The Ox-Bow Incident a maddening one-room drama

The Ox-Bow Incident was made 14 years before Sidney Lumet’s masterclass in one-room tension, 12 Angry Men, and I get the distinct feeling Lumet was taken by William A. Wellman’s western version of a hung jury. The two films share the same lead actor, Henry Fonda, playing one of the lone people in a group controlled by emotion that thinks rationally and reasonably.

In both films, Fonda’s impact is wholly felt and balances out the enraging, misguided anger of the loud, irrational majority. It’s a film that places the audience on the path of most resistance, battling against a shared mentality amongst the group that it’s guilty until proven innocent. It asks the question of whether justice taken out in the dead of night, away from wandering eyes and government systems, is justice at all or just a vile mob. The Ox-Bow Incident places the lives of three men up against a rowdy group of cowboys and townsfolks on a blood hunt for an unconfirmed rustling and murder.

It firmly nestles the audience into a place of distrust and anger, much like the characters. It’s an uncomfortable place because nothing the mob does fits into any modern definition of justice, but the shared mentality of the group overtakes rationality. It’s essentially a real-life horror show and digs into humans’ innate desire for violence, but plays more like a tragedy. A horrible tragedy that leaves all involved with a dirty, sinking feeling that will never leave them for the rest of their lives. 

Wellman makes no obvious connection to fascism, but he hints at it in Fonda and the objectors’ performance. It’s a parable for all to reject mob rule – hideous behavior that poisons anyone it touches. The gross feelings linger from the start and don’t stop when the film ends. Fonda’s longing, discouraged eyes tell the entire story of having faith in people and feeling that faith betrayed maliciously. 

The production itself was a big singular, with a matte painting as the background, with Wellman doing little to hide the studio sound stage. However, Wellman understands it’s the words that carry this film and not the craft. He let the actors chew on the material and the result is an ultra thought-provoking film that feels timeless in its messaging. Wellman shows compassion, but never gives the audience a release from the awfulness of mob rule and even makes the audience walk away with that guilty conscience. It’s a powerful piece of art and a “one-room” drama that best utilized a strong morality-driven screenplay.

It’s not quite as good as Lumet’s 12 Angry Men but comes damn close with its incisive and complex look at the essence of justice served.

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