Cast & Crew
William A. Wellman
Mary Beth Hughes
In 1885, cattlemen Gil Carter and Art Croft travel from their small ranch to the nearby town of Bridger's Wells, Nevada, after the winter round-up. Gil is hoping to meet his sweetheart, Rose Mapen, and is infuriated when Darby, the bartender, informs him that she left town to be married. Gil's temper worsens when rancher Jeff Farnley insinuates that he and Art, as the only strangers present, may be responsible for the recent cattle rustling that has hit every rancher in the area. Gil and Farnley engage in a fistfight, which ends when Darby shatters a bottle over Gil's head. As Gil and Art are standing outside afterward, a rider rushes into the saloon. Gil and Art rejoin the crowd, which has just learned that Larry Kincaid, a well-respected local rancher, has been murdered, presumably by the rustlers. Farnley, Kincaid's best friend, is easily whipped into a frenzy by the town drunk, Monty Smith, and other bored men who insist that the perpetrators should be lynched. Storekeeper Arthur Davies tries to persuade the men to wait for Sheriff Risley and Judge Daniel Tyler, but when they persist in forming a posse, Davies sends Gil and townsman Joyce to get Tyler. Davies asks Gil to avoid involving Butch Mapes, the brutish deputy sheriff, but Mapes is at Tyler's house, and when he learns of the excitement, he joins the gathering crowd. Tyler tries to dissuade the men from pursuing the alleged criminals, but Smith, Farnley and the others insist that Tyler's justice moves too slowly. Smith caustically suggests that black preacher Sparks should come, and even though he knows Smith is kidding him, Sparks decides to go in case prayer is needed. The mob is joined by Jennie "Ma" Grier, a tough woman who also insists that they find Kincaid's killers. Tyler and Davies have almost persuaded the crowd to desist, however, when Major Tetley, a former Confederate soldier who now fancies himself a town leader, arrives and announces that three men were seen on Bridger's Pass, and that they had forty head of cattle bearing Kincaid's brand. Despite Tyler's protests that only Risley can appoint new deputies, Mapes swears in the posse members and they set off for the pass. Gil and Art reluctantly go along, for they fear that suspicion will fall on them if they do not participate. Gil's uneasiness about the situation increases when Sparks remarks that he still has nightmares about seeing his brother lynched many years previously. Night falls as the posse travels, and everyone begins to suffer from the cold. As they stop on the mountain road to rest, a stagecoach passes by and the driver mistakenly assumes that the crowd are robbers. Art is shot in the shoulder during the ensuing confusion, and while his wound is being cleaned, Gil discovers that the passengers are Rose, her new husband, Swanson, and his sister. After the wealthy Swanson vaguely warns Gil to stay away from Rose, the stage departs. Art is determined to stick with the posse, which continues on to the Ox-Bow Valley. There they find three sleeping men and the cattle bearing Kincaid's brand. After surrounding them, the mob awakens the three men, who are led by young rancher Donald Martin. Martin's companions are Alva Hardwick, an addled old man whom Martin calls "Dad," and a Mexican named Francisco Morez, who does not appear to speak English. Martin is amazed by Tetley's accusations and immediately protests their innocence. Martin insists that he moved to nearby Pike's Hole three days earlier and purchased the cattle from Kincaid, who was too busy to provide him with a bill of sale. Gil tries to persuade the others to bring the trio back to the judge, but Art reminds him that they may get lynched as well if they interfere. Davies also pleads for the men's lives, and finally, Tetley agrees to give them until dawn to prepare themselves. Martin writes a letter to his wife and two young children, while Dad sits in a daze and Morez hungrily consumes a meal prepared by Ma. While Davies tries to get Tetley to read Martin's moving letter, Morez attempts to escape. He is shot in the leg and brought back, and Kincaid's gun is found on him. Morez, who now reveals that he does speak English, asserts that he found the gun along the road, but the presence of the weapon seals his fate. Davies again protests the lynching, and this time, Sparks, Gil, Art, Tetley's cowardly son Gerald and two other men stand by him. They are outnumbered, however, and the condemned men are put on horseback. Tetley tries to force Gerald to whip the horse from underneath Martin, and when he cannot, Tetley knocks him unconscious. Martin, Dad and Morez are hanged, after which the now somber crowd leaves. Before they have journeyed far, though, they are joined by the sheriff, who tells them that not only is Kincaid alive, but his attackers have been caught. Risley promises that those responsible for the lynching will pay dearly, and the group rides back to town. There, Gerald castigates his father for his cruelty, and the distraught major commits suicide. Meanwhile, in the crowded saloon, a collection is taken up for Martin's wife. Gil and Art contribute, and Gil tries to get Art to read Martin's letter. Art cannot read, however, so Gil reads the letter aloud, and the men are ashamed to hear Martin's stirring words about the nature of justice and conscience. Gil and Art then leave Bridger's Wells on their way to deliver the letter and look after Martin's wife and children.
