Sunday, October 21, 2012

"The Ox Bow Incident" with Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (1942)

Henry Fonda has starred in some of the most controversial films in the history of Hollywood. His stellar performance in “The Grapes of Wrath”; in which he plays a migrant worker; is indicative of the many roles he would play in the future. In “The Wrong Man” he plays an ordinary working stiff who is falsely accused of a crime he did not commit. Even in the midst of the McCarthy Era witch hunts he defied the system, making “12 Angry Men” at a time when questioning anything was suspect. So, it is no surprise that he would be the star of William Wellman’s screen adaptation of “The Ox Bow Incident”, which deals with vigilante justice.

What makes this film so daring is that it was filmed and released just after the United States entered the Second World War, and Japanese-Americans were being interred in detention camps, even as their sons were fighting in our armed forces for freedom.

When Gil Carter, played by Henry Fonda, rides into a town plagued by cattle rustling, he and his sidekick Art Croft, played by Harry (Henry) Morgan, become caught up in a lynching of 3 rustlers suspected of murder the town’s most popular resident. The Sheriff is out of town and the Judge is too timid to control the mob. Only Gil and Art, along with the son of the local Militia’s Major, and an old Negro man, are willing to question the execution without trial. The evidence is circumstantial at best, but the dead man must be avenged at all costs.

A posse is formed and the 3 men are captured and hung. As the men proudly head back to town the Sheriff arrives at the scene, informing them that he has captured the real killer. When he hears what the men have done in his absence he is disgusted and heads back to town, vowing that each and every man involved in the unlawful mob action will be prosecuted. The men head back to town and contemplate what they have done while awaiting their own trials for murder. Gil and Art ride out of town, left to wonder about the human condition, and what drives men to do what they do.
This was only one of many daring scripts which Mr. Fonda was willing to tackle during trying times. It is also what sets him apart from so many other actors in his ability to truly portray the common man, and all of the problems encountered when you are willing to stand up for what you believe to be right.

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