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SUBJECTS — Literature U.S. & Literary Devices: theme; U.S.: The Law;
        The Frontier and the West; 1865 - 1913 & Nevada;
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.



Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points

Using the Movie in Class:
      Introduction to the Movie
      Discussion Questions


Helpful Background
Due Process in Criminal Cases

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
            English Language Arts
            Social Studies & Civics
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments
      Exercise in Creating Thematic Statements

Writing Assignments
      Social Studies & Civics

Other Sections:
      Bridges to Reading
      Links to the Internet
      Selected Awards & Cast

MOVIE WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students' minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie. Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Movies as Literature Homework Project.


Enrichment Worksheet

"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:
  • The accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty;
  • The accused has the right to be informed of the charges against him and must be given time to prepare a defense;
  • The accused has the right to an attorney, and if he cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent him;
  • The trial must be presided over by an impartial judge;
  • The judgment must be rendered by an impartial jury;
  • The prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt;
  • The decision of the jury must be unanimous, i.e., every juror must be convinced of the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt; one dissenting juror will "hang" the jury and prevent conviction;
  • The accused has the right to remain silent, also called the privilege against self-incrimination;
  • The accused has the right to bring witnesses favorable to his cause;
  • The accused has the right to a public trial;
  • No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury;
  • No person can be compelled to be a witness against himself.
Question 1: There is clear justification for each of the protections given to defendants in criminal cases. Write a brief explanation about what a defendant is protected against in each of the above listed elements of due process. There are many other protections for a person accused of a crime which are essential for due process. A few of these are:
  • the prohibition against double jeopardy;
  • the right to a speedy trial;
  • the right of the accused to be confronted with the witnesses against him or her;
  • freedom from cruel and unusual punishment;
  • protection from ex post facto laws;
  • the right to appear before the jury dressed in street clothing, not in prison uniform.
Due process of law, which in the western democracies is strongly linked to the concept of freedom, is not democratic. In fact, due process is always anti-democratic because it puts limits on the power of the majority of the people or of the elected officials, the representatives of the majority, to do what it wants.

Question 2: Explain the irony behind the fact that there is nothing democratic about due process, a concept essential in a democratic society.


Discussion Questions:

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.

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

Are you concerned that time will be wasted if you are absent from class? Worry no more  .  .  .   Check out TeachWithMovies' Set-Up-the-Sub.

Parenting Points: You may want to tell your children justice is one of the most basic human rights and a fair trial is one of the basic tenets of a free society.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

BUILDING VOCABULARY: "due process of law," "presumption of innocence," "circumstantial evidence," "beyond a reasonable doubt," "better half," "pining away," empowered, rustler, unanimous, and "play cat and mouse."

MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: See 12 Angry Men, Barbary Coast, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Stand and Deliver.

The studio did not think "The Ox-Bow Incident" would make money and refused to adequately fund it. Thus, it was made on the production lot with night scenes to hide the artificiality of the sets. Ultimately, this contributed to the dark, foreboding feeling of the film. William Wellman, the director, said that this film made him prouder than any of the many films he directed.

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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