William A. Wellman
Mary Beth Hughes
Frank E. Hughes
Cyril J. Mockridge
The Ox-Bow Incident
Henry Fonda stars as a man who rides into an unfamiliar town and ends up witnessing an exceptionally ugly incident. When a rancher has apparently been murdered by a cattle rustler, a lynch mob sets out to seek "justice." When two suspects (Anthony Quinn and Dana Andrews) are gathered, the men swear that they're innocent. But mob rule, lead by a sadistic Army officer (Frank Conroy), prevails. A lynching does, in fact, take place, but the reading of a letter at the end of the film establishes whether or not the now-dead men were actually murderers. This story is played out in claustrophobic detail, with the various mob members coming to terms with their actions in such an intense situation...just as the conflicted jurors do in 12 Angry Men.
It takes a lot of chutzpa to shoot an almost completely inert Western, and Wellman had to do a lot of convincing to get The Ox-Bow Incident off the ground. The director had wanted to adapt Walter Van Tilburg Clark's novel for the screen for years and he harangued Fox production head Darryl Zanuck until the mogul finally caved in. Wellman pointed out that he had successfully delivered social messages in the past, in such well-received films as The Public Enemy (1931) and A Star Is Born (1937). But Zanuck was concerned that the American public wasn't ready for a film that centered on lynching. Zanuck relented when Wellman happily agreed that he would also direct two far-less adventurous pictures for the producer- Thunder Birds (1942) and Buffalo Bill (1944).
Actually, Wellman had discussed making The Ox-Bow Incident in 1940, with producer Harold Hurley. But Hurley had a completely different sort of film in mind, one that would revolve around Mae West as a saloon hostess! When Hurley left Paramount, he sold Ox-bow's rights to Wellman for $6,500. "I bought the property from Harold Hurley," he later said, "after he had gotten into some sort of beef with the big boys and was relieved of his job...then I went to all the producers for whom I had worked and got turned down. Zanuck was the only one with the guts to do an out-of-the-ordinary story for the prestige, rather than the dough."
Some viewers had trouble with the fact that, although the last half of The Ox-Bow Incident is set outdoors, it obviously takes place on a soundstage. The mountains in the background, for instance, are clearly of the painted variety. Luckily, the intense performances and Wellman's reliance on close-ups of his actors' faces distract us from this obvious flaw, and the film remains a powerful viewing experience.
Directed by: William A. Wellman
Producer: Lamar Trotti
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti (based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark)
Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Editing: Allen McNeil
Set Design: Thomas Little and Frank E. Hughes
Costume Design: Earl Luick
Makeup: Guy Pearce
Cast: Henry Fonda (Gil Carter), Dana Andrews (Donald Martin), Mary Beth Hughes (Rose Mapen), Anthony Quinn (Juan Martinez), William Eythe (Gerald Tetley), Harry Morgan (Art Croft), Jane Darwell (Ma Grier), Matt Briggs (Judge Daniel Tyler), Harry Davenport (Arthur Davies), Frank Conroy (Maj. Tetley), Marc Lawrence (Farnley), Victor Kilian (Darby).
by Paul Tatara
The Ox-Bow Incident
Marc Lawrence (1910-2005)
Born Max Goldsmith on February 17, 1910, in the Bronx, Lawrence had his heart set on a career in drama right out of high school. He enrolled at City College of New York to study theatre, and in 1930, he worked under famed stage actress Eva Le Gallienne. Anxious for a career in movies, Lawrence moved to Hollywood in 1932 and found work immediately as a contract player with Warner Bros. (an ideal studio for the actor since they specialized in crime dramas). He was cast as a heavy in his first film, If I Had a Million (1932). Although his first few parts were uncredited, Lawrence's roles grew more prominent: a sinister henchman in the Paul Muni vehicle in Dr. Socrates (1935); a conniving convict aiding Pat O'Brien in San Quentin (1937); a menacing thug stalking Dorothy Lamour in Johnny Apollo (1940); the shrewdly observant chauffeur in Alan Ladd's breakthrough hit This Gun For Hire (1942); and one of his most memorable roles as Ziggy, a fedora wearing mobster in the Bogart-Bacall noir classic Key Largo (1948).
Lawrence, when given the opportunity, could play against type: as the prosecuting attorney challenging Tyrone Power in Brigham Young (1940); a noble aristocrat in the Greer Garson-Walter Pidgeon period opus Blossoms in the Dust; and most impressively, as a deaf mute simpleton in the rustic drama The Shepherd of the Hills (both 1941). Better still was Lawrence's skill at comedy, where his deadpan toughness worked terrifically as a straight man against the likes of Joe E. Brown in Beware Spooks (1939); Abbott and Costello in Hit the Ice (1943); Penny Singleton in Life with Blondie (1945); and Bob Hope in My Favorite Spy (1951).
