The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the essential Westerns, directed by William Wellman. A study of the effects--and aftereffects--of mob violence, this film (based on a true story) begins with the murder of a popular rancher. Angry townspeople form a posse, find suspects, and, without waiting for a trial, summarily hang them in an expression of biblically tinged frontier justice. But the one cowboy who tried to turn the mob aside ultimately proves that they executed innocent men. Made in 1943, the film features stunning black-and-white cinematography and a solid dramatic sense about what a deadly combination ignorance and self-righteousness can be. Fonda made this film between The Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine, at a point when he was at the peak of his powers as a young actor. --Marshall Fine
A man just naturally can't take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin' everybody in the world, 'cause then he's just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It's everything people ever have found out about justice and what's right and wrong. It's the very conscience of humanity. There can't be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody's conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?