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The Ox-Bow Incident

Screening on Film
Directed by William Wellman.
With Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes.
US, 1943, 35mm, black & white, 75 min.
Print source: HFA

A Western precursor to 12 Angry Men, also starring Henry Fonda, who takes a more decentralized and observational role here, The Ox-Bow Incident became another passionate crusade for Wellman as soon as he read the Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel. The film eloquently and starkly details the results of “frontier justice,” as three men accused of murder and theft are rounded up by a riled-up, sheriffless town posse. Made during World War II, the film’s message is urgent, but one nobody wanted to hear. Wellman’s somber, shocking labor of love was a tough sell to studios and the public; even the film’s remnant of a love story is a virtual red herring, teasing audiences with the kind of escapist confectionery they expected but that Wellman adamantly withheld. His low-budget Wild West resists complacency or reassurance. In stark black-and-white, it is dialogue, not action, that dominates and fuels the tension, and the sole female in the group—who is not the strangely top-billed Mary Beth Hughes—is a rough-and-tumble bloodthirsty rancher. Wellman gingerly doles out some of the characters’ personal stories, making the cowboys more complex and present while harshly demonstrating how emotional wounds color judgment in this lawless court.

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