Category Archive '“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962)'

24 Jul 2013

Progress Means You Mustn’t Stand Your Ground

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Today, in proper and enlightened jurisdictions, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) could be prosecuted and convicted for failing to retreat from gunslinger Liberty Valence.

Stanley Fish, in the New York Times, tells us, once again, that the frontier has closed, and as Hollywood has testified, the old America of Gary Cooper and John Wayne, of rugged individualism and manly courage, is dead.

We are now a country more appropriately represented cinematically by Alan Alda, in which the feminine aversion to violence and dependence on the Leviathan State to handle our problems for us has triumphed. Personal honor, chivalry, and manhood are all obsolete concepts consigned without regret by our elite intelligentsia to the dust heap of History.

As civilization advances, and the law book replaces the gun… rationales for violence sound increasingly hollow, and more and more westerns are self-consciously elegiac — “High Noon,” “The Gunfighter,” “Ride the High Country,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “Lonely Are the Brave,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Monte Walsh,” “The Big Country,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” — caressing the lonely figures at their center even as they say farewell to the values they embody. Outright satirical comedies like “Cat Ballou” (1965) and “Blazing Saddles” (1974) announce loudly and without nuance what the genre as a whole had already implicitly proclaimed: the reign of what Bosley Crowther (in a review of “Shane”) called “legal killers under the frontier code” was over.

Stand Your Ground laws bring it all back. That is what President Obama meant when he said on Friday that such laws seem “designed in such a way that they encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations … that we saw in the Florida case rather than defuse potential altercations.” Do Stand Your Ground laws, he asked, really contribute to “the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?” The answer is that not everyone wants to see them. There are some who imagine themselves as the modern-day Wyatt Earp or Will Kane or Shane — bravely seeking out malefactors, confronting them in the main street, and shooting them down to the applause and gratitude of less heroic citizens. Stand Your Ground laws are for them.

Hat tip to classmate Richard Smith.

Alan Alda

19 Sep 2011

Maureen Dowd Misunderstands “Liberty Valance”

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Maureen Dowd compares the prospective 2012 electoral contest between Rick Perry and normal American Republicans and Barack Obama and the coastal pseudo-intellectual elites to the rivalrous friendship of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) and Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) in John Ford’s 1962 film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”

In the film, rugged rancher and man of violence John Wayne befriends the tenderfoot, man of peace, attorney James Stewart and defends him against the outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). When the code of manhood obliges Stewart to stand up to Marvin in a gunfight. Wayne, well of aware of Stewart’s incompetence, casually plugs Marvin with his rifle from ambush at the crucial moment in the gun duel.

John Wayne chivalrously lets Stewart receive the credit for ending Liberty Valance’s local reign of terror, which carries Stewart onward into a political career ending in the US Senate. He even stands aside and allows the lawyer (who owes him his life) to marry the girl he loves.

John Ford means his film to depict his own vision of tragic Historicism, in which manly bravery and larger-than-life frontier individualism is inevitably swept away by Progress and the advance of Civilization. John Wayne’s character is obviously the better man, but he is not the man of the future. He steps aside for Stewart because he recognizes it himself.

The John Wayne character isn’t only more competent than the Jimmy Stewart character, he is wiser and nobler.

The secondary tragedy of the movie is revealed when the Stewart character who has returned in old age, covered with success and honors and still married to the girl, to the frontier town which was the original scene of events for the Wayne character’s funeral.

Jimmy Stewart tries telling the whole story of the shooting of Liberty Valance to a young reporter, and revealing that his whole career has been built on another man’s deed, and the newspaper’s editor declines to print it. “When the legend becomes fact,” the editor says, “print the legend.”

There is no expiation in confession for Stewart. His life has been built upon a lie, and he supplanted a better man in his wife’s affections, and he knows it.

Dowd simplifies John Ford’s narrative into the conflict between the Eastern egghead and the anti-intellectual.

At the cusp of the 2012 race, we have a classic cultural collision between a skinny Eastern egghead lawyer who’s inept in Washington gunfights and a pistol-totin’, lethal-injectin’, square-shouldered cowboy who has no patience for book learnin’.

Dowd goes on to examine, and find unworthy, Rick Perry’s college grades.

Studying to be a veterinarian, he stumbled on chemistry and made a D one semester and an F in another. “Four semesters of organic chemistry made a pilot out of me,” said Perry, who went on to join the Air Force.

What a pity it is that the Egghead Barack Obama has never seen fit to release any of his college or law school grades for comparison.

The self-flattering interpretation of the political conflict between democrats and Republicans, between Maureen Dowd and the rest of the community of fashion and ordinary Americans, and potentially in 2012 between Barack Obama and Rick Perry as the conflict between the forces of book learning and the uninformed is doubtless gratifying to New York Times’ readers, but personally I think the claim of members in good standing of our establishment culture to represent learning and intellectuality has a lot of problems.

The kind of learning that most of these people boast isn’t book learning at all. It’s merely Cliff Notes summary familiarity with names and what they’re famous for.

Our establishment elite does not draw its understanding and conclusions from a reservoir of learning in the traditional Western canon. Our establishment is commonly hostile to that canon, deprecatory of its value and significance, and characteristically Philistine. Establishment judgments and conclusions come much more commonly from a consensus produced by newspaper editorials and articles in journals of opinion.

Our community of fashion is not intellectually inquisitive or critical. On the contrary, it is herd-like and conformist. And it is profoundly intellectually reactionary, being totally and entirely committed to defending late 19th century ideas revolving around Utopian ameliorism effectuated via the rule of scientific experts operating under a rubric of collectivist statism.

People who are gullible enough to believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming, people who have failed to notice Socialism’s failures, people who still think that Keynesian economics will get you out of a recession are not smart. They are dumb.

The democrat party and the American community of fashion are comprised not of Eggheads, but of pseudo-intellectuals and muttonheads.

11 May 2009

John Ford Westerns, Liberal Lessons?

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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 — from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to Palin — who play up their Western heritage. Republicans like the way Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes — freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity.

But the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order.

For example, in Ford’s 1946 movie, “My Darling Clementine,” Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, the marshal who tamed Tombstone. But the movie isn’t really about the gunfight and the lone bravery of a heroic man. It’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 — the pillars of community. In Ford’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, Ford’s movies dwell affectionately on the social customs that Americans cherish — 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. Ford’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 Wayne’s forgotten hero, Tom Doniphon has far more in common with Lee Marvin’s Liberty (significant name) than he does with Jimmy Stewart’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 Doniphon’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 — that in the end civilization itself depends on the man with the gun — 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 Ford’s movie, that civilization can bring itself to birth and sustain itself without the need for honor and courage.

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