Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) tells a few hard truths to Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
David Brooks watches John Ford Westerns (apparently only one John Ford Western), and advises us that John Ford movies are all about communitarianism. According to Brooks, John Ford Westerns are paeans to the collectivist statist ideals of Barack Obama and the democrat party.
We Republicans need to register (and then surrender) our sixguns, turn over our poker chips to build a new schoolhouse, hire some government administrators, and then come out to the church social to sing hymns.
Republicans generally like Westerns. They generally admire John Wayne-style heroes who are rugged, individualistic and brave. They like leaders â€” from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to Palin â€” who play up their Western heritage. Republicans like the way Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes â€” freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity.
But the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Fordâ€™s movies didnâ€™t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order.
For example, in Fordâ€™s 1946 movie, â€œMy Darling Clementine,â€ Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, the marshal who tamed Tombstone. But the movie isnâ€™t really about the gunfight and the lone bravery of a heroic man. Itâ€™s about how decent people build a town. Much of the movie is about how the townsfolk put up a church, hire a teacher, enjoy Shakespeare, get a surgeon and work to improve their manners.
The movie, in other words, is really about religion, education, science, culture, etiquette and rule of law â€” the pillars of community. In Fordâ€™s movie, as in real life, the story of Western settlement is the story of community-building. Instead of celebrating untrammeled freedom and the lone pioneer, Fordâ€™s movies dwell affectionately on the social customs that Americans cherish â€” the gatherings at the local barbershop and the church social, the gossip with the cop and the bartender and the hotel clerk.
Today, if Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order.
James Bowman, in a posting titled A Ford Not a Lincoln, rebuts nicely adding another John Ford film to the discussion which illuminates the message Brooks misunderstands much more clearly.
In this movie as in others by Ford, particularly The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), we see both things: both the community and civilization that people, left in peace, will spontaneously create for themselves and the lone man with the gun, free and solitary, whom the community, often without knowing it, depends on to be left in peace. Without the one, there would not be the other. Fordâ€™s point in both movies is that the community will happily discard and exile and finally forget about the hero, once his work is done. Mr Brooks himself unwittingly illustrates it by forgetting about him, or regarding him as incidental material.
In both movies, too, the hero is complict in his own marginalization by the community he saves. He prefers to live apart from it, partly because, in order to do what he does, he belongs more to the savage, honor-bound, heroic world that he helps to supplant. In Liberty Valance, John Wayneâ€™s forgotten hero, Tom Doniphon has far more in common with Lee Marvinâ€™s Liberty (significant name) than he does with Jimmy Stewartâ€™s Ransom Stoddard. Stoddard even marries the woman he, Doniphon, loves, which makes his rescue both of Stoddard and of the world of law and civic order he represents even more of a noble renunciation than it would be in any case. Tellingly, Ford also shows how the town wants to tell itself a false story about Doniphonâ€™s act of murder, in order to bring it under the umbrella of law and civic order which that act has made possible. And those who know the true story â€” that in the end civilization itself depends on the man with the gun â€” allow the false one to stand. Ford must have foreseen even in 1964 the time nearly half a century on when people like David Brooks would have forgotten that primal act of heroism that makes everything else possible and so come to believe, like the townsfolk of Shinbone in Fordâ€™s movie, that civilization can bring itself to birth and sustain itself without the need for honor and courage.