The Ox-bow Incident captures the violent era of the Wild West in full galore. Beginning from the opening scene of the main character assaulting another individual, the barkeep smacking him behind with a beer bottle, and the general consensus of the town treating random acts of violence as common occurrences that constitute “fighting” seem to be skillful foreshadowing for the later events of the film. These acts of savagery are considered normal and past violence is used as a justification for any acts of future violence because they are so common among the common people. Uneducated, temperamental, and trigger-happy men broadcast their pernicious urges upon innocent people under the guise of morality, Christianity, and the law. The common people were using any justification and paranoia to defend their violent atrocities.
From my perspective, the most important event in the movie was the Deputy Sheriff deputizing the entire lynch mob. This justification ultimately meant that the mob only recognized an authority figure that sanctified their violent urges and ignored the legitimate authority of the Judge. Once a higher authority took the responsibility, their already weakened social restraint was removed and they rode onto dangerous areas just to commit a heinous act of torture and murder. This Ox-Bow Incident, in contrast to modern films, shows the negative consequences of violent and rash actions by showing the silent shame of the perpetrators at the end of the film. The film makes this more explicit by the son of Tetley demolishing his father’s judgment to lynch those three men; he argues that Tetley knew they were innocent but chose to kill them to satisfy his own bloodlust. The film further shows the savagery of the common people by remarking how the wealthy old man, Tetley, is responsible and ignoring the fact that they chose to agree to kill those three innocent people.
The uniqueness of the Ox-bow Incident to films today shouldn’t be understated. Modern films justify the violence of the protagonist under the guise of heroism. They depict almost no bloodshed and display happy endings instead of focusing on the wrongful deed committed. Thus, the difference between this film and modern films is that modern films prefer to show violence with no consequences and implicitly teach our children to celebrate violence without consequences.
Unfortunately, this film implicitly celebrates Hollywood’s time honored tradition of depicting women as objects to be owned. The young woman, that the main character was in love with, finds a man of the same social stature and intelligence as herself. The film depicts her as a conniving shrew for the crime of being able to choose her own happiness freely. The main character rides off into the sunset to tend to a wife and children of one of the dead. In the beginning of the film, the argument that the killers would rape their women was used to justify the murders that would follow. Thus, the ending of the film implies that a man is required in a household and we’re expected to take heart to the fact that one of the men who initially agreed to lynch this woman’s husband has unilaterally chosen to take over his role as caretaker of the wife and children.
This film attempts to show justice gone awry but I think it is more suitable as a beacon to the justice system of our own culture. The lynching of black men during the time frame of the late 1800s wasn’t uncommon. Our justice system has recently built a smokescreen with laws such as the NDAA and Patriot act, we have a legally justified torture program that has killed people, we’ve had a history of legal abuses during the McCarthy era, and we have protests now against the perceived violence of our law enforcement. This film is simply depicting the nature of violence that is so common in our culture that the abuses have always existed in some form. After all, can we truly call ourselves peaceful when, throughout our history, we have launched wars and then confused ourselves over the justification of those wars? If these questions are too complex for justice then our justice may need significant reform. Overall, this film sheds light on what modern people don’t seem to wish to acknowledge: America has always, and likely will always, be a nation that celebrates and legally justifies violence with no regard for consequences. Once those consequences happen, we remain silent and ignore the events to holding onto our self-righteous beliefs. Our belief in our uniqueness as a nation has simply blinded us to this truth.