“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962): Western Cinematic Mythology (Review)

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I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here.  Out here, a man settles his own problems.” – Tom Doniphon (John Wayne)

Sixty years ago, perhaps the greatest western of all time released to theaters all over the United States.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance returns to us more needed than perhaps ever before.

A movie about a respected elder statesman who arrives with his wife to a frontier town for the memorial of a rancher no one remembers; Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) recounts a story that began decades earlier with his initial arrival in that town as a young, idealistic lawyer.  In today’s era, where legends are printed without fact, westerns are not viewed as worthy by the intelligentsia unless they express contempt for America.  Predictably, no neo-western matches the depth and maturity that John Ford gave us in this magnificent picture three-score ago.

The archetypal western often involves an adventure through the treacherous frontier (Stagecoach) or a standoff amongst avatars of law and chaos in the center of civilization (High Noon).  Liberty Valance updates both of those storytypes.  The danger of the frontier this time comes not from the weather, terrain, or Indian tribes, but from Liberty Valance – the tyranny of Shinbone.  And the standoff is brought on not because of revenge or a den of riches, but by a campaign for territorial statehood.  Order vs. chaos is given a new meaning – order being represented not by a tough-minded sheriff or marshal (Marshal Appleyard here is a gluttonous coward who always sneaks out the back door), but by a pacifist hauling a bundle of law books.  To make the irony even more direct, as Kyle Smith noted, the pacifist lawyer’s first name is Ransom and the villain’s name is Liberty.

Westerns follow the mythic tradition of the Ancient Greeks.  Their tragedies featured eloquent illustrations of justice, faith, and cycles of violence and tyranny inherent in nature.  They had gods as characters wielding great power yet subject to human flaws and personalities and interacting with ordinary men and women on Earth.  Mount Olympus was the awesome structure they called home.  The Western features no gods, but photographs of magnificent rock formations in Moab and Monument Valley, along with rivers and bends that carved barren land into canyons and cliffs.  These landscapes are unique to our country, easily recognized throughout the world.  They evoke the belief in a greater hand that shaped them eons ago as, among other things, a future test for any man brave enough to settle them.  And even those of us who live in the densest cities consider them home.

But since the western genre fell out of fashion, we have lived in an artistically confusing era of nostalgia and deconstruction.  The classic western is one of the casualties.  The Power of the Dog is the latest grotesque Oscar-awarded vessel using the western setting to demean America.  But it’s not good enough to simply answer it with the brave words of Sam Elliott.  The best rebuke of a bad film is a good one.

As the Greeks understood, consensual societies are fostered by people who come together with a shared understanding of their values and common destiny, not mere proximity.  To understand your values means, among other things, that you share a basic interpretation of history.  Liberty Valance is a myth for such a purpose.  It is also a testament to the very power of mythology.  Released at the threshold where an innocent era ended and a tumultuous one began, it returns to us in an unenlightened era where mediate elites seek to revert our founding date from 1776 to 1619, and where “statehood” has become a suspicious tool by partisans seeking to increase their bare political majorities.

The mythology at the heart of this film lies in the relationships between Ransom Stoddard, Liberty Valance, Tom Doniphon, and Hallie.  Valance is an archetype of the thug who has no laws to stop him.  The only man he respects and fears is Doniphon.  Doniphon is not a friend to Valance, but they share the same attitude towards Stoddard’s idealism.  Valance calls Stoddard “dude” and Doniphon calls him “pilgrim” – nicknames that dismiss his belief that the wilderness of the west can become a place of law and civilization.

But Stoddard reaches people – first by being useful even in ways the Marshal isn’t, and then by being an educator.  In the classroom scene, the film makes a direct and eloquent connection between teaching small children the alphabet and teaching adults about civics and government.  To do either is to civilize people and to imbue them with a political identity that binds them, eventually, into a coalition that can stand up to people like Liberty Valance and his benefactors.

As a result of this, and keeping true with the mythological meaning, the romance that develops between Hallie and Stoddard comes to represent the growth of Shinbone’s citizenry.  Though introduced as “Tom Doniphon’s girl,” and initially reluctant to believe that Stoddard earnestly wants to teach her how to read and write (or that she is capable of learning), she grows fond of Stoddard in part because he is everything Doniphon is not, even as she knows that Doniphon is the only one who is truly devoted to her.  She even gets angry when Stoddard begins to practice with a gun.  Hallie understands, just as the town of Shinbone does, that Stoddard is a good influence, and that he represents the social progress that will uplift their lives and empower them against what Dutton Peabody calls “the law of the hired gun.”

The romantic parallel is further illustrated by the rehashed music from Young Mr. Lincoln.  The theme song of Ann Rutledge, Lincoln’s long lost love, is used here three separate times to represent how Hallie felt about Doniphon, even as she chooses Stoddard.  By choosing him, which she knows will likely result in leaving Shinbone, she is sacrificing a life spent with the man who has dedicated his own to her happiness.  The people of Shinbone, by learning from Stoddard, reading the paper, assembling for the convention, and then refusing to back down when threatened by Valance, do the same thing.  They become invested in the idea that they have a common destiny not just as people who live in a town, but as American citizens.  Doniphon’s philosophy articulated in the quote at the top of this column is, by the end, rebuked in both a personal and political fashion.

Not, however, without a little help.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance unfortunately has a more optimistic idea of the press (and of journalists) than reality would later prove.  But such institutions will always be part of creating, shaping, printing, and preserving the mythology (or “legends” as the Star editor suggests) that define us and remind us of our common values.  The climax of the film is not the death of Liberty Valance, but the territorial convention scene where a fight nearly breaks out among people who are fighting in part over the story of how he died. The “legend” that wins in that moment is the one that will later be printed at the end of the film.

Watching Liberty Valance today evokes the uncomfortable thought that the media and Hollywood are bent on “printing” a different type of legend.  They adopt an interpretation of our country’s founding and expansion that 160 years ago made up the talking points of the Confederacy, and is similar to the rhetoric of the cattle barons at the convention.  The film stands in direct contrast to them.  It is a fitting and timely reminder about the greater purpose of the stories we tell ourselves and of the values we pledge to uphold as citizens of one great nation.

And as a Western, it is a work of divine mythology the Ancient Greeks would have surely recognized.

– Vivek

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