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The 1943 movie The Ox-Bow Incident, filmed the summer of 1942 just after the US entered WW II, is so much more interesting than the Wikipedia article or the iMDB one imply. War fever was just ramping up and this emotional lynching was probably intended to add a touch of caution and fair play to the kill-em-all mentality that many people no doubt had at that time. After a rather silly and tedious opening, used to set the scene of the mediocre mental and moral sensibilities of the remote 1885 Nevada small town, we get word of a cattle rustling and murder just outside of town. About thirty of these ill-informed cattlemen argue violently in the bar about the various things they should consider rationally, but as befuddled as they are by drink and lack of civilizing influences they form a plan with blood in their eyes to lynch the rustlers. With precious little more than a single second-hand report to form their opinions, they form an illegal posse and set out after those they believe to be the murderers.
Henry Fonda isn’t much saner than the rest but he does see the mob’s outrage at the report of one of their friends being murdered, and their eagerness to seek revenge. After a hard and dusty day’s ride they catch up with the three sleeping “rustlers” and an unseen small herd of cattle at a place called Ox-Bow. This is where the Incident occurred. It consists mainly of wild accusations without much substantiation and a bewildered Dana Andrews as the purchaser and legal owner of the cattle, trying to defend himself against their obvious nonsense. Fonda, a relative outsider in the town, tries to defend Dana against the impending lynching, and argues with the posse to return the men to town for a reasonable trial, but that’s too much trouble, so they walk them up to the nooses. As a last request they let Dana write a letter to his wife and children, but when he is finished they hang him and his two companions. One of whom is a very young and very sleek Anthony Quinn. The whole point of the movie is to read the letter which Dana’s character has written. A modern audience would have trouble listening to a longish moralizing philosophical letter being read, but Fonda’s performance makes it interesting.
“My dear Wife, Mr. Davies will tell you what’s happening here tonight. He’s a good man and has done everything he can for me. I suppose there are some other good men here, too, only they don’t seem to realize what they’re doing. They’re the ones I feel sorry for. ‘Cause it’ll be over for me in a little while, but they’ll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives. A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world, ’cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived? I guess that’s all I’ve got to say except kiss the babies for me and God bless you. Your husband, Donald.”
This letter is a clone of Albert Parsons’ letter to his wife, from the legal lynching of the Haymarket bombing suspects of the movies setting year, 1885. Of course as soon as the lynching is done the real Sheriff arrives, with news that their friend hadn’t been murdered, and therefore these guys just committed three murderers – the guys all go mopey and return to town for some more hard drinking. At the bar Fonda reads the letter out loud to these drunks, then Henry goes riding off on his horse to take the letter to Dana’s widow and her children. He is looking for a new girl, so he will probably shack up with the widow – to protect her. Underdeveloped is the fact that Fonda just lost his old girlfriend to the rich and eloquent city slicker. The slicker gives a beautiful monologue about legal ownership, in his case ownership of women and not cattle, but he gets cursed by a flummoxed Fonda as they depart for the city in a stagecoach.
As usual in Hollywood movies the sensible people are portrayed as intellectual clowns with the murdering fools getting some sentimental moral development.
This is a wonderful movie, but it could have been improved by the director editing out a few seconds of clowning foolishness.