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Films of 1943: The Ox-Bow Incident

When Henry Fonda was 14 years old, he witnessed the lynching of a black man: “I watched an out-of-control mob of several hundred men overpower the sheriff at the courthouse, drag [Will Brown] out of jail. They strung him up on a lamp post, riddled him with bullets, dragged him around [tied to] the back of a car, burned his corpse...It was a traumatic experience I’ll never forget.”

Fonda must have carried the memory of Brown’s murder while starring in the searing drama, The Ox-Bow Incident. Released at the height of World War II, this wasn’t a typical feel-good Western. It was the gripping tale of three men unjustly executed by vigilante justice – and the passion project of director William Wellman, who spent years getting the picture made.

In his book, Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel, Wellman’s son Bill recaps the genesis of the film, which occurred when his parents were vacationing at a California resort: “Out-of-work producer Harold Hurley approached [my father] at the hotel pool. He owned the movie rights to a Western book and pitched the idea.

At first, [Dad] tried to get rid of him, but the story was so riveting that he listened intently, read the novel over the weekend, and bought the rights from Hurley for $6,500.”

While the script resonated viscerally with Fonda, every studio in town rejected Wellman’s bids to produce it: “He refused to take no for an answer,” Bill Wellman wrote. “He had fought hard for Wings, The Public Enemy and A Star is Born, and he was not going to allow Ox-Bow to slip away. There was only one more place he could go, one more mogul to see...Darryl Francis Zanuck.”

Trouble was, Wellman and Zanuck had stopped speaking several years earlier. Awkward!

Undaunted, Wellman barged into Zanuck’s office at 20th Century-Fox to plead his case, and soon sealed the deal with a handshake. “It won’t make a dime,” Zanuck said, “But I want my name on it.” To hedge his bet, Zanuck green-lit the film after Wellman agreed to make it on the cheap – and shoot two pics for Fox in return. Yet Wellman always gave credit where credit was due: “Zanuck was the only one with the guts to do an out-of-the-ordinary story for the prestige rather than the dough.”

Led by Fonda, the cast includes Dana Andrews (Laura, The Best Years of Our Lives), Henry (later Harry) Morgan (Dragnet, M*A*S*H), Anthony Quinn (Zorba the Greek), Jane Darwell (who won an Oscar as Fonda’s mother, Ma Joad, in The Grapes of Wrath), and director John Ford’s brother Francis Ford, a silent screen star, who portrays the eldest of the slain men.

Now considered an unsung classic, Ox-Bow was a “no-go” with audiences in 1943. The Internet Movie Database calls it “a box-office flop, out-grossed by one of the studio's Laurel & Hardy comedies [that was playing] at the same time.” Critics heaped praise, but as New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther predicted, “It is hard to imagine a picture with less promise commercially.”

Popularity aside, Ox-Bow is one of Wellman’s best, with a final gut punch delivered by the poignant farewell one of the doomed men writes to his wife. Wellman’s son explains, “In the book, the contents of the letter are never revealed, but [Dad] believed it was of the utmost importance for the audience to hear those heartfelt words, to understand and feel the total tragedy, thereby bringing the full force of the story, and the moral of the movie, to the screen in just a few minutes.”

Watch Henry Fonda read the letter. (Hat tip to screenwriter Lamar Trotti for sticking the landing.) Or better yet, catch the entire film here – it’s free and just 74 minutes long.

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