February 20, 2008

The Man who shot Liberty Valance and the Story of America: Republican Solitude to Democratic sociability

John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart came together in 1962 to make with John Ford, the Man who shot Liberty Valance. The posters advertised the fact that the two great actors of the Western had been united together in one film- what they didn't say was that here we see the two actors as opposites, opposites that reflect the earlier histories of their careers and the history of the United States. Ford showed in the film how America had in the course of the early twentieth century chosen a future and a way forwards and had neglected and destroyed its past. In that sense the Man who shot Liberty Valance, a flawed film because in part it is too didactic (and in part because of the age of its stars- both Stewart and Wayne were in their late fifties when the film was made and don't quite come off as fresh faced heroes) is an extended meditation on the American frontier and its place within America. Far from being the society of the frontier, America, Ford implied, was the society that had turned its back on the frontier and the West and its future was the East coast.

The situation in Ford's film is not difficult to understand. On a windswept night, before the coming of the railway, a young lawyer, played by Stewart, called Ransom Stoddard comes into down on a stagecoach. The coach is held up by a gang of desperadoes, led by Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin) and Stewart's naive insistance that Valance live by his coscience ends with him getting beaten up. He arrives at town a couple of days later and settles down in the town cafe. The family there care for him. In town he meets a couple of key characters- a cowardly marshall (Andy Devine doing what Andy Devine was great at doing), a drunken, unstable and yet brilliant journalist, a girl called Hallie and her lover Tom Doniphon. Doniphon is the only one who can physically stand up to Liberty Valance, the outlaw, and protects Stoddard on various occasions. Stoddard arrives at the very moment that Valance is being used by the neighbouring big farmers to stop the territory applying to join the United States (which would dilute their powers). By educating the people of the town, Stoddard persuades them to vote for statehood against the farmers and eventually that leads directly to a confrontation between Stoddard and Valance and the revelation of the man who really did shoot Liberty Valance. Stoddard gets the girl (Hallie) and ends up a senator. Doniphon tries to kill himself and almost succeeds and his life after that moment is wasted and consumed in dissapation.

Stewart and Wayne are here playing roles that they had constructed over the previous thirty years of their careers. Stewart had been playing naive democrats who triumphed over circumstances since the 1930s- he had diversified in the late 40s and 50s working for Alfred Hitchcock and making Westerns- but those earlier parts in films such as Mr Smith goes to Washington still resonated. Wayne too had monopolised the tough westerner, grim and complicated. His earlier work in the Searchers is a great example of this aspect of Wayne. For Ford, placing them together, enabled him to balance two perceptions of America's past: the democratic and civic and the wild frontiersman. But the film represents less an examination of those two ideas than the examination of the decline of the second and the rise of the first. There is no sense that Doniphon would ever move East, but its significant that Stewart's character follows the advice of Horace Greeley to 'go west, young man' and conquers the minds of the people of the town.

Conquest and violence are motifs running through the film. When Stoddard arrives in town, Doniphon tells him he has to get a gun to resist Liberty Valance. That advice is repeated again and again. But the real conquest here is the conquest of Doniphon's territory by Stoddard. Through education, the townsmen seek to exclude Valance by election and law, not self defence. Stoddard offers Hallie the gift of reading, Doniphon offers her a house that he built himself, and Hallie chooses the teacher over the practical man. Through publicity, Stoddard's reputation conquers and effaces Doniphon's. After the progress of several years, noone can remember the great Doniphon, whereas everyone from the moment he arrives recognises and remembers Stoddard. The pen triumphs in this film over the sword (despite the fact that the only resolution that can work with Valance relies on a quick and calm hand on a gun). The pen though obliterates those that use the sword: Doniphon's virtue is forgotten and Stoddard's is remembered.

America has changed. Doniphon of course is independent of anyone else. He constructs and destroys himself. Stoddard is dependent on others for his own safety and his own approval. The one is a product of lonely virtuous pride- a Cincinnatus who denies any civic office. The second though is a product of the modern age- social and sociable. By the time Stoddard returns the town has become his and Doniphon's funeral is a lonely one. But Stoddard feels a regret of sorts. He feels a regret that the memory of Doniphon has faded. A regret that the honourable man he knew has lost his reputation in the wastes of time and a regret as well that he has migrated from a town that loves him, to the cities which don't. There is a strong sense in the film of community: community that may be under threat in the early days but that is looked back at with nostalgia by those that have left it. One wonders if Stoddard when he moves back to Shinbone feels that loss of community and regrets the way it has departed. He seems to want to have that lifestyle again: setting up his own law practise in a small town but he can never reach the self sufficiency of Doniphon.

The world was changing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the frontier. The change was inevitable: this film reinforces that, without Stoddard's educational work the town wouldn't have known about the plots to subvert its rights. But equally something is lost: what is lost is the magnificent personality of Doniphon. Wayne's performance is the most charismatic in the film, Ford allows it, and he allows it in order to demonstrate how the independence of the hero is lost in the rush to modernity. Stewart's character is the future for America, but its a future that leaves behind the pioneers that made America. A future for democracy and liberalism but not for classical republicanism: no matter whether you think the world America lost (of independent farmers) was worth retreiving, it is undeniable that Ford's historical analysis was right. And there is something in the emotional appeal that Doniphon has over the modern citizen Stoddard.

But in a tough minded film, its demonstrated that the emotional appeal isn't enough: with modernity comes inevitable loss and rightly the democratic character triumphs.