It is amazing how fast our culture changes. Watch a movie or a TV show from the 80’s or 90’s and you might notice how clunky and awkward the technology (computers, phones) was com- pared to today. You also might notice how plot points, which seemed so up to date and cutting edge back in the day are now somewhat laugha- ble and ridiculous in an age with access to the internet and DNA tracing at our fingertips.
Nevertheless, as the old adage says, the more things change the more things remain the same. Human nature is what it is, and it is still damaged and defective. We still have the same human foibles, failings, weaknesses and blind spots as our ancestors had. Original Sin still exists. Knuckleheads will be knuckleheads.
I discovered this truism watching one of my favorite old time westerns from the 1940’s, The Ox Bow Incident. Starring Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan, the movie may be about cattle rustlers and the townspeople gathering a posse, but I found it spoke to modern social media, cancel culture and all the things we struggle with in 2021. And, boy howdy, it still packs a punch.
The Ox Bow Incident tells the story of two drifters who wander into a small town, and they are immediately looked upon with scorn and distrust.
Why? There is trouble about – cattle rustlers in the region. Suddenly, a young man comes into the saloon and declares that a local rancher, an upstanding citizen, has been murdered. The sheriff of the territory has gone out to the ranch to find out what is going on. (a key plot point) But the townspeople, fed up with lawlessness, decided to take matters in their own hands. They form a posse intent on getting justice, even if it has to come at the end of a rope. To make a long story short, they find three men (who have some of the rancher’s cattle) and the mob is bound and determined to enact swift retribution.
The best thing about the movie is the range of characters portrayed. The two drifters are actual- ly the voices of reason, telling the posse that even though the three seem guilty, things are not always as they seem. Others want justice, quick and severe. Some want to make themselves look good and increase their standing in the community. Some just like a good hanging. It’s fun.
Some just go along with the crowd not wanting to stand against the majority. Others are intimidated by the mob, fearful that they might eventually turn on them. Some know what is right, but are weak willed. There is an African-American character who knows how American justice is often heedless and haphazard. He carries himself with a world-weary exasperation.
The movie forces us to think about where we would stand, what we would choose to do. Although we might want to side with the voices of reason, that might be a difficult, if not dangerous thing to do. As the movie progressed, I thought about how we in our culture, though we have ample information, we tend to rely on snap judgments and first impressions. We read something on the internet and we buy into it, hook, line and sinker. We like our judgments and justice quick and severe, often ignoring the facts.
I won’t give away the ending – I will say it is devastating – and if you happen to catch it, it is worth a watch. (Hey Hollywood, here’s a film that could use a remake!) Most of all it will make you think about mob justice and how we often don’t let the facts get in the way of the cozy narrative which can mesmerize, captivate, charm and, ultimately, hoodwink us.