Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Ox-Bow Incident

Go To

"God better have mercy on you. You won't get any from me."
Sheriff Risley

A 1940 Western novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident was adapted into a film in 1943. That film, directed by William A. Wellman and starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, and Mary Beth Hughes, received its only Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.

Bridger's Well, Nevada, 1885: A rancher named Larry Kinkaid is reported dead, murdered by cattle rustlers. Deputy Butch Mapes forms an illegal posse to bring back the suspects alive for trial. Once they catch up to them, the posse, under the influence of Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), decide to hang them on the spot. Meanwhile, drifters Art Croft (Harry Morgan) and Gil Carter (Fonda) are among the few who want to see the crooks tried fairly in court.

This film is noted for its scathing indictment of vigilantism, and showcases what it means to take the law into one's own hands and ignore due process.

This work provides examples of:

  • Acquitted Too Late: The three men they find turn out to be innocent.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Gil and Croft vote against the hanging in the film, and Gil tries to stop it by force, while in the book they sided with the majority.
  • An Aesop: The whole point of the movie is that vigilantism is a bad thing. The law is there for a reason, and without due process, one cannot know for sure who is guilty and who is actually innocent, as demonstrated by the horrid deeds of the posse.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Due to the Hays Code it could only be implied, but Gerald is often mocked by his father for being weak and feminine, he gets several lingering shots of looking at Juan Martinez, and his actor, William Eythe, was gay.
  • Bar Brawl: Carter gets into one early on.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: Deputy Butch Mapes, Major Tetley, and Jeff Farnley are the three posse members pushing most aggressively for the lynching, and of the three only Farnley has a sympathetic motivation as the assumed dead man was a friend of his.
  • Book Ends: The film begins with Carter and Croft riding into the town and ends with them leaving the same way.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Gerald Tetley calls his father out on his sadistic attitude towards the hangings.
  • The Cavalry Arrives Late: The sheriff arrives barely a minute after the lynch mob has finished off the three victims.
  • Central Theme: What does it truly mean to take the law into your own hands?
  • Composite Character: In the film, Sparks is a composite of himself from the book and Osgood the preacher.
  • Deconstruction: Of the old western vigilante mindset, as well as the idea of manliness. When Gil's ex Rose Mapen shows off her new husband Swanson, a well-to-do academic, it emasculates Gil and drives him to keep going with the posse, while Tetley is obsessed with making his "weakling" son a man by any means necessary, even if it's by killing.
  • Disney Death: Kinkaid turns out not to be dead, meaning the vigilantes killed innocent men.
  • Downer Ending: Big time. Put simply, the posse learns that the man whose death they were trying to avenge never died in the first place, and are forced to live with the fact they murdered three men for no reason (those who don't kill themselves in shame, anyway).
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: What does Smith learn from lynching three innocent men? That they should have lynched Tetley instead.
    Carter: You're a great one for hangin', ain't you Smith?
  • Driven to Suicide: Major Tetley. In the novel, his son Gerald too. In fact, his suicide prompts his father to do the same.
  • Ensemble Cast: There are about 28 people in the posse, 3 men they confront, and other characters as well.
  • Epilogue Letter: The letter written by Donald Martin, one of the lynched men, read by the protagonist, which does a nice job at bringing home the Central Theme of this movie:
    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
  • Face Death with Dignity: Juan Martinez, unlike his two companions, faces death with quiet resignation and a few muttered prayers.
  • Grievous Bottley Harm: Carter gets a whiskey bottle over his head which knocks him unconscious.
  • It's All My Fault: Davies feels he's the one responsible for the death of Martin and his comrades for not stopping the lynching, despite doing everything he could.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Gil Carter is a rude, unpleasant drunk who loves to start fights, but he's kind to the black farmhand Sparks and is the only person in the film who actually tries to forcibly stop the lynching.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: What the mob surely felt after hearing they hanged the wrong men.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Ends with Croft and Carter riding out of town, bound to deliver the sad news to Martin's wife.
  • Oh, Crap!: The mob gets this when they realize Larry Kinkaid's still alive.
  • One of the Boys: Played for drama when Ma Grier is intent on proving herself as tough as the men, including their bloodthirstiness.
  • Posse: The mob is an illegal posse. In the novel, the Sheriff forms a legal one to go after the real crooks.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: Deconstructed with Major Tetley and his son, as the Major's belief in this leads to the deaths of three innocent men.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Gerald Tetley gets in a very scathing one against his father, the instigator of this whole thing, after his actions led to the deaths of three innocent men. It's so vicious that Colonel Tetley kills himself.
    Gerald Tetley: I saw your face. It was the face of a depraved, murderous beast. Only two things ever meant anything to you: power and cruelty. You can't feel pity. You can't even feel guilt. You knew they were innocent, but you were crazy to see them hanged. And to make me watch it. I could've stopped you with a gun, just as any other animal can be stopped. But I couldn't do it because I'm a coward. Aren't you glad you made me go? Weren't you proud of me? How does it feel to have begot a weakling, Major? Does it make you afraid there may be some weakness in you, too? That other men might discover and whisper about? Open the door! I want to see your face. I want to know how you feel now!
  • Shadow Discretion Shot: After Martin and his comrades are killed, the only thing we see are shadows of their hanging corpses.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Jenny "Ma" Grier is the only female member of the posse.
  • Sound-Only Death: Major Tetley, after being chewed out by his son, walks into another room, slams the door and locks it. Cue gunshot.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Gerald Tetley commits suicide in the novel, but not in the film.
  • Stunned Silence: The shot near the end where the camera tracks along the bar, showing every member of the posse drinking in a very subdued silence.
  • Tap on the Head: Carter picks a fight and gets a whiskey bottle over his head which knocks him unconscious.
  • Turn in Your Badge: Deputy Mapes is stripped of his badge for his illegal posse.
  • Vigilante Execution: This ultimately happens to the three men found by the posse. And it is a very bad thing.
  • Vigilante Injustice: In the story, a rancher is murdered and the deputy rallies a mob to solve the crime. They hang the suspects without due process and the story famously harpoons the concept of vigilante justice by revealing that the cattle rancher wasn't actually dead and they had actually hung 3 innocent men.
  • Vigilante Man: The illegal posse act as a group of these. And it costs them dearly.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: After Carter comes to after he was knocked out, it's obvious that he's about to throw up and so he staggers conveniently out of sight to do so.
  • Water Wake Up: Croft does this to Carter after the Tap on the Head.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Deconstructed with Tetley and his son Gerald. Gerald wants his father's approval; unfortunately, the Major is a vicious Knight Templar who gets three innocent men hung. When Gerald calls him out on this, the Major shoots himself.
  • Wham Line: The lynch-mob has an unpleasant bombshell waiting for them once they do the deed:
    "Larry Kinkaid's not dead."
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Martin, one of the men that get executed, becomes angry with Davies for trying to share the farewell letter intended for just his wife with the mob, as it broke his privacy.