Michael Curtiz’s Mountain Justice is based heavily on the case of Edith Maxwell, which was a nationwide media sensation at the time. Edith Maxwell was a Wise County, Virginia woman convicted of murdering her father in 1935. Ms. Maxwell came home late after a night out with friends and was confronted by her father, who did not approve of her behavior. The argument eventually escalated to violence and Trigg Maxwell later died of injuries he received during the struggle. Although she argued that he was abusive and she was acting in self-defense, Edith Maxwell was convicted of murder and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison (Tabler).
Maxwell and her brother agreed to allow their story to be adapted for the screen with the hope that it would stir sympathy for Edith. Maxwell’s brother, Earl, endorsed the film, which took some liberties with the story, largely making the story’s main character more sympathetic to a national audience (Rode, 202). The film was never shown in the state of Virginia due to the sensationalism of the case and the fear that it would provoke a strong reaction among Virginia citizens (204).
Ruth Harkins, the film’s main character, is an Appalachian nurse who wants to increase the access to medical care in her mountain community. She receives an education at a Northern college and returns home, meaning to improve life in her rural community. Her father is bigoted and violent, even doing time in jail for shooting at government workers for trespassing on his land. Ruth kills her father accidentally while trying to drive him from her home and protect her sister, who is still a child, from an arranged marriage. The townspeople are furious and, after she is sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, decide to lynch her instead. Her lawyer/lover and sister manage to rescue her and they flee their home state. A judge in New York rules that she can live free as long as she does not return to her home state, which she happily agrees to. In a fascinating instance of life imitating art, Maxwell was pardoned by the governor of Virginia in 1941, following a letter written on her behalf by Eleanor Roosevelt (Tabler). Maxwell, like Ruth, fled her home state of Virginia, changed her name, and lived a long life as a free woman. Mountain Justice remains as a testament to her story and the sensationalism that surrounded it.
Rode, Alan K. Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film. U. Press of KY, 2017.
Tabler, Dave. “Was it murder? Or a heart attack?” Appalachian History. https://www.appalachianhistory.net/2017/07/was-it-murder-or-heart-attack.html. Retrieved November 8, 2019.