In contrast to the familiar Western device of the hero obliged to take the law into his own hands, The Ox-Bow Incident is a grim, messy cautionary tale, almost an anti-Western, about the dangers of vigilante justice and mob rule.
The brief story is as simple as it is tragic. Recent incidents of cattle rustling have a small Nevada town jumpy, and news that a popular local rancher has been murdered has the townsfolk up in arms. In the absence of the sheriff, a self-appointed posse forms under the leadership of an ambiguously disreputable ex-Confederate officer, despite the ineffectual protests of some, including the town judge.
Illegally deputized by the duputy sheriff, the mob rides in pursuit of the perpetrators, and soon finds the rancher’s cattle being driven by a trio of strangers who claim the herd was legitimately purchased but can produce no bill of sale.
Henry Fonda stars as a ragged cowboy who, like his later character in 12 Angry Men, is uncomfortable with the angry rush to judgment of those around him, but is far less noble or outspoken here. Leigh Whipper plays an unassuming black preacher condescendingly brought along for a veneer of religiosity, and provides a voice of conscience that is tragically ignored. The climax, a letter from a dead man, is devastating.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.