth Hughes) now married to a wealthy and influential man who makes it clear she is now his personal property. Once the posse come across the three drifters who include a swarthy Mexican (Anthony Quinn), a senile old man and Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), a family man who furiously protests his innocence, the film reaches its dramatic high point with a series of scenes by turns nightmarish, darkly comic and deeply moving. Rather than end with the expected sting in the tale, Wellman wisely lingers to explore the moral and psychological ramifications of what the mob have done concluding with the sage observation that there can be no such thing as civilization without people that have a conscience.