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Lynch Mobs in Trial Movies

by Michael Asimow, UCLA Law School (December 1997)

This Golden Oldie commentary features that good old American staple—the lynch mob. Lynch mobs were a very real part of the American "justice" system for many decades, and they make for powerful cinema.

One of the most terrifying lynch mob films of all time is Fury (1936), directed by the great Fritz Lang and starring Spencer Tracy. Another classic lynch mob scene appears in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. Both films are available on video. If your local store doesn't have them, you can rent or buy them from reel.com.

In Fury, Tracy plays Joe Wilson, an ordinary guy who drives into Strand and is arrested on suspicion of kidnaping—a crime of which he's completely innocent. Word gets 'round town, however, and a lynch mob forms. The mob burns the jail to the ground with Wilson inside. The governor doesn't call in the militia for fear of further inflaming the situation. The lynching is premiere entertainment for the townsfolk. It's covered by newsreel photographers. We see mothers holding up their babies to get a better look and various yokels munching on hot dogs as they enjoy the festivities.

Unknown to everyone, however, Wilson escapes from jail during the attack. He craves revenge and gets his brothers to persuade Strand's DA to prosecute the mob for murder. The fact that a prosecution occurred is, of course, quite unusual. The vast majority of lynchings were never prosecuted—and probably juries would have refused to convict if they were.

The trial features a pioneering use of visual aids—the newsreel footage of the mob leaders. Unlike most murder victims, Wilson gets to enjoy the proceedings which are broadcast live on the radio. The trial is absolutely riveting, but you'll have to see the film to find out how this ingenious plot is resolved.

Lang fled Nazi Germany shortly before making Fury and the scary mob violence in the film surely echoes his experiences. The sheriff blames strangers from out of town for the lynching, for example, which sounds quite a bit like Hitler blaming the Jews for Germany's troubles. The actual story of Fury is said to be inspired by a lynching that took place in San Jose, California, in 1933. A mob dragged two suspects from the jail and hanged them in the town square as newsreel cameras turned. The governor of California refused to call in the militia and announced that the lynching was a wonderful lesson for the whole country. Unlike Fury, nobody was ever prosecuted.

In the inspiring Young Mr. Lincoln, a lynch mob forms to kill a couple of brothers who are suspected of murdering a man at a county fair.  A tall stranger emerges to advise the mother of the two men. "Who are you," she asks? "I'm your lawyer, ma'am" replies Lincoln.

In a wonderfully cinematic but not very realistic scene, Lincoln stands at the jailhouse door and jollies the mob into going home. Later he defends the brothers in a terrific frontier-type trial. In a nifty bit of Perry Mason-type cross- examination, Lincoln gets the real killer to confess.

Lynch mobs have appeared in numerous other trial films. Of those available for rental, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and The Oxbow Incident (1943) come to mind. Even better lynch mob scenes appear in two fascinating trial films which unfortunately have yet to be released on video--They Won't Forget (1937) and Trial (1955). They Won't Forget is modeled on the Leo Frank case, in which a Jewish man who moved to the south was convicted (probably wrongly) of murder, dragged off a train, and lynched. In the film, however, the mob is crazed by anti-Yankee rather than anti-Semitic sentiment. Trial is a wonderful relic of the McCarthy era which could have been scripted by J. Edgar Hoover. It includes an excellent lynching scene directed at a Hispanic youngster being held in jail on suspicion of raping a white woman. Try to catch these two on cable.

Michael AsimowMichael Asimow, of UCLA Law School, is co-author with Paul Bergman of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (1996), available at local bookstores or through amazon.com.


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