One of my favorite movies is a 1943 Western starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews an Harry Morgan. The director was William A. Wellman. It’s about a lynch mob from a town that sought the killers of a local rancher. They found three men who many believed killed the rancher. Some of the men argued that the men should be taken to town and tried in a court of law. Unfortunately the majority of the mob out voted the minority and they hung three innocent men.
A 1943 review in the New York Times starts:
“An ugly study in mob violence, unrelieved by any human grace save the futile reproach of a minority and some mild post-lynching remorse, is contained in The Ox-Bow Incident, which was delivered to the Rivoli on Saturday by Twentieth Century Fox in as brazen a gesture as any studio has ever indulged. For it is hard to imagine a picture with less promise commercially. In a little over an hour, it exhibits most of the baser shortcomings of men—cruelty, blood-lust, ruffianism, pusillanimity, and sordid pride. It shows a tragic violation of justice with little backlash to sweeten the bitter draught. And it puts a popular actor, Henry Fonda, in a very dubious light. But it also points a moral, bluntly and unremittingly, to show the horror of mob rule. And it has the virtue of uncompromising truth.”
The movie ends with Henry Fonda’s character reading a letter that one of the victims of the lynching wrote to his wife and asked that it be taken to his wife. Here is the text of the letter:
“My Dear Wife.
Mr. Davies will tell you what’s happening here tonight. He’s a good man, and 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, ’cause it’ll be over for me in a little while, but they’ll have to go on rememberin’ for the rest of their lives.
A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world, ’cause then he’s just not breakin’ one law, but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire 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? I guess that’s all I’ve got to say except – kiss the babies for me and God bless you.