The Ox-Bow Incident and Fake News, A Cautionary Tale

“Why do you keep asking me all these questions? You don’t believe anything I tell you.” ~Anthony Quinn, the accused

Raymond Burr made a name for himself playing the attorney Perry Mason in the early Sixties television series. Courtroom dramatics are featured in many Hollywood movies as well. An orderly, fair trial for the accused is one of the foundations of a civilized society and all the procedures for helping to insure justice are an essential part of it.

As any alert and educated person has observed, our current legal system has many flaws, but the French Revolution shows us how frightening our prospects can be when the pendulum swings the other way and we yield to mob rule.

The establishing of reliable factual evidence is one of the basic features of a fair trial. Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident vividly reveals what happens when due process is scuttled in favor a fast results. Published in 1940, it was but three short years before the film reached the silver screen.


Hollywood’s 1943 Old West re-telling of Clark’s novel is one of many great films in which Henry Fonda fights for justice. In 12 Angry Men we find him cast as a single juror who insists that the easy way out, conviction of the accused, is not warranted until all the evidence is fully examined. In The Ox-Bow Incident, the mob assumes the role of judge and jury, reacting emotionally to a situation based on baseless hearsay. Both films reveal how easily injustice can happen.

The Ox-Bow Incident is a black and white Old West drama that takes all of 75 minutes to thread the needle. There are almost no side stories. The plot moves straight forward from the opening scene to its tragic conclusion.

In addition to Fonda we also see a young Harry Morgan, later of Dragnet and M.A.S.H. fame, as well as Anthony Quinn in one of his earliest roles.

When I read the book many years earlier it made an impression on me. I discovered it after having read The Track of the Cat, another story by Clark that takes place in the Old West. An early line in the movie hints at one of the recurring themes in both these stories. “Why do you suppose he’d be living in this neck of the woods if he didn’t have something to hide?” Fonda declares. The Old West was society’s fringe.

As a kid I liked Westerns with gunslingers and shootouts. Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger were good diversions. This film is quite distant from your O.K. Corral type of film. No High Noon, no 3:16 To Yuma. No Peckinpaugh bloodletting. It’s a simple story about the consequences of misinformation and mob rule.

You can be sure this kind of tragedy has played out all over and not just in the Wild West. It happened right here in Duluth in 1920. A mob of more than 1,000 took the law into its own hands, broke into the jail and hanged three black men on one dark night that has now been memorialized as a reminder that we ourselves are not immune to horrific injustice. There was no evidence beyond hearsay and, like this film, there was no happy ending.

When I was first introduced to the World Wide Web in the mid-90s, I found myself quickly comparing it to the Wild West. It seemed like a new territory had been discovered and as more and more people populated it, each had their own ideas of what it should become.

There was a sense of lawlessness as well, as settlers came and set up claims, staked off virtual territory, and strove to give definition to their lands.

As I once again watched The Ox-Bow Incident this weekend, I thought about how this Wild West character of the early Internet has become amplified in our Social Media era. No, we’re not seeing actual lynchings, but character assassination is quick and thorough, reputations destroyed, and little real recourse for the damaged.

Lies spread faster than an electrically charged current through a swimming pool. Few take time to investigate facts before casting a verdict. We blindly pass along anything that corresponds with our predispositions, indifferent to the damage we’re actually doing because there is a sense of unreality to it all.

In The Ox-Bow Incident, the voices of reason were drowned out by those eager to take justice into their own hands, without due process. A man had been killed, they believed, but not one of them had verified it. Rumor and hearsay spiked their nerves, set them in motion to make right the wrong.

Idiotic stupidity.

One reviewer on imdb.com stated, “The Ox-Bow Incident is a fantastic film. I don’t think it’s well-remembered now, but I’m thrilled to see it on DVD and hope that it will be rediscovered.” I agree. The lessons it contains are as relevant today as they were when the story was penned.

If only we would learn.

Portions of this post were originally published at https://pioneerproductions.blogspot.com.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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