One of the most basic tasks of a dramatist, whether playwright or screenwriter, is to gain our sympathy for the main character. Usually this is accomplished by placing the character in situations with which most of us can readily identify. Watching a character attempting to cope with a familiar and frustrating circumstance makes it easy to sympathize.
A particularly powerful way of getting us in the protagonist's corner is to portray him or her as the victim of an injustice. After all, we all know how it feels to get the shaft. That's why so many films through the years have plots based on the protagonist being falsely accused. This device works to gain our sympathy for Samuel L. Jackson's character in "The Negotiator," in which Jackson plays a cop who has been accused of embezzlement and murder, just as it has worked in countless earlier films. For a sampling of the best films about victims of false accusation, look for these titles on home video.
"I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (1932). Much of what came out of Hollywood in the early thirties was escapist fare, designed to help take people's minds off the Depression, but Warner Brothers bucked the trend by making a number of pictures that took an unflinching look at society's ills. This one tells the story of James Allen, played by Paul Muni, who is framed for a petty robbery and sentenced to ten years at hard labor. Relentlessly brutalized by his chain gang taskmasters, Allen escapes. He begins a new life under a new name and eventually becomes a successful and respected business executive, but he can never forget that he is a hunted fugitive. Inevitably, his past catches up with him.
"These Three" (1936). Lillian Hellman's play "The Children's Hour" tells the tragic story of two schoolmistresses who are accused of having a lesbian love affair by a pair of mischievous students. The movie industry's Production Code wouldn't allow such content during the thirties, so director William Wyler asked Hellman to rewrite the play, basing the scandal on an affair between one of the teachers and a male lover. The false accusation of lewd conduct on school grounds devastates the institution, ruining the lives of its innocent proprietors. In 1961, after content restrictions had loosened up in Hollywood, Wyler remade the film under the play's original title, reinstating the references to lesbianism.
"The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943). This disturbing little film packs into its 75 minute length one of the most chilling portraits of mob violence ever produced. Henry Fonda and Henry Morgan play a couple of cowboys who ride into a small Western town where a man has been shot by cattle rustlers. The two strangers are swept up into the hastily organized vigilante mob, partly in the interest of keeping suspicion from falling on them. In short order the mob descends on three homesteaders, convicting them of the murder without benefit of a trial and based on nothing more than flimsy circumstantial evidence. The tragedy of a rush to judgement and the horrifying bloodthirstiness of a lynch mob have never been more vividly portrayed.
"A Cry in the Dark" (1988). On the night of August 17, 1980, Lindy Chamberlain put her infant daughter Azaria to bed while on a camping trip in northern Australia. While she was away from the tent, Lindy heard a cry. Hurrying back to check on Azaria, she said that she saw an Australian wild dog, a dingo, with something in its jaws. Azaria was gone. A frantic search turned up nothing but the child's bloodstained clothing. Although an initial inquest supported Lindy's version of the tragic events, subsequent investigations, fueled by speculation in the press, led many to believe that Lindy and her husband Michael had in fact murdered young Azaria. The Chamberlains became the object of widespread hatred in Australia, even to the point of receiving death threats. Although the Chamberlains were ultimately cleared, there are still those who believe them to be murderers. The film version of their story, starring Meryl Streep as Lindy, clearly takes the position that they were innocent. Director Fred Schepisi and screenwriter Robert Caswell use the case as a basis for indicting the practice of trial by media.Next week we'll look at more examples of movies based on unjust accusations. Until then, try to stay out of trouble.