Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mob mentality in all its forms

I've recommended the movie The Children's Hour before, and although the main thrust of the movie is about the poisonous nature of gossip, it also says quite a lot about mob mentality and its damaging effects. It's a theme that's always relevant, and has been done in the movies a bunch of times, including out in the old west, in the 1943 movie The Ox-Bow Incident, which is airing tomorrow at 10:00 AM on the Fox Movie Channel.

News has reached town that a rancher outside of town has been murdered, and his cattle stolen. The authorities call for a posse to be formed to find the perpetrators. Meanwhile, Henry Fonda is a drifter passing through with Harry Morgan, and Morgan realizes that the posse is going to turn on them as they're strangers to the town. So, they join the posse, and quickly find Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn in possession of the cattle. Nowadays, the posse would just get on their cell phones and call the relevant authorities to check the story, but this being the old west, Andrews wouldn't have had time to handle all the legalities of what he claimed was a legitimate cattle purchase. It's fairly easy to figure out what's going to happen next: the posse is going to call for one version justice, while Fonda speaks for real justice. Indeed, this is what happens as the movie quickly plays out like a Greek tragedy, with nobody really in control of the ending.

Although the victim of the mob here is a would-be rancher, it could be anybody, and it could be an allegory for anybody. Just a decade later came Arthur Miller's The Crucible which ostensibly was about the Salem witch trials, but which everybody knew was really a commentary on Senator Joseph McCarthy and his attempts to ferret out Communists. And, if you read the reviews of The Ox-Bow Incident on IMDb, you'll see several written after 2001 that make references to the War on Terror. But, the mob could just as easily be on the other side of the aisle; earlier this summer Nobel Economics Prize winner Paul Krugman claimed that people who disagreed with him on whether humans are responsible for changes to the earth's climate are committing "planetary treason" -- and the media, in a mob of its own, simply parrots the hyperbolic remarks of people on Krugman's side of the debate. It doesn't have to be that political, either; look at all those bogus claims of mass sexual abuse at day care centers that ruined people's lives back in the 1980s.

None of this should be interpreted as taking anything away from The Ox-Bow Incident, however; it's a pretty darn good movie in its own right, and it is available on DVD.

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