Henry Fonda probably more than any American actor of all-time personifies decency. Maybe only his close friend James Stewart (who however was politically to the right of him) or slightly later on Gregory Peck give him a run for his money. The Ox-Bow Incident was a passion project for Fonda and when an actor makes a passion project it can either be great or just vain nonsense, this certain falls in the camp of being great.
The Ox-Bow Incident moves at a extraordinary pace of just slightly over 75 minutes which for what was considered a “A” western is extraordinary. It also was really the first of a new breed of western which took aspects of film noir and applied it to the western. These films for the most part were made in the late ’40s and throughout the 50s, they are sometimes called psychological westerns as well.
The plot is deceptively simple but psychological complex, a group of men form a posse to go lynch the suspecting murderers of rancher Larry Kinkaid. Fonda plays the cowboy Gil Carter who has rode into town with his Art Croft (Harry Morgan) who join with the posse so they don’t become suspects of the murder. Anthony Quinn plays one of the men they find who they suspect to behind the murder. Dana Andrews also appears as one of the suspects too which connects the film even more to film noir.
Henry Fonda’s role is strange crossbreed of being both the lead of the film but also a supporting player. It’s very much an ensemble cast with obviously Fonda at the head of the pack but all of the major players’ roles are equally important. The cast is full of lots of the great character actors of ’40s through the ’50s such as Harry Morgan, Harry Davenport along with the John Ford regular Jane Darwell and even Ford’s brother Francis Ford who was a fine actor in his own right.
The film is damning statement on mob mentality which is still relevent to a modern audience. It had an extra significance for a ’40s audience because there were still mobs lynching African-Americans in the Southern states of US and wasn’t until the 1946 there was actually a federal conviction for somebody for lynching. It’s a classic example of an “issue film” from the ’40s but it’s such an important story that it never feels like it’s hitting you over the head. It also features a African-American character as a voice of conscience which was extremely ahead of its time.
20th Century Fox produced the film and really didn’t have any idea how to market it so they sat on it for a while. They only made it really because Henry Fonda wanted to make it and he was under contract to Fox after he reluctantly signed a deal so he could get the lead in The Grapes of Wrath. It’s response at the time was mostly positive but there was some right-wing moral outrage over it such as the claims it was a “depressing, unpleasant, at times horrible, melodrama”. It was also the last film to date to get nominated for an Oscar for best film and nothing else. It lost out to Casablanca which to be honest is understandable.
However as any film this strong it has gained a reputation over the years. Clint Eastwood has cited it as his favourite film in a poll once which shows he is much more liberal than his public image presents as times. Fonda considered it one of his best and Richard Dreyfuss has called it “one of the most lyrical of all American films”. It’s a film which seems to have been forgotten but it is as influential on the western genre as Stagecoach was a few years previously.
Arrow has a compiled a strong package here as you would expect from them. A 4K restoration which really brings out fantastic cinematography. Audio commentary by American West historian Dick Etulain and the director’s son William Wellman Jr. Peter Stanfield does a newly filmed introduction and also does commentary on selection scenes. The meaty feature is a documentary on the life and career of Henry Fonda, doesn’t go into much details on some of his most important roles but solid overview. Trailers, stills gallery and of course a booklet is also included.