A western with no action or a play with cowboys, William A. Wellman’s 1943 The Ox-Bow Incident tells the sad tale of three men facing the possibility of execution by the mob, where reason and compassion are overlooked in the name of impulsive, angry and swift ‘justice’.
It is not a coincidence that Henry Fonda’s character Gil Carter in The Ox-Bow Incident represents the audience’s alter ego and challenges the mob rule mentality, as he would do the same fourteen years later in Sidney Lumet’s classic 12 Angry Men. Fonda as an actor is perfect as the cool and rational human being who is capable of seeing things as they should be seen. Note here, not necessarily seeing thing as they really are, for that would imply that society, and especially American society, is just, and yet human beings are sometimes misguided.
Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) are inside the saloon in the town of Bridger’s Wells when a man brings news of rancher Larry Kinkaid’s murder by three cattle thieves. Immediately, the town’s people form a posse to pursue the criminals. Despite the absence of the town’s sheriff and warnings from the local judge to bring the murderers back to town to face a trial, most men in the group favour swift and vehement justice by hanging. When the posse encounter three strangers – Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), Juan Morez (Anthony Quinn) and Alva Hardwicke (Francis Ford) – in the Ox-Bow canyon, the fates of these men are already decided; at sunrise they are hanged. Returning to town the posse meet Sheriff Risley (Willard Robertson), who informs them that Kinkaid was not killed and the men who shot him have already been arrested.
The first thing that might come to mind after watching the film is how tragically unfair the story is. Innocent men have been hanged, without a trial, for a crime they did not commit. How sad – and also enlightening about the justice system – that the delivering of an apparent natural justice (if you kill, you must die!) can go wrong if proceedings are not followed to the letter. The apparent moral of the story is that justice must be done in a coolly way through the arms of the state under the guidance of the law.
..The Weight of Grave Acts on Clean Consciences.
A rather more intriguing reading would conclude that the very thing that’s seen as a virtue in American democracy, i.e. people’s participation in the affairs of society, paradoxically was also responsible for a great injustice. It is significant to mention that people’s willingness to engage is seen by many as the root of the American tendency towards freedom in contrast to other political systems favouring of totalitarianism. One might even argue (unscientifically, obviously) that people’s lack of apathy, although most of the time, a positive trait, is the crucial factor in America’s faith in the death penalty.
Even Gil Carter says that ‘Hangin’ murderers is one thing, but to keep guys you don’t know for sure did it standing around sweatin’ while you shoot your mouth off, that’s another.’ The implication is obvious for everyone to see. Carter is against arbitrary trials and executions but would not necessarily be against the death penalty for murderers who have been proven guilty. Then, even though Carter is not challenging the system, at least he is asking people to respect the predetermined rules of that system. And that is as important as understanding the fallacious arguments in favor of the ultimate punishment.
And death seems to be what the majority of Americans would want for someone who kills. Now, apart from the discussions of the merit of such redistributive kind of justice, one thing is certain: the death penalty would become unsustainable through time if the participation of the people was excluded from the equation. For, like other countries, the United States would surely ban the practice as a form of irreversible justice incompatible with the possibility of error from the judicial system. The only thing that keeps the ultimate punishment alive in the country is surely its populist appeal. Just like the rushed hanging of three innocent men serve to assuage the feeling of helplessness among town folks, the death penalty serves the main purpose of finding scapegoats within a society which feels threatened from so much violence.
The history of the frontier as part of the American psyche has always been paradoxical in terms. It surely helped the country to reach its levels of wealth and progress, but as a narrative device it is an archaic element of the country’s past. Americans surely realise that the violence and land invasion that helped the wave of migrants to settle in the Western part of the country cannot be justified in contemporary terms. The cowboy with the gun in hand and the posse mentality should have no place in America – the most modern, industrialised and technologically advanced country on Earth. And yet, that is exactly what its people decided to keep from the old ways. At the centre of this mythical vision lies America’s contradictory modernity.