Cast: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture
SUMMARY: In 1885, little-seen citizens Art Croft and Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) come into the town of Bridger’s Wells, Nevada, and head for the saloon. The town has recently had several incidents of cattle-rustling, and because Croft and Carter are often absent, they immediately come under suspicion. However, the focus of the other bar patrons shifts when another man comes in with the news that local rancher Larry Kinkaid has been murdered. The men think that this was probably the result of a rustling gone wrong, and decide to form a posse to track down the culprits. The town judge tries to stop the gathering mob, telling them that it is illegal to form a posse without the sheriff present (he is currently out of town), and that they cannot legally hang the murderers. Most of the men ignore him, and though several disagree with the posee’s formation (including Croft and Carter), they all agree to go along for various reasons. They are led by Major Tetley, a Civil War veteran, who forces his weak-stomached son Gerald. The entire posse then heads for Bridger’s Pass, where they have been told that three strange men and cattle with the Kinkaid brand have been spotted. Before they get there, they come across a stagecoach; when the guard sees the men, he thinks he is being robbed, and begins shooting. He is able to wound Art, but the men stop the stagecoach, only to find that Carter’s former flame Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes), who had promised to wait for him, is inside with her new husband.
The men continue on through the night, and in Ox-Bow Canyong they find three strange men asleep outside, with the Kinkaid cattle nearby. The leader, Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), explains that he bought the cattle from Kinkaid. However, he has no receipt or any kind of proof of this: the men in the posse also believe that Kinkaid would never sell cattle at that time of year. Despite Martin’s pleadings, the posse decides to hang the three men at dawn. Martin writes a letter that he asks one man to deliver to his wife, and although Martin requested that it be kept secret, the man reads it. He becomes convinced of Martin’s innocence, and repeatedly tries to persuade the others to read the letter, but no one will. Meanwhile, one of the other three men, who is a recognized gambler, tries to escape. He is quickly caught and brought back, and the posse learns that he has Kinkaid’s gun. For Major Tetley, this eliminates any remaining doubt. He decides that the men should be hanged immediately, but when some men protest, a vote is taken. While the majority vote for hanging, seven of them, including Croft and Carter and Gerald Tetley, vote to take the men back to town for trial. Carter even tries to fight off the majority, but is quickly overwhelmed. The three men are hanged, and Major Tetley forces Gerald to participate. The posse then heads back into town, but on the way, they meet the returning Sheriff. They proudly announce that they have caught and hung Larry Kinkaid’s murderers — only to hear from the Sheriff that he has just come from Kinkaid’s house, and that the man is very much alive. Kinkaid had been shot, but had survived: furthermore, the Sheriff has already arrested the men responsible for the attack. The Sheriff then strips his deputy, who organized the posse, of his position and badge. The posse returns to town in silence, which continues when they all gather in the saloon. Major Tetley and Gerald return home, where Tetley locks his son outside. Gerald finally stands up for himself, telling his father that he pushed for the hanging because he liked it. Inside the house, the Major shoots himself. In the saloon, one of the dissenters reads Martin’s letter aloud. A collection is taken up for Martin’s widow, and Croft and Carter soon leave, with the letter and money, to visit Martin’s family.
MY TAKE: I think this is one of the first movies I watched on Netflix, and it’s one of the first list movies I watched after I actively started trying to complete the list. That was a while ago, so when I recently had the chance to watch it again, I did so. It’s still a very compelling movie. All of the evidence points to the three captured men being responsible for Kinkaid’s murder and the theft of his cattle, but like Carter, I couldn’t help but have some reservations. Maybe this is because I am just uncomfortable with the idea of being the judge of someone else’s life. In addition, the whole thing was illegal from the start, which everybody knew before they left town. I would have voted for a trial, both to ensure that the men actually were guilty, and to cover my own ass. I do not wan the death of three innocent men on my conscience. Of course, the majority go against this, and hang the men, and Major Tetley is a complete butthole and tries to “make a man” out of his son by forcing him to whip away one of the horses holding the men up. Gerald can’t bring himself to do this, which I’m sure is part of the reason Tetley locked him out of the house later. Sure enough, the uneasy feeling that has been brewing is proven to be warranted: Kinkaid is not even dead. He had been attacked, but the real culprits were quickly caught by the Sheriff. Rather than checking their facts before flying off the handle, most every man in town just ran off into the desert and hung the first people they came across. It’s a very powerful warning.
Fun fact: As of 2015, this is the most recent movie to be nominated for Best Picture and nothing else at the Oscars.
RATING: Makes you think.