The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

IMDB says Fox shelved this film for ages after production on account of its “inflammatory politics”. Which intrigues me, cos I had no idea that the notion of respect for the rule of law—which is what the film is all about—was such a subversive, radical notion even in early 1940s America; personally I’d have thought it was actually pretty conservative… Anyway, the film has Henry Fonda and Sherman Potter (come on, “Henry” Morgan will never be anything else) riding into town, there’s been cattle rustlers going through the area, and just to compound things there’s now been a murder as well. Already high tensions spill over into lynch mob mentality, which can’t end well, obviously, and it ends in probably worse fashion than anyone expected. As I said, the whole rule of law thing could be taken as a conservative position, but the film’s heart is essentially liberal, and it’s been noted that it does one unusual thing for the time in making a black character one of the voices of reason (though its liberalism didn’t extend to actually crediting the actor, Leigh Whipper, although a surprising number of the speaking roles aren’t credited either). But it’s Fonda in the lead role who’s caused the film to draw comparisons later on between this film and 12 Angry Men, as he basically plays the same part in proceedings… it’s just that he’s a lot less effective here; indeed, no one really gets a chance to shine cos pretty much everything in the film is ultimately subservient to the “mob rule is bad, mmkay” message. And that’s why I ultimately liked this film less than I wanted to; it doesn’t really do anything wrong, but its hammerhead lack of subtlety ultimately smothers it, and its manipulativeness got on my tits as well. I totally appreciate that it was a fairly new thing at the time to use the western to explore a story like this, I just felt put off by how it did so, and I’m obviously in sympathy with the message too…

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