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The Ox-Bow Incident

The Ox-Bow Incident(1943)

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Lamar Trotti's onscreen credit reads "Produced and written for the screen by Lamar Trotti." According to contemporary news items, the rights to Walter Van Tilburg Clark's book were originally acquired in 1941 by Harold Hurley, a former Paramount producer who tried unsuccessfully to make a distribution deal with United Artists. Modern sources note that director William Wellman bought the rights from Hurley and then interested Twentieth Century-Fox production chief Darryl F. Zanuck in producing the story. Zanuck agreed on the condition that Wellman direct two other films for the studio, Thunderbirds and Buffalo Bill. A May 18, 1942 studio press release indicated that Preston Foster was to be cast in a "key role," and Hollywood Reporter news items note that Sara Allgood was originally cast in the role of "Jennie 'Ma' Grier," but was replaced by Florence Bates. Bates was then injured in a horseback riding scene, necessitating her replacement by Jane Darwell, who appears in the finished film.
       A April 23, 1942 Hollywood Reporter item reported that due to "defense regulations hindering exterior shooting in the Hollywood area," the film would be shot in Nevada, but later items indicate a limited amount of location shooting was instead done at the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth and in Lone Pine, both in CA. On August 10, 1942, Hollywood Reporter announced that production on the film would be shut down for a week or ten days "due to the $5,000-per-film limit on new construction materials." During the shutdown, already used sets were torn down so that their material could be re-used to build the mountain pass set. Studio publicity noted that the Ox-Bow Valley setting was "the largest set ever constructed" by Fox, and that it covered 26,703 feet.
       According to information in the MPAA/PCA file for the film at the AMPAS Library, the PCA initially was reluctant to approve the script because of its suggestion that the sheriff condoned the lynchings. The treatment of the lynchings and the characterization of those participating were discussed by the PCA and the studio at great length, and in a June 9, 1942 letter, PCA director Joseph I. Breen advised studio public relations head Jason S. Joy that the script would be approved if: "Major Tetley's" suicide is retained, "thus constituting a punishment for the ring-leader of the lynching party;" there is an indication that the whole gang will be arrested; the character of "Gil" is rewritten to make him less callous and more active in trying to stop the lynchings; and "Davies'" denunciation of the killings is retained. A September 17, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item commented on how unusual it was for the Hays Office to approve a film containing a lynching, and stated that "the early period [1885] was partly responsible for the exception."
       A July 20, 1942 studio publicity synopsis indicates that early versions of the script included the suicide of "Gerald Tetley" and that the film was to end with the reappearance of "Rose Mapen" and her husband in the saloon rather than with "Gil" and "Art" leaving to take the letter to "Martin's" wife. A modern source notes that the contents of Martin's letter are not revealed in the book, but Wellman thought that it was important to make them explicit and had Trotti compose the letter. In the letter, Martin tells his wife: "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?"
       According to a September 4, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Henry Fonda was to do a special trailer for the film in which he would speak about Clark's novel. The Ox-Bow Incident, which marked the screen debut of stage actor William Eythe, was selected as the best drama film of the year by the National Board of Review. It also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, but lost to Casablanca. Although the picture generally received positive reviews, commentators did note that it might not do well financially. The New York Times reviewer praised the "all-round excellent cast [which] played the film brilliantly," but noted that "it is hard to imagine a picture with less promise commercially." The Life reviewer commented that the film was "an unusual Hollywood product, lofty in its purpose, stark in its realism and slashing in its savagery. But it is likely that these very distinctions will make it unpopular." The Motion Picture Herald reviewer also stated that the picture was "a well produced and well acted film which May present a rather special selling problem." According to Wellman's autobiography, the picture did not return a profit to the studio until after it was well-received abroad and then re-released in the United States. A television version of the film, starring Robert Wagner and Cameron Mitchell, was adapted for the 20th Century-Fox Hour, broadcast in November 1955.