The Ox-Bow Incident

Institute History

  • 1996 Sundance Film Festival


The Ox-Bow Incident is among Wellman’s favorite films and the one he felt proudest of. He made it over the objections of the studio, which was so sure it would fail commercially that it refused to spend the money to shoot on location, so sets had to be created on the lot. Everyone was right. Lean, somber, and hard hitting, The Ox-Bow Incident is one of Wellman’s best films although it did poorly at the box office. Ironically the artificial sets give it a timeless, claustrophobic quality that underlines its central theme of justice versus mob violence.

Set in Nevada in 1885, the film studies the reaction when the residents of a frontier town learn that a neighboring rancher has been shot and his cattle stolen. Over the objections of a few moderate voices like storekeeper Davies, they refuse to wait for the sheriff, who is away on the range, and form their own posse to find and hang the offenders. The story is told from the point of view of Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Henry Morgan), two cowboys who are outsiders and therefore make reliable witnesses. Like all good westerns, The Ox-Bow Incident says as much about the time when it was made as it does about the American past. Its darkness, paranoia, and eloquent plea for justice and understanding mirror the fears and concerns of a country immersed in the chaos of World War II.

— Barbara Bannon

Screening Details

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