America’s ‘Ox-Bow Incident’

January 10, 2009 | By | Reply More

I’ve recently seen an outstanding WWII-era movie called “The Ox-Bow Incident,” starring Henry Fonda & Harry Morgan. The movie is ostensibly a western, set in a small Nevada town in the mid-19th century. However, unlike other western movies of its day, in which you can tell the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their hats, this film goes far beyond the fisticuffs that are usual for this genre and, instead, makes a profound social commentary on the nature of justice. Disturbingly, it has direct relevance to modern-day America.

In the film, a local man rides into town to report that a nearby rancher has been murdered and his cattle rustled. Rustling has been a frequent problem in the area, so the townspeople are very agitated by the report. Exploiting this agitation, a quartet of other locals whip up community support to form a posse to hunt down the alleged murderers and put a stop to the rustling once and for all. They specifically reject suggestions by some townspeople that justice requires the posse merely to arrest the accused murderers and bring them in for trial. Instead, the four leaders of the posse state their intentions to hang the rustlers when they are caught. The posse leaders also reject similar suggestions made by the town’s preacher.

The posse sets out and, sometime after midnight the next day, discovers three strangers camped on the prairie. The strangers have in their possession some of the murdered man’s cattle, as well as his pistol, though they can provide no bill of sale for these items. Needless to say, the posse believes it has caught the guilty parties and arranges to hang them at sunrise later that morning. The posse rejects all protests the men make of their innocence, and also rejects their request to delay the execution so that their alibis can be verified. No, the posse seems determined to hang these men.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that the four townspeople who initially incited the posse were each driven by his or her own individual inadequacies to seek and wield power, without regard for the consequences that their actions would have for others. I will also point out that there is a remarkable parallel between the plot of the movie and the real-world events that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq — events that very much mirror the way the posse in the film was created, motivated and manipulated into ignoring ordinary standards of justice and taking the law into their own hands. The film is almost a manuscript for how, and why, senior Bush administration officials discarded the rule of law and pursued their own version of frontier justice against Saddam. I *highly* recommend this film and I *highly* recommend that, after watching it, you watch the film a second time with the commentary (in the ‘extra features’ portion of the DVD) turned on.


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About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

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