A crowd of people huddle around a fire at night, laughing, drinking and joking. If it wasn’t for the 3 nooses hanging from a tree in the background, you would be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of happy occasion. Sadly it isn’t too far from the truth. Aside from the understandable anxiety of 3 accused men, and a tiny minority of concerned individuals, the rest of the crowd are in pretty high spirits. This is the mob mentality of a group who have taken it upon themselves to dish out vigilante justice in “The Ox-Bow Incident“.
As I am terrible at writing plot synopses, I’ll steal the blurb from the back of the DVD case :
"Two drifters are passing through a Western town, when news comes in that a local farmer has been murdered and his cattle stolen. The townspeople, joined by the drifters, form a posse to catch the perpetrators. They find three men in possession of the cattle, and are determined to see justice done on the spot."
While it is very easy to pigeonhole this film as a western, this is a film which defies all the usual genre conventions. This is apparently one of Clint Eastwood‘s favourite westerns, and it is easy to see parallels between Ox-Bow and Clint’s masterpiece “Unforgiven“. Rather than fall back on the Western staples of glorified and romanticised rough justice, both films add a layer of cynical realism and emotion to the mix – anti-genre films if you will. While other westerns feature rousing shows of masculinity and many lives lost, these anti-genre films would have you contemplate the consequences of those deaths, and how the decision to take life is not a trivial matter. In doing this, the film brilliantly avoids all the usual trappings and instead creates a timeless film – change the crime of cattle rustling to any other and this story could be set at any time and place, and the message would not be diluted – mob law has no place in civilised society.
Simplistic in terms of production values, the story and performances take centre-stage, and neither disappoint. The ensemble cast is excellent and I was pleasantly surprised to find the fantastic charisma and screen presence of ethnicity-chameleon Anthony Quinn here in a small but crucial part. Italian, Mexican, Greek, Arabic, even Inuit – is there any particular nationality Quinn hasn’t effortlessly represented? Henry Fonda is as reliable as ever as softly spoken drifter Gil Carter, one of the few that attempt unsuccessfully to stand up to the mindless majority. Without spoiling too much, he doesn’t have quite the same success that his Juror #8 character does in 12 Angry Men. Everyone takes a back seat though once Dana Andrews enters the frame. His performance as one of he accused is subtle and understated, emotional and realistic.
Despite a bizarre but brief segue with Gil Carter’s old-flame, the film is an impressively dark statement on the morality of vigilante justice, and a refreshingly inventive spin on the genre. Just as “Singin’ In the Rain” convinced me it was foolish to dismiss musicals as a genre, Ox-Bow has radically altered my view of Westerns and opened me up to a whole new area of cinema that I had previously neglected. An excellent drama that comes highly recommended.