This is the story of what happens to cowboys stuck in a little ghost town with no available women around to alleviate their testosterone levels.
The setting is Nevada, 1885. Two men drift into a little western town, where lately cattle thieves have been a problem. One of the men, Carter (Henry Fonda), gets word that his girlfriend has just married a man from San Francisco. After a few drinks, they learn that someone shot a local cattle rancher, Larry Kinkaid. A lynch mob forms, wanting to take matters into their own hands and avoid the lengthy judicial system. Of course, a few oppose the idea, but the mob rules. These few who oppose, the two drifters, the general store owner, the colonel’s less than cowboy son and the Black reverend, go along hoping to keep peace. In the night, the mob stumbles upon three men and accuse them of killing Larry. The men say they’re innocent, but how can you reason with a mob of drunken pent up cowboys?
At the start, The Ox-Bow Incident seems like your typical western: drifters in a saloon shooting whiskey, a fist fight and everyone real excited to go ride out and string up a murderer. By the end it’s much more. There’s drama and morals and, well you don’t want to miss the ending.
The most fascinating theme in this film, without preaching into the morals or giving away the ending, is the role of women. When we first enter the saloon, there’s a painting hanging over the bar of a desirable woman laying across a bed, and behind her a man is creeping towards her, looking very hungry. More than once, the men look up at the painting and ask, “Has he got her yet?”
There’s also Rose, Carter’s old flame, who just got married. She was the only single woman in town, except for a blind old woman, but no one will touch that. Besides Rose, the only other female character is Jenny, a middle aged woman who joins the lynch mob and is basically one of the boys. With so few women, this bit of the old west seems like cowboy camp. So, when things get stale, they jump at the chance to run out in the middle of the night and hang a few men. Yeeha!
I’ve never been a fan of westerns, too bright and I was never impressed by gun slinging. But The Ox-Bow Incident is different. It’s a great story, with just the right amount of drama and heart that doesn’t take away the toughness of cowboys. Watch it anytime, and it’s easy to fit in too (only an hour fifteen minutes). If you’ve got a kid going through a cowboy phase, I recommend using some discretion, but it could be a good movie for those old enough.
“Justice? What do you care about justice? You don’t even care whether you’ve got the right men or not.”