The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) – 4.5/5

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Great movie. A powerful story about justice being blind in the wrong way. Mob justice.

It shows both sides of guilty-until-proven innocent. Not only the devastating effects on the victim, but those having to live w/ their actions.

What is this film saying about how things ‘ought to be?’ How can this change? Are we to listen to the elders, the wise, the religious? Are we to change in ourselves to be better? If so, how?

I think the movie tells us it’s from a conscience from God.


The movie starts off and the first line remarks about how ‘dead’ the town is. The drifters come in to a barren town w/ the first member being a dog crossing the road.

They go in the saloon and stare at a picture above the bar of a woman seductively posed and a man half-way in the room behind her. One drifter comments about how the man is a bit slow to be leaving. He’s somewhat jealous and protective in a way. He’s probably already thinking of ‘his girl’ Rose in the town.

The barkeeper sees it from a different angle – the man is always close to her, but can’t do a thing about it.

The drifter winds up in a fight w/ someone and his friend comments about how he sometimes needs to fight. It doesn’t matter if he wins or losers – he feels better afterwards.

They learn about the robbery and start forming a mob posse. The older man, Davies, is the voice of reason and few side w/ him. A mocked paster, Sparks, and soon the judge. The Sheriff’s Deputy, clearly immoral, joins the mob and ‘deputizes’ them all.

They head out and it’s dark soon. They stop to rest and we learn that Sparks’ brother had been lynched when he was young. No one knows for what or if he even did it, but it’s close to him and he knows it can easily be done w/o good reason.

A coach goes by and thinks they’re going to be robbed so they speed up and shot at the mob. Croft, the main drifter’s friend, is shot. The coach has Rose in it newly married. It’s pretty clear she still has feelings for one or more of the men and has married for money. It’s a strange sub-plot that I’m not sure what to make of.

Later the mob makes it to the ox-bow and the shot is of them just under the tree they later hang the men from. A clear picture of them being guilty.

Thru the discussions of the situation some interesting comments are made:

Carter: “Hangin’ is any man’s business that’s around.” – no one is innocent

Deputy: “first he won’t talk, now he talks too much” – the accused is guilty and can do no right.

The decide to wait until morning to hang them and move back to the fire. The accused men are on the left of the picture w/ the accusers on the right across from them. Straight ahead is Sparks, the man of God, between the two groups separated by fire.

The main accused man gets to write a letter to his wife. He entrusts Davies to delivery it. Davies reads it and shows it to ‘the Major’ who it seems has read it and realizes it’s implications. He either thinks it trash from a guilty man or total rebuke from an innocent one and wants no part of either.

The mob calls for majority rules for hanging them. A complete mock of true justice, they turn to mob rules. Might is right. They call for those opposed to stand to the side. It starts w/ Sparks, a black man, and then Davies. The shot clearly showing the matter is black and white. Others join them including ‘the Major’s son. Sparks/religion/God again is the center of the shot. The group however is in minority.

Carter starts a bit of a fight. He loses, but maybe he feels better???

‘The Major’ forces his son to be one of the ones whipping the horses to hang the men. The father gives the son the whip in one last attempt to make him like himself. The son can’t do it and the father clubs him unconscious. He’ll have no female sons bearing his name.

After the lynching, the Sheriff shows up and explains Kincade isn’t dead, but only shot and they caught the men who shot him. He snatches the star from the Deputy and calls on Davies for the truth (turning TO the wise for truth as opposed to running from it). The Sheriff hopes God will have mercy on them b/c he, the tool of justice, won’t.

Carter asks for the letter to read from Davies.

‘The Major’ goes home w/ his son. He locks his son out of the house and the son, w/ a veil btwn them, tells off the father. He accuses his father of loving only power and cruelty and the son claims he wd have shot him if not for his own cowardness.

Carter reads the letter to his friend. You can’t see his eyes as he reads. This may be an image of truly blind justice. The truth coming not from a man, but a higher source.

The letter:

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?

In the end, the drifters leave to deliver the letter to the widow. They leave the way they came and things look the same. Even the dog crosses back to the other side of the street. Is this a message saying the despite all this, things don’t change? Or is it a call to go back to the way things used to be?

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