I know I’m not alone in saying life after November 8th has been troubling and uneasy. One of the ways I’ve been coping with this onslaught of disturbing policy and tension is by watching classic movies—it’s my tried and true method but two films recently struck a cord with me in a greater magnitude than upon my initial viewing. Coincidentally both of them happen to star Henry Fonda.
Henry Fonda is known as Hollywood’s quietest hero and I appreciate his work now more than ever. Fonda embodied the every man persona of America much like his contemporary (and best friend in real life) James Stewart. Fonda’s characters stood for justice, compassion, and honesty. Fonda’s inspiration for the brave men he created on screen stemmed from a traumatic incident in his youth when—at fourteen—he witnessed the lynching of a black man. That event stuck with him for the rest of his life as he stood up against prejudice. Fonda believed that by making film he could raise awareness and change perceptions in the world.
In the classic western, The Ox-Bow Incident, Fonda is at his best as the moral compass of the film. He plays Gil Carter, an outsider to a small Nevada town who gets caught up in a lynch mob. This film is one of the best examples of the dangers of mob mentality. I watched this film about a week ago and it has stuck with me since. It’s eerily familiar to the kind of mentality that has infiltrated us thanks to social media, that we’ve seen play out at its worst during this past election. After a rancher is murdered, the townspeople form a posse to find the murderer or murderers. With the sheriff out of town, a deputy decides he himself must be the leader, even though this is against the law. Gil joins the posse to avoid being a target.
This film is rife with tension as the paranoia and anger becomes stronger than the posse itself. Fonda gives a signature quiet performance standing up to the mob when they find men they suspect to be the murderers despite having any sort of proof. Fonda’s Gil believes in the law and justice and won’t stand for the mockery being made. The posse made of large group of men and one women proves it’s not one that it easily persuaded which makes Gil’s fight all the more powerful. He couldn’t shake his conscience and had to speak up.
The film reminds me of 12 Angry Men in many ways. But in 12 Angry Men justice prevails, here a travesty is made of it. Gil, much like Juror #8, represents all the qualities that Fonda believed in. After the lynching occurs, the men find out that the man they believed was murdered is still alive and that they killed three innocent men. When they return to the town, Gil reads a letter written by one of the suspected men in a saloon. The character of Martin, played by Dana Andrews, wrote the letter for his wife. Fonda reads the words in a quiet, honest cadence. In the scene, you only see his lips move not his entire face. The letter reads as follows:
“My dear wife, Mr. Davies will tell you what’s happening here tonight. He’s a good man and has done everything he can for me. I suppose there are some other good men here, too, only they don’t seem to realize what they’re doing. They’re the ones I feel sorry for. ‘Cause it’ll be over for me in a little while, but they’ll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives. 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? I guess that’s all I’ve got to say except kiss the babies for me and God bless you. Your husband, Donald.”
The letter’s words resonate so much to the current state of affairs. When I watched this moment I began to sob. The Ox-Bow Incident is a cautionary tale that I think everyone needs to see. The same with 12 Angry Men. While both have different outcomes, the meat of their stories is timeless.
In 12 Angry Men, the jury has to decide the fate of a seemingly clear cut case about a young man who has been accused of killing his father in a fit of anger. At first it seems the jury is ready to hand over a guilty verdict except for one juror, Fonda’s Juror #8. Fonda can’t seem to shake his doubts and stands up to the men who are fueled by personal prejudices, impatience, and the worst trait of all—apathy. Juror #8 is able to rise above the group of jurors because of his belief in the justice system. His integrity drives him to challenge the men as the deliberations ensue.
Juror #8 isn’t a perfect man. He’s a flawed character who has some pompous moments of his own but he emerges as the hero of the film because of his honesty. That allows him to gain the trust of the rest of the group as they begin to sway their decision. Like The Ox-Bow Incident before it, 12 Angry Men is another fascinating examination of humanity in all of its ugly forms. Fonda was never a flashy actor. He made it look so easy with a stern look that stood for integrity and justice. Both films serve as reminders of standing up for what you believe in no matter how difficult it is.
It’s what Henry Fonda—the actor stood for. Although a quiet man who didn’t believe in being preachy, Fonda didn’t stand for prejudice and injustice. During World War II, he joined the Navy, famously saying “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio.” Fonda was a man of his word and it showed in his work. It’s people like him whether it be characters or the people behind them that remind us that we too need to rise and stand up for what’s right. Let his films as old as they may be be a reminder for whatever lies ahead.
12 Angry Men is airing on Turner Classic Movies February 28th at 4:30 AM ET.