After that, Lawrence's career took a turn downward spin when he was labeled a communist sympathizer during the Hollywood witch hunts of the early '50s. He was exiled in Europe for a spell (1951-59), and when he came back, the film industry turned a blind eye to him, but television overcompensated for that. Here he played effective villains (what else?) in a series of crime caper programs: Peter Gunn, Johnny Staccato, The Untouchables, Richard Diamond, Private Detective; and eventually made a welcome return to the big screen as a returning exiled gangster in William Asher's underrated mob thriller Johnny Cool (1963).
It wasn't long before Lawrence found himself back in the fray playing in some big box-office hits over the next two decades: Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Marathon Man (1976), Foul Play (1978); and The Big Easy (1987). Sure he was cast as a gangster, but nobody could play a rough and tumble mob boss with more style or conviction.
Interestingly, one of his finest performances in recent years was in television, as a severely ill old man unwilling to accept his fate in a fourth season episode of ER (1997-98). His last screen role was just two years ago, as a nimble minded VP in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003).
In 1991, Lawrence published a memoir about his venerable career, Long Time No See: Confessions of a Hollywood Gangster that received much critical acclaim. He has also developed a cult following due to his appearances in such offbeat items as From Dusk to Dawn and Pigs aka Daddy's Deadly Darling, the 1972 horror film he directed and starred in with his daughter Toni. He is survived by his wife, Alicia; two children from a previous marriage, Toni and Michael; and a stepdaughter Marina.
by Michael T. Toole
Marc Lawrence (1910-2005)
The Ox-Bow Incident on DVD
In fact, The Ox-Bow Incident feels somewhat more literary than cinematic - a film more of intellectual ideas than of powerful emotion. Though beautifully shot by cinematographer Arthur Miller, it's essentially full of scenes of characters standing around talking, and is less a true western than a morality story which happens to be set in the old west. (Its subject matter has been covered better on-screen in the less preachy and far more emotional Fury, directed by Fritz Lang, and Try and Get Me!, directed by Cy Endfield). Nonetheless, it's an important picture in film history for its hard-hitting story and social drama - unusual for a western of its time - and is definitely worth watching. Its message is as timely as ever.
The novel was written in 1938 by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who wanted to address Nazism by showing how easy it was for a fascist mentality to arise in a group of people. Setting his story in a western, the most American of genres, only furthered that point. Upon publication in 1940, the book was a huge success with readers and critics. United Artists contract producer Harold Hurley bought the rights, but he couldn't get a film version going. He pitched it to director William Wellman, who loved it, but when Hurley said he envisioned Ox-Bow as a lavish Technicolor production, Wellman bowed out.
A couple of years later, Wellman ran into Hurley again and inquired about Ox-Bow. It was still dead in the water, so Wellman bought the property from Hurley himself - the only time in Wellman's career that he ever put his own money into a project. He made the rounds in Hollywood only to find that with the nation now at war, studios were even less interested in a story of misjustice in the American west and the hanging of innocent men. No one in town wanted to touch something so dark. Finally, he took it to Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, with whom Wellman had had a falling-out sometime earlier. Zanuck offered to produce it if Wellman would make it on a tiny budget as well as agree to direct two more films for him - sight unseen. Wellman agreed. The film, shot cheaply almost entirely in a soundstage, did badly at the box office for the very reason that no one had wanted to finance it. But critics loved it, it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and its reputation has only grown over the decades.
The Ox-Bow Incident has been beautifully restored and preserved by 20th Century Fox. Among the DVD's extras is a fine side-by-side comparison of different versions of restorations over the years, culminating in this final digital version. Also included are a gallery of stills, the trailer, and an A&E Biography of Henry Fonda.
A commentary track by film professor Dick Eulain and filmmaker William Wellman, Jr., is mostly interesting and informative (if repetitive at times). Eulain points out much of the symbolism in the film and explains what was changed from the book to the movie, including the addition of one line of dialogue which implies that the lynchers will be punished for their crime - something that the book does not include.
Wellman recounts the production's history and shares some insightful tidbits about his famous father, who favored working with tough-guy actors like Cagney, Bogart, and Wayne and didn't get along with a lot of people. "My father had fights with people," his son says in describing the falling-out Wellman had with Anthony Quinn not long after making this picture. "He was not an intellectual. He didn't think that way - If you asked him about the theme of the story, the motivation and those things, he wouldn't pay any attention. He just liked the story."
