The Ox-Bow Incident

(From time to time I’d like to write about films I’ve found to be useful in starting discussions with my son about ethics. In many cases, these will be films like The Ox-Bow Incident that I’ve found most people to be unfamiliar with. Sometimes I may write about films that are fairly well known, but have something about them on which to hang an ethical discussion.)

The middle-school years are when most kids start learning about government and civics, and that’s a great time to introduce them to The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), a lesson in justice dressed as a western. Directed by Willam A. Wellman, and starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, and Harry Morgan, Ox-Bow is a dark western that tells the story of justice failed.

Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan are cowboys who come upon a small Nevada town after a long winter. They start out at the local saloon, and find a community uneasy following a series of unexplained rustlings. When word comes in that a local rancher has been found dead and his cattle gone, a group of locals is ready to run off and lynch the people responsible. The sheriff is not available (his deputy is shown to care little for the law), and the few voices of reason urging the townfolk to bring the culprits in are shouted down. Three men are found in the mountains with circumstantial evidence pointing to their guilt. The “posse” refuses to bring them in for trial, and though the men they accuse plead their innocence, they are hanged that night. Too late, we learn that the accused were wrongly executed.

What’s fascinating in this film is the way the basic social contract of civilization is usurped. It’s not that the “system” failed the three victims, it’s just that the townspeople decided to turn their backs on the framework of justice they had ostensibly agreed to. The real law (the sheriff) is disregarded because he’s not readily available, and his proxy (the deputy) chooses to disregard the law he’s sworn to uphold, even to the point of illegally swearing in more deputies to create an illusion of propriety. The local judge appeals to the mob to bring the suspects in for a trial, but is shouted down and ultimately ignored. It is Major Tetley that the crowd turns to, a man carrying no legal weight in the community, but dressed as a military man, even though he has none to command. The crowd, eager to turn to anyone who will legitimize their rage and their desire for vengeance, empowers someone who has no real authority, but wears the trappings of authority. So long as he looks and acts the part, legitimate legal backing is not necessary. How often in life are we drawn to follow someone simply because they act like they’re in charge, or telling us what we want to hear?

And how are the voices of reason shouted down? They’re accused of being unmanly. Womanly. Effeminate. Watch how many times men in this film are accused of feminine characteristics, by which they mean to imply weakness. Action, ruthlessness, rashness are “manly”, and thus desirable traits. Reason, due process, and actual justice are “feminine”, which makes them weak. Hey, nobody wants to be called a pussy. But why are savages being permitted to set the definitions and standards of manliness? Or humanity, for that matter?

The crowd claims they want justice, when in fact they fear it. This is the only reason for their haste. They want these men hanged now, not because in the clear light of day they think slick well-dressed lawyers will finagle the system to get them off. They want their revenge now because they themselves have doubts, and want the feeling of revenge before reality can be brought to light. They’re racing against daylight, because they’re racing against real justice.

The film is a little dated, but only a little (you cringe a little when a character pleading for reason begs the crowd, “Isn’t there a white man among you?”). It’s easy to see, though, where the themes of the film resonate in our security-heightened world. This would be a great film to watch during an election season, as candidates on all levels make noises about law and order.

The film did poorly in theaters when it was released (this was pretty dark – and talky – territory for a western in1943), but was praised critically. Despite being low budget, it’s shot beautifully, and pay close attention to how Wellman chooses to frame Henry Fonda’s face as he reads a letter at the end of the film. If your Knucklehead has ever seen reruns of M*A*S*H, yes, that’s a young Colonel Potter as Henry Fonda’s sidekick through the film. And if you look closely as we pay a visit to the judge in his home, you’ll see an uncredited Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West herself) playing the judge’s housekeeper.

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2 Responses to The Ox-Bow Incident

  1. Dawn says:

    A colleague of mine used this film in his high school American literature classes to reinforce the themes present in Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible.” Miller uses the tragic hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 to display and criticize the similar fear-fueled behavior prevalent during the Cold War of the early 1950s when Miller himself was persecuted by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Styles may change. Tastes may change. But, as art, literature and history prove time after time, human nature remains the same. We still have a lot to learn from films like this.

    • That’s a great way to introduce this film to students; thanks for your reply! It also teaches students how screenwriters working in genres like westerns, horror, and science fiction often found they were less scrutinized, and so better able to examine current social issues incognito. I’d never thought of Miller when I’d seen this film, but I will from now on.

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