Monday, March 5, 2012

Ox-Bow Incident Shines a Light On Mob Rule

“Why do you keep asking me all these questions? You don’t believe anything I tell you.” ~Anthony Quinn, the accused

Raymond Burr made a name for himself playing the attorney Perry Mason in the early Sixties television series. Courtroom dramatics are featured in many Hollywood films as well. An orderly, fair trial for the accused is one of the foundations of a civilized society and all the procedures for helping to insure justice are an essential part of it.

As any alert and educated person has observed, our current legal system has many flaws, but the French Revolution shows us how frightening our prospects can be when the pendulum swings the other way and we yield to mob justice.

The establishing of reliable factual evidence is one of the basic features of a fair trial. Walter Van Tilburg Clark's The Ox-Bow Incident vividly reveals what happens when due process is scuttled in favor a fast results. Published in 1940, it was but three short years before the film reached the silver screen.


Hollywood's 1943 Old West re-telling of Clark’s novel is one of many great films in which Henry Fonda fights for justice. In 12 Angry Men we find him cast as a single juror who insists that the easy way out, conviction of the accused, is not warranted until all the evidence is fully examined. In The Ox-Bow Incident, the mob assumes the role of judge and jury, reacting emotionally to a situation based on baseless hearsay. Both films reveal how easily injustice can happen.

The Ox-Bow Incident is a black and white Old West drama that takes all of 75 minutes to thread the needle. There are almost no side stories. The plot moves straight forward from the opening scene to its tragic conclusion.

In addition to Fonda we also see a young Henry Morgan, later of Dragnet and M.A.S.H. fame, as well as Anthony Quinn in one of his earliest roles.

When I read the book many years ago it made an impression on me. I discovered it after having read The Track of the Cat, another story by Clark that takes place in the Old West. An early line in the movie hints at one of the recurring themes in both these stories. “Why do you suppose he’d be living in this neck of the woods if he didn’t have something to hide?” Fonda declares. The Old West was society's fringe.

As a kid I liked westerns with gunslingers and shootouts. Hopalong Cassidy was a good diversion. This film is quite distant from your O.K. Corral type of film. No High Noon, no 3:16 To Yuma. No Peckinpaugh bloodletting. It’s a simple story about the consequences of misinformation and mob rule.

You can be sure this kind of tragedy has played out all over and not just in the Wild West. It happened right here in Duluth in the 1920s. A mob of 1,000 took the law into its own hands, broke into the jail and hanged three black men on one dark night that has now been memorialized as a reminder that we ourselves are not immune to horrific injustice. There was no evidence beyond hearsay and, like this film, there was no happy ending.

One reviewer on stated, "The Ox-Bow Incident is a fantastic film. I don't think it's well-remembered now, but I'm thrilled to see it on DVD and hope that it will be rediscovered.” I agree.

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