To order The Ox-Bow Incident, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold
The Ox-Bow Incident on DVD
This isn't slightly any of your business my friend.- Major Tetley
Hangin' is any man's business that's around.- Gil Carter
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?- Gil Carter
They're kiddin' you Sparks- Gil Carter
I know sir. But maybe Mr. Smith's accidentally right. Maybe I ought to go along- Sparks
I'll have no female boys bearing my name.- Major Tetley
Henry Fonda, who had a deferment, enlisted in the U.S. Navy immediately upon completing filming for this movie.
Lamar Trotti's onscreen credit reads "Produced and written for the screen by Lamar Trotti." According to contemporary news items, the rights to Walter Van Tilburg Clark's book were originally acquired in 1941 by Harold Hurley, a former Paramount producer who tried unsuccessfully to make a distribution deal with United Artists. Modern sources note that director William Wellman bought the rights from Hurley and then interested Twentieth Century-Fox production chief Darryl F. Zanuck in producing the story. Zanuck agreed on the condition that Wellman direct two other films for the studio, Thunderbirds and Buffalo Bill. A May 18, 1942 studio press release indicated that Preston Foster was to be cast in a "key role," and Hollywood Reporter news items note that Sara Allgood was originally cast in the role of "Jennie 'Ma' Grier," but was replaced by Florence Bates. Bates was then injured in a horseback riding scene, necessitating her replacement by Jane Darwell, who appears in the finished film.
A April 23, 1942 Hollywood Reporter item reported that due to "defense regulations hindering exterior shooting in the Hollywood area," the film would be shot in Nevada, but later items indicate a limited amount of location shooting was instead done at the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth and in Lone Pine, both in CA. On August 10, 1942, Hollywood Reporter announced that production on the film would be shut down for a week or ten days "due to the $5,000-per-film limit on new construction materials." During the shutdown, already used sets were torn down so that their material could be re-used to build the mountain pass set. Studio publicity noted that the Ox-Bow Valley setting was "the largest set ever constructed" by Fox, and that it covered 26,703 feet.
According to information in the MPAA/PCA file for the film at the AMPAS Library, the PCA initially was reluctant to approve the script because of its suggestion that the sheriff condoned the lynchings. The treatment of the lynchings and the characterization of those participating were discussed by the PCA and the studio at great length, and in a June 9, 1942 letter, PCA director Joseph I. Breen advised studio public relations head Jason S. Joy that the script would be approved if: "Major Tetley's" suicide is retained, "thus constituting a punishment for the ring-leader of the lynching party;" there is an indication that the whole gang will be arrested; the character of "Gil" is rewritten to make him less callous and more active in trying to stop the lynchings; and "Davies'" denunciation of the killings is retained. A September 17, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item commented on how unusual it was for the Hays Office to approve a film containing a lynching, and stated that "the early period  was partly responsible for the exception."
A July 20, 1942 studio publicity synopsis indicates that early versions of the script included the suicide of "Gerald Tetley" and that the film was to end with the reappearance of "Rose Mapen" and her husband in the saloon rather than with "Gil" and "Art" leaving to take the letter to "Martin's" wife. A modern source notes that the contents of Martin's letter are not revealed in the book, but Wellman thought that it was important to make them explicit and had Trotti compose the letter. In the letter, Martin tells his wife: "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?"
According to a September 4, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Henry Fonda was to do a special trailer for the film in which he would speak about Clark's novel. The Ox-Bow Incident, which marked the screen debut of stage actor William Eythe, was selected as the best drama film of the year by the National Board of Review. It also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, but lost to Casablanca. Although the picture generally received positive reviews, commentators did note that it might not do well financially. The New York Times reviewer praised the "all-round excellent cast [which] played the film brilliantly," but noted that "it is hard to imagine a picture with less promise commercially." The Life reviewer commented that the film was "an unusual Hollywood product, lofty in its purpose, stark in its realism and slashing in its savagery. But it is likely that these very distinctions will make it unpopular." The Motion Picture Herald reviewer also stated that the picture was "a well produced and well acted film which May present a rather special selling problem." According to Wellman's autobiography, the picture did not return a profit to the studio until after it was well-received abroad and then re-released in the United States. A television version of the film, starring Robert Wagner and Cameron Mitchell, was adapted for the 20th Century-Fox Hour, broadcast in November 1955.
Released in United States 1943
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States June 13, 1989
Released in United States on Video May 1988
Shown at Film Forum in New York City June 13, 1989.
Released in United States 1943
Released in United States 1996 (Shown at Sundance Film Festival (William Wellman: American Storyteller) in Park City, Utah Janaury 18-28, 1996.)
Selected in 1998 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States on Video May 1988
Released in United States June 13, 1989 (Shown at Film Forum in New York City June 13, 1989.)