Sometimes even the most avid movie-goer can become frustrated with the latest releases and turn to older films for entertainment. And although there are many worthy classics, a lesser known, yet equally admirable option is “The Ox-Bow Incident.” This 1943 film follows the tragic actions of a lynch mob in 1885 Nevada to expose the irrationality of the mob mentality.
As the movie opens, cowboys Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Henry Morgan) ride into a small western town agitated by recent cattle rustling in the area. Shortly after their arrival, news comes that beloved cattle rancher Larry Kincaid has been murdered and some of his cattle have been stolen. The citizens of the town immediately begin forming a lynch mob, although they refer to it as a posse, to find the murderers and inflict justice.
Local business owner Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport) is bothered by their response and attempts to delay the mob organizers by looking for the sheriff and insisting some manner of due process be followed. Davies has trouble garnering support as the sheriff is still at Kincaid’s house, Judge Daniel Tyler (Matt Briggs) wants to remain uninvolved, and both mayor Gerald Tetley (William Eythe) and Deputy Butch Mapes (Dick Rich) are just as bloodthirsty as the mob.
Carter, Croft, Davies, and an African-American known as Sparks (Leigh Whipper) are all dubious about the situation, but understand that if they show opposition to the posse, they may become suspects themselves. So rather than relinquish what little ability they have to prevent a tragedy from occurring, they reluctantly join the restless group.
The posse then sets off to find the cattle-rustling murderers. After a long, cold ride, they find newly arrived rancher Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) and his employees, a suspicious Mexican named Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn) and a senile old man (Francis Ford), who is barely lucid. The posse is unfamiliar with the three men and and circumstantial evidence begins to mount against them. Martin argues eloquently that he is innocent and that the mob should check the facts before taking any action, but his words fall on deaf ears. The mob decides there is no choice but to kill the newcomers. Martin attempts to negotiate with the mob, but only manages to convince the leaders to wait until dawn so that he can write one final letter to his wife. Dana Andrews’ performance as Martin in this portion of the movie contributes greatly to the film’s continued praise. He exemplifies Martin’s exasperation, horror, and fear in the face of death.
Meanwhile, Davies continues his attempt to dissuade the participants from taking Martin’s life and proposes taking the men back to town for a real trial. But the anger of the mob drowns out Davies and Martin, Martinez, and their old companion are hanged.
On the way home, the posse meets the sheriff, who reveals there was a misunderstanding. Kincaid is not dead, merely injured, and the men he identified as his attackers have already been arrested. The mob just murdered three innocent men.
The guilt ridden mob rides into town and the contents of Martin’s letter to his wife are finally revealed. In concordance with the theme of the movie, the letter reads, “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 breakin’ one law, but all laws. [Law is] everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity.” The Ox-Bow Incident presents a powerful condemnation of the mob mentality and its message still resonates clearly nearly seventy years after its release.