Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

In director William Wellman's "Western noir" adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark's novel - a grim study of mob rule based on a true story:

  • the film's opening: in 1885 Nevada, two drifter-cowpokes Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) rode into the town of Bridger's Wells; they watched the formation of a frenzied, angry vigilante, frontier-justice posse (lynch mob) when an unverified report arrived that a local rancher named Kinkaid had been shot dead by cattle rustlers
  • the ignored pleas of white-haired, level-headed storekeeper Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport) that they cautiously not take any extreme actions until Sheriff Risley (Willard Robertson) was notified about the alleged murder of Kinkaid: "Don't let's go off half-cocked and do something we'll be sorry for. We want to act in a reasoned and legitimate manner, not like a lawless mob"
  • the blood-thirsty posse was led by stern-faced, sadistic ex-Confederate officer Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), and others including his reluctant son Gerald Tetley (William Eythe), Kinkaid's loyal buddy-ranchhand Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence), rough female Jenny "Ma" Grier (Jane Darwell), power-hungry, sadistic bully, Deputy Sheriff Mapes, aka "Butch" (Dick Rich), and bearded, drunken town bum and redneck Monty Smith (Paul Hurst)
Members of Assembled Posse
Major Tetley (Frank Conroy)
Jenny "Ma" Grier (Jane Darwell)
Deputy Sheriff Mapes aka "Butch" (Dick Rich)
Gerald Tetley (William Eythe)
Monty Smith (Paul Hurst)
Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence)
  • in the film's climactic conclusion, three accused and suspected homesteaders were led to the base of a gnarled tree for a hanging, where three nooses had been hanging prominently and ominously throughout the previous sequence
Three Accused Suspects
Rancher/Family Man Donald Martin
(Dana Andrews)
Stoic, Defiant Mexican Juan Martínez
(Anthony Quinn)
Confused and Senile Old Man: Alva 'Dad' Hardwicke (Francis Ford)
  • the scene of the "trial" at the hanging tree with only circumstantial evidence; cowpoke Gil Carter witnessed the sham trial and forcefully stated to the lynch mob: "Hangin's' any man's business that's around...Hangin' murderers is one thing, but to keep guys you don't know for sure did it standing around sweatin' while you shoot your mouth off, that's another" - but was restrained and silenced by the vigilante mob
  • Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) pleaded with Major Tetley for reconsideration, as he was about to be strung up: "Justice? What do you care about justice? You don't even care whether you've got the right men or not. All you know is you've lost something and somebody's got to be punished...You butcher!"
  • the actual hanging - at the moment of their execution, the victims, with ropes around their necks, were placed on horses that were whipped out from underneath them; just beforehand, reluctant son Gerald Tetley (William Eythe) received a vicious gun butt in the face from his father for refusing to whip one of the horses
  • the shadows of the three men's bodies were seen swinging on the ground; to "finish 'em," Jeff Farnley fired bullets from his rifle into all three men to ensure that they were dead; the posse left as the town's unofficial preacher/hymn-singer Sparks (Leigh Whipper) sang about each of the three souls journeying through the Lonesome Valley and standing alone before their Maker
  • on the way back to town, the posse met Sheriff Risley who was shocked to learn what they had done: "Larry Kinkaid's not dead!"; a wounded Kinkaid was being treated by a doctor and they "caught the fellas who shot him too"; the Sheriff condemned them with contempt in his voice: "God better have mercy on ya. You won't get any from me"
  • the sequence of stiff-backed Major Tetley shooting himself (off-screen) behind his locked door, after listening to his disgruntled son Gerald outside the front door on the porch, who had just finished criticizing him for being a weakling: ("I saw your face. It was the face of a depraved, murderous beast. There are only two things that have ever meant anything to you: power and cruelty. You can't feel pity. You can't even feel guilt. In your heart, you knew those men were innocent, yet you were cold crazy to see them hanged, to make me watch it. I could've stopped you with a gun, just as any other animal can be stopped from killing, but I couldn't do it because I'm a coward. Heh, heh, heh. Aren't you glad you made me go, father? Weren't you proud of me? How does it feel to have begot a weakling, Major Tetley? Does it make you afraid there may be some weakness in you too, that other men might discover and whisper about? Open the door, Major! I want to see your face. I want to know how you feel now!") (gunshot)
Harsh Words of Son Gerald
Major Tetley Listening
Door Behind Which Major Tetley Killed Himself
  • the heartbreaking final scene in the town's saloon, of Gil Carter's posthumous reading of the letter of one of the lynched victims, Donald Martin, written to his wife, after the three victims had been declared blameless: "...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 breakin' 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? I guess that's all I've got to say except - kiss the babies for me and God bless ya. Your husband, Donald"
  • the film's last lines were spoken by Gil to Art as they saddled up - he was determined to deliver the letter personally: "He said he wanted his wife to get this letter, didn't he? Said there was nobody to look after the kids, didn't he?"

Two Cowpokes' Arrival in Town

Protest by Shopkeeper Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport)

The "Trial"

Three Hanging Ropes and Three Horses

Gil Carter's Defense: "Hangin's' any man's husiness that's around"

Martin: "What do you care about justice?"

Shadows of Three Hanged Men

Sheriff Risley to His Deputy: "Larry Kinkaid's not dead!"

Gil Carter's Outloud Reading of Martin's Letter in the Town's Saloon

Carter's Final Lines of Dialogue


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