LEARNING GUIDE TO:
THE OX BOW INCIDENT
SUBJECTS — Literature U.S. & Literary Devices: theme; U.S.: The Law;Age: 12+; No MPAA Rating; Drama; 1943; 75 minutes; B & W; Available from Amazon.com.
Description: This film is a classic story about the dangers of vigilante justice. A frontier town in Nevada in 1885 is rocked by the news that a respected rancher has been murdered. The sheriff is out of town. Impatient townspeople form a posse who, through circumstantial evidence, decides that three strangers are guilty of the crime. Most of the posse wants to string the strangers up immediately. A few argue that the posse should wait and turn the strangers over to the sheriff, who returns too late to forestall fatal injustice. The movie is based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.
Rationale for Using the Movie: The film has artistic merit and powerful lessons about justice, conformity, masculine role identity, guilt and the dangers of mob rule.
Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Through discussion, research, and writing projects, students in both English and history classes can gain important knowledge about due process of law and the role each individual plays in a just society.
Possible Problems: Minor. The characters in the film condone drinking and fighting.
LEARNING GUIDE MENU
SUGGESTIONS FOR USING THE OX BOW INCIDENT IN THE CLASSROOM
"Due process of law" is a concept essential to the rights of individuals in a free society and is guaranteed in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It protects people from the arbitrary use of government power to take away life, liberty, or property by demanding that the authorities conform to principles of fairness established over centuries. The protections afforded by due process in criminal cases, includes but is not limited to the following:
Question 2: Explain the irony behind the fact that there is nothing democratic about due process, a concept essential in a democratic society.
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. Conformity driven by fear causes individuals to go along with the energy behind mob rule even when they are reluctant to do so. What specific elements in the film lend to this fear? Suggested Response: Gil's fight with Farley suggests retribution. One man says that this may be Art and Gil's "rope-tie party," a serious threat. The masculinity conflict raised by Major Tetley in his relationship with his son makes the crowd feel the importance of adhering to the strict rules of manhood which require bold action rather than reasoned behavior and the adherence to rules of law. None of the men want to appear weak or to provoke a reprisal.
2. What is significant in the characters of the three men who are caught and later hanged? Suggested Response: Donald Martin is reasonable, honest and intelligent, yet he is powerless against the mob. He is a family man. The old man, Hardwicke, is delusional and deserving of pity. The Mexican, Martinez, is masculine, strong and dignified. He stands in direct contrast to the superficial masculinity represented by the mob, including Gil and Art who are unable to stop the lynching.
3. Once the men learn that Kinkaid is not dead, remorse and guilt become the dominant emotions. How are these feelings shown in what is said or done? Suggested Response: Gerald Tetley rails against his father who later shoots himself. The men sit in somber silence at the bar while Gil reads the letter written by the doomed man to his wife and a collection of money is taken to help the bereft family. Gil and Art determine to take the money to Martin's wife themselves, suggesting they will look after the woman and her children.
4. Assume that you are certain that a woman has murdered your little sister. She is prosecuted and acquitted. A friend of yours who also knew and loved your little sister, hands you a gun and tells you that he knows where the woman is and that she is alone. "Let's go get her," he says. What will you do? Explain your reasons. Suggested Response: The correct is that you will do nothing. To keep the peace our society has given the state a monopoly on violence.. If the system doesn't work, then we have to live with the result. Of course, there are other answers that will be attractive, but in the long run, they lead to violence and anarchy.
For additional discussion questions, click here.
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. In a formal essay, write about four important elements of due process of law that were not followed by the posse in this story and explain why each is important. Explain the logic behind each of the elements and how the hanged men could have been saved had the standards of due process been applied. You may need to use research skills to strengthen your ideas.
2. Assume you are the judge in a trial against the men who participated in the posse and now face charges of criminal conspiracy to commit murder or manslaughter. Included in the defendants are the seven members of the posse who voted against hanging but stayed around to watch. Write an essay in which you determine guilt or innocence and then mete out punishments and justify their severity. Judges often refer to law books to help in their decisions and you may need to research elements of law in order to write yours.
3. "Due process of law" requires that before a person can be convicted of a crime, every member of the jury must vote for conviction. This is an attempt to redress the imbalance of power between the government, which is usually very powerful, and the individual defendant who is usually not powerful and who usually has few resources. Write an opinion essay in which you defend the requirement for a unanimous decision or propose an alternate plan Explain your reasons forcefully.
For additional assignments, click here.
This film is one of a triumvirate which help students understand due process. The other two are 12 Angry Men and Stand and Deliver.
Lynching was a factor in American life from the Revolution of 1776 until the 1960s. For a brief description of how lynching got its start, see Learning Guide for To Kill a Mockingbird.
This Learning Guide was written by Mary RedClay with assistance from James Frieden. It was revised on December 30, 2011 - revision is still in progress.
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