I once had a professor at school who, when teaching The Merchant of Venice, told us that it’s nearly impossible to mess up a trial scene. Shakespeare, of course, didn’t mess it up, but the fact that it’s not an impossibility is clear when watching the movie The Ox-Bow Incident, which is the next in our series of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
This movie fails on many levels, but mostly because it goes for tired trope of the revisionist gut-punch: take a scene from a time that is different (generally far in the past, although more recent in this film), show the human suffering that was caused by how life was back then, and use that to create an emotional reaction from modern audiences used to more gentle times.
So, we essentially have a Western, in which a bunch of innocent men are put on trial by a posse, and eventually lynched. At the end the posse members learn that they were innocent, and are remorseful. How sad.
Audiences in the day (1943) lapped it up, of course. Audiences today will probably lap it up. The reason is that they never stop to think about context, so if something is unacceptable in 1943 (or 2014), it was also wrong when it happened. So they are ripe for the spoon-feeding of emotions which leads them to a sense of moral outrage at what they see.
No one will argue that a witch hunt or a posse is the best way to get justice. We know it isn’t. But the truth is that the reaction of most of this posse’s contemporaries would have been a shrug and something along the lines of “well, that’s life, I guess*”.
Sadly, the tendency of audiences (and everyone else) to judge earlier times by modern standards is growing as opposed to diminishing. Most people, instead of using the amazing amount of information available at the click of a button to try to understand context, simply ignore the fact that things are now different and judge with modern values**. I suppose it’s easier for the lazy hordes and useful for the people who like to use them to further their own agendas, so it won’t be going away any time soon.
In general, I deeply enjoy most of the movies on this list but this is one of the few movies on the 1001 movies list which is so bad in this respect that it could have been filmed today.
*The correct phrase, “Shit happens” had yet to be invented back then.
**Don’t believe me? Have a look at the latest flap among the Fantasy writers crowd. Idiotic revisionism at its best – and now with more thought-police involvement!