Tonight, Frank and I watched The Ox-Bow Incident. It had been several years since he had last watched it, and I don’t think I’d ever before seen the film in its entirety. We both read the book when we were in high school. It was part of my ninth or tenth grade English syllabus; Frank’s father had introduced him to the story, first in Classic Comics form, then in book form.
The book really made an impression on Frank; he and his father discussed the story and its themes often. For my part, although I got the message about mob rule and the courage necessary to stand up against it, Westerns bored me when I was a teenager; I thought old movies were old-fashioned and had nothing to teach me (I was wrong about that). I remember feeling sorry for the poor family man who had been wrongly executed without a fair trial; the story that really had my attention at the time we were reading The Ox-Bow Incident in school was the My Lai massacre courts-martial.
I didn’t see the thread of connection between those two stories when I was a girl. I do now. I see the thread of connection between the mob in The Ox-Bow Incident and the soldiers who followed Lt. Calley’s orders to “waste them” (the Vietnamese civilians).
I see the thread of connection to things that are happening today in our world, our country, our cities, our neighborhoods.
It struck me then, and it strikes me now, how difficult it is to be that lone voice for justice, the one person who speaks out for the defenseless ones. It is both easier and simpler to fold oneself into the comfort of the herd as it rampages and riots in its bloodlust.
At the end of the day, how many of us find ourselves in Henry Fonda’s character’s moral situation in The Ox-Bow Incident? We know that the mob is wrong, we know that justice is not being served, we speak out against what we see, we combine our efforts with others who see what we see and feel as we do– but it isn’t enough. The mob wins, by sheer numbers, by majority rule.
Then, all that’s left is to ponder the last words of the wrongly executed family man, Donald Martin, to his wife:
My dear wife.
Mr. Davies will tell you what’s happening here tonight. He’s a good man. He’s done everything he can for me. I suppose there’s some other good men here, too, only they don’t seem to realize what they’re doing. They’re the ones I feel sorry for because it will be over for me in a little while but they’ll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives.
Man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurting everybody in the world because then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you have 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? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?
And then, to ride up over the hill and into the sunset, possessed of the knowledge that you did all you could … but did you?
Could you have done more?
What would it have taken to change what happened?
What’s to stop it from happening again?