Near Myth
Michael Koresky on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

In American movies, there’s such a fine line between depicting violence and “examining” violence, that often the only true marker is the age of the auteur. With age comes wisdom, they say; for filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, it seems to have gradually surfaced as a rebuke to what they view as past transgressions, unforgivably light, dare it be said, entertaining depictions of murder, death, and destruction. American film is a blood-strewn canvas, and the chickens-come-home-to-roost feeling pops up time and again in these auteur’s autumnal years. It’s been a while since a film of either director’s oeuvre presented a scene of blood-soaked mayhem that wasn’t pregnant with meaning, underlying melancholy, or even self-criticism, distanced with some latent distrust of its own representation. After they’ve gone gray around the temples, these filmmakers become repentant, their work a means of flushing out the soul by keeping true catharsis at arm’s length. The natural audience inclination for bloodlust is engaged and then allegedly refused, transmogrified from earlier works—Sudden Impact and The Rookie become Unforgiven and Mystic River, 1941 and Jaws become Saving Private Ryan and War of the Worlds. The evolution can move either from having politely sidestepped graphic atrocity and later depicting it with eye-shielding subjective horror or vice versa, declining from spectacle and abstracting violence into distanced “sophistication.” (With David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, we have a director who has been so adept at presenting graphic gore in diffident, oblique contexts that he had to retreat into movie convention to truly blow the whole thing wide open.) It’s the added thematic gravitas that is supposed to separate high and low culture, and thus further brighten the shaded boundaries between depiction and revision, or as some would venture, exploitation and examination, and more often than not, it’s ultimately all in the eye of the beholder.

What’s fascinating and simultaneously so limiting about these American films that question the “nature” of violent action is what is so inextricable about the realities of a hopelessly male-centric sociopolitical world: questions of violence become inseparable from those regarding masculinity. And just as in the highest governmental echelons, Mystic River, Unforgiven, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, and A History of Violence are by design forced to examine social expectations of male-coded behavior concurrently with violence and domination. (Truthful limitations or limited truth?) Even something as politically (self) righteous as George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck imagines a glistening, halcyon past in which gaggles of virtuous white men change the political landscape for the better and point toward a hopeful future. The restoration of decency, upheld by the upstanding few, remains the American tale, even within such seemingly cynical works of retribution. The examination of masculine roles has itself become such a cliché in our national cinema (individual culpability can get swallowed up by broadsided social critique) that oftentimes we get works such as the politically muddled Fight Club or the ideologically retarded American Beauty, which purport to be tearing apart the very same values they are finally, dully re-enobling: both are so explicit in their evaluations of upwardly mobile white male angst that everyone else is pushed to the sidelines with a woeful disregard that reaffirms the status quo. Perhaps weariness with the consideration of such heavily trodden themes in American film, in which “To be or not to be” angst is conflated with white bourgeois indecision and self-aggrandizement, kept me at a distance from certain quintessential bits of movie history; yet it’s always important to consider the source.

Watching John Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for the first time in my life in 2005, so soon after bearing witness to History of Violence and War of the Worlds and so long after absorbing the other works by the filmmakers listed above, was crystallizing, both in terms of Ford’s placement in my own cinematic cosmos and in affirming and reconsidering the endeavor of this strain of the American drama itself. The influence of Ford over Eastwood and Spielberg is undeniable, the latter especially has repeatedly invoked the beloved and feared American master’s name throughout his career as a major inspiration, mostly in terms of composition and style if not so much thematic content. Yet generations of critics have favored the master over the acolyte for his hushed removal, the manner in which he taps into isolation as the American male’s defining historical trait—The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, The Quiet Man, and of course The Searchers, American film’s most alarming primrose path, all use cinema’s borders to contain the male individual, and certainly there are few filmmakers who were better at creating and withholding space within which their characters could move. Yet it’s those opening and closing doorway shots which define and betray Ford: John Wayne’s mythical figure both left out in the cold and put on a pedestal, our indelible image of the cowboy, and his way of life, receding into historical inconsequence yet also framed as an icon. Years of cinema studies analysis have dredged up far more penetrating analysis of The Searchers than I can put forth here. Regardless of how you read Ethan Edwards’s final “change of heart,” there’s no denying that the film’s veneration of American legend—typified by those famous door shots, as hollow, pristine, and confused as anything in cinema history—far outweighs its regard towards the truth of Native American genocide; therefore, for fifties Hollywood moviemaking, where’s the subversion? American violence should begin and end here, within The Searchers’ ostensible battle between the mythic and the historical; yet Ford ends up bronzing the same old decaying monument.

