Monday, July 2, 2007

The Moral Problem of Revenge: Fritz Lang's Fury

Late in Fritz Lang's morally problematic 1936 film Fury, Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney) makes a speech (presumably representative of the film's ethical position) equating her fiance's cunning revenge scheme with the actions of the twenty-two people who had tried to lynch him, even going so far as to suggest that his actions are worse than theirs, since his ordeal was over in a matter of hours, while his victims were forced to endure their torment for weeks. The speech is symptomatic of the film's troubling and contradictory attitudes towards the notion of vengeance, attitudes which make it impossible to read the film as the simple condemnation of mob violence it purports to be. The way these attitudes play out throughout the picture continually undercut the work's assumptions about the moral equivalency inherent in the notion of revenge.

The film's plot traces a standard injustice and revenge narrative until its conclusion when the hero's conscience comes into play and overcomes his insatiable need for vengeance. The relative simplicity of the film's action obscures the complex morality underneath. In the picture's beginning, Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) travels from Chicago to meet Katherine in a small town where she works as a schoolteacher. Upon his arrival, he is unexpectedly arrested, falsely accused of kidnapping a baby girl, and before he can stand trial, a mob of twenty-two townspeople converge on the jail and burn it to the ground. Although presumed dead, Joe has miraculously survived and appears to his two brothers demanding they bring the townspeople to trial, while he allows everyone else (his fiancee included) to believe he is still dead. In the ensuing trial, the townspeople are found guilty of murder, but before they can hang for the crime, Joe has a change of conscience and shows up in the courtroom as the sentences are being read and saves them from execution.

The film shrewdly condemns the sort of automatic vengeance that many American films, from both the 1930s and today, treat unreflectingly as an appropriate response to the wrongs their heroes have suffered, and it is canny in the way it links lynching (a way of circumventing the law) with Wilson's subversion of the legal process by pretending to be dead, but to put the two actions on the same moral plane is to complicate the film's anti-lynching message. This message is given its clearest expression in a didactic speech delivered by the prosecutor which would seem to sum up the film's position on mob violence, except that the ways in which Lang's attitudes towards justice play out, while admirable in their willingness to attack any form of proto-facist behavior (especially given the director's recent escape from Nazi Germany), serve to undercut this message by advocating an alternative in which no form of punishment is likely to occur. The problem with placing Joe's tactics on the same level of the mob is that if he had not taken this course of action, the mob would likely have escaped any punishment (legal or otherwise) for their crimes. As the prosecutor explains, of the thousands of people involved in lynchings in this country, less than 800 have even been brought to trial, as the townspeople in these cases continually protect each other from prosecution. The townspeople in the film are certainly willing to lie in order to establish alibis for each other and only the presence of a film camera on the scene which recorded the entire proceedings serves to falsify these alibis and bring the criminals to justice. Even the sheriff who stood up against the mob during the lynching has been cowed into submission and refuses to identify the townspeople that were involved. Against such a firmly entrenched system of mutual protection, Joe's actions become understandable if not wholly excusable. Because Lang's screenplay equates Joe's action with that of the townspeople by insisting on identifying them both as "lynchings", it forcefully condemns mob activity but further strips an already powerless legal mechanism of its ability to prevent them.

When Katherine learns that Joe is still alive, she follows his brothers back to his hiding spot and confronts her fiance with the evidence of his brutish behavior. "They're not murderers," she says, excusing the townspeople, "they were part of a mob." And then, comparing their plight to that of her fiance, "what you've felt for a few hours, they've had to face for days and nights and weeks." This ludicrous defense of the lynch mob in comparison with her husband's actions recalls Isabella's defense of the wicked Angelo at her brother's expense in Measure for Measure. Like Isabella, Katherine excuses the greater evil and attacks the lesser. It may be easier for today's audiences to condemn Joe for falsifying his death than to blame Claudio for fornication, but the inappropriateness of Katherine's comparison nontheless recalls Shakespeare's troubling speech. When she says to Joe, "You're hanging twenty-two people for something they didn't do," she is technically correct, but Joe's response seems much closer to the truth: "No, I'm not. I'm hanging twenty-two rats for something they did do." But it is Katherine's notion of justice that wins out in the film's conclusion.

What is most problematic about this conclusion is that Joe's final confession in the courtroom, in which he takes responsibility for his revenge scheme, seems to absolve the townspeople of their own responsibility. Even though he makes clear that he is confessing for himself and not for the sake of his would-be murderers, in relieving them of the homicide charges, the film leaves the viewer with the sense that they are correspondingly relieved of all guilt for their actions. Indeed the film ends before the trial can reach a proper conclusion, but given the way legal justice has been conducted throughout the film, it is questionable whether the jury (fellow townspeople who could have been potential lynchers themselves) would convict their peers in light of the confession. Although the trial is left unresolved, the film implies that the townspeople have (rightfully) escaped justice simply because Joe survived the burning and their actions (however reprehensible) failed to achieve the desired result. In its refusal to carry the trial to its conclusion, the film creates an atmosphere of moral uncertainty in which the audience is unsure whether Joe's confession will still allow the townspeople to be convicted or if, what is more likely, he has prevented the very justice he sought from being carried out. The prosecutor's moral lecture which seems to summarize the film's anti-lynching attitude is thus undercut by the film's conclusion which endorses a moral equivalency between mob action and Joe's proposed revenge that prevents the proper function of the legal mechanism and allows for the continuation of the very lynchings that the film claims to condemn.

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