The Movie Waffler Blu-ray Review - THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943) | The Movie Waffler

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Blu-ray Review - THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943)

A pair of strangers find themselves caught up in an angry lynch mob.





Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: William A Wellman

Starring: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Anthony Quinn, Harry Morgan


The Ox-Bow Incident is available now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.



It's clichéd to suggest that an old movie is now somehow more relevant than at the time of its release, but due to mankind's ongoing failure to learn from the mistakes of the past, William A Wellman's 1943 adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark's novel plays like it was made yesterday.


It's clichéd to suggest that an old movie is now somehow more relevant than at the time of its release, but due to mankind's ongoing failure to learn from the mistakes of the past, William A Wellman's 1943 adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark's novel plays like it was made yesterday. This is a statement that probably could have been made 20 years ago, and will no doubt apply 20 years from now. Sadly, The Ox-Bow Incident is unlikely to ever lose its considerable impact.

The western had been considered a genre geared solely towards entertainment, but in the 1940s, filmmakers began to realise the potential the genre possessed for disguising messages in what the studio heads would naively see as simple shoot 'em ups. In the case of The Ox-Bow Incident however its message is far from hidden, its politics presented straight up.


Who better to act as the vessel for a message of human decency than Henry Fonda? Here he plays Gil Carter, a rough and tumble cowboy who arrives in the Nevada town of Bridger's Wells, accompanied by his friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan), hoping to reunite with a former lover. When the barman informs Gil that the object of his affection has left town, he becomes surly and starts knocking back the whisky. This leads to an altercation with a ranch hand, Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence), broken up by the arrival of news that a local rancher has been shot dead. A friend of the victim, Farnley decides to round up a lynch mob, and finds plenty of volunteers. Even the fairer sex is represented by Ma Jenny Grier (Jane Darwell), a great barrel of hate who seems to take a particular relish at the thought of witnessing a hanging.

With the Sheriff out of town (he's already at the scene of the crime, a point ignored by the vengeance crazed mob), his sinister deputy forms a posse. Refusing to join the mob, but tagging along in an attempt to stop an unlawful lynching, are shopkeeper Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport) and 'Sparks' (Leigh Whipper), a black preacher who, as a child, witnessed the lynching of his own brother - "I never did know why." Gil initially wants no part in the mob's plan, but Art convinces him to join in, lest they find themselves targeted.


In the middle of the night, the angered posse runs across three men sleeping rough - an affable young man, Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), a senile old coot, Alva Hardwicke (Francis Ford), and a Mexican, Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn), who is smart and experienced enough to know where this encounter is leading.

What follows is one of the most disturbing half hours of cinema Hollywood ever dared film, as Martin attempts to plead his group's innocence in the face of men too blinded with rage to hear him out. Think of 12 Angry Men if Fonda didn't have the guts to argue against the majority; here he skulks around the periphery in disgust, but isn't willing to put his own neck on the line, or in a noose.


The prolonged sequence takes place on a studio set lit like a cemetery in a Universal horror movie. A large tree looms ominously in the background, one sturdy branch stretched out like the arm of the reaper. Wellman inserts close-ups of ropes being fashioned into nooses by enthusiastic, blood-thirsty hands. Arthur C Miller's stark black and white cinematography reflects the nuance-free approach to justice of the mob. On the soundtrack, 'Red River Valley' plays in a heart-breaking, melancholy key, an American standard corrupted.

There are those who dismiss studio era Hollywood as a mere entertainment factory, as though mainstream American cinema only began taking risks in the '70s, but The Ox-Bow Incident is as nihilistic and misanthropic a story as any from the era of 'New American Cinema'. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," said the Irish statesman Edmund Burke. Wellman's movie features heroes, but they're outnumbered, and in their silence, fail to save the day.

Extras:

Commentary by American West historian Dick Etulain and William Wellman Jr
Western expert Peter Stanfield provides an introduction and selected scene commentaries. 
Henry Fonda: Hollywood’s Quiet Hero, is a 45-minute made for TV documentary on the actor. 
Along with the usual trailer, stills gallery and booklet, it's another quality package from Arrow Video.

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