My fear of the ultimate failure of 1956’s The Searchers is part of what kept me away from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for so long. My own difficulty in grappling with The Searchers’ gulf between what is evoked (shifting views on western stereotyping) and what is actually represented, and whether Ford’s affinities lie in myth or history, left me somewhat deadened to this particular form of supposed American hero revisionism—in other words, why should I care about the fate of the mythic American male when what lies in his wake is acres of slaughtered Comanches? And now The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the granddaddy of them all, the film featuring not just John Wayne to represent codes of brute force but also righteous James Stewart and grizzled Lee Marvin, the film that contains the quotable exclamation “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Yet where The Searchers seems so dramatically and politically inert Liberty Valance is marvelously alive, bristling with all the tension that its genre needs to function on its own mythic terms and the graying gravity it requires to become a true autumnal auteurist statement. Here, the mythic feels organic, the flat black-and-white compositions imbue every moment with a drab, worn-out clarity, the use of mostly interiors keeps all generic discourse smartly confined and the narrative claustrophobic. The view of brutality, and how it relates to codes of male behavior, is much more delicately laid out here, complex in its refusal to provide any sort of swift catharsis or palpable retribution, even within an ostensible vengeance narrative. Though The Searchers attempted to reach similar ends, its historical blind spots, for me, steal it away from its punch. There’s even more unquenchable melancholy in Liberty Valance, from its hushed opening, in which a weathered and dignified James Stewart and a nearly petrified Vera Miles return to the dusty town of Shinbone to bury the body of a longtime friend, straight through its very explicit examination of dubious law and order institutions, and to its expansive, ambiguous final moments. In flashback, we learn that, fresh out of law school with $14.80 in his pocket, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) had followed Horace Greeley’s advice to “Go west, young man.” Yet after being ransacked by outlaw Liberty Valance he was waylaid in Shinbone, had begun to establish not only a vague set of local laws and guidelines but also an all-inclusive education system, becoming the town’s de facto teacher, all the while trying to figure out how to rid Shinbone of its tireless nemesis, Valance, with the least possible amount of bloodshed. “I don’t want a gun. I want to put him in jail,” Stewart initially insists.

Does The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance come out on the side of vigilantism or against it? Or is it so easy to separate the two? What’s fascinating about watching Ford’s film today is to have seen so many films since its release wrestle with the same concepts—and often still create a galvanic effect in their audiences. Does Eastwood truly de-romanticize the cowboy figure in Unforgiven by adding layers of palpable grit and gore, or does the film’s fairly forthright depiction between hero and villain eradicate any discursive challenge? Does War of the Worlds’ devastating sci-fi spectacle transcend its fantastical foundations and truly engage with the implications of its genocidal imagery or does its shying away from depicting Tim Robbins’ murder at the hands of lapsed-dad Tom Cruise onscreen reveal its refusal to deal with the individual capability for violence in the face of large-scale existential horror? While genre revisionism remains art’s eternal knot The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a Western made when the Western was considered commercially unviable, still stuns to this day—it refuses to deny that the concept of America has become inseparable from its pervading myths, that legend is fact and back again.

There’s a quiet desperation in Ford’s insidious vision that literally peeks around the corners of nearly every shot. The defining moment of my first viewing occurred near the film’s climax, immediately after taciturn, swaggering John Wayne-esque Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), hears that Ransom has apparently shot and killed that lingering shit-stain on humanity, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Far from elated at the news that this wild mongrel has finally been put down, Tom angrily storms out of the kitchen’s back door without explanation. The camera rests on him as he strikes a match against the side of the house in the desolate back alley and lights a cigarette, then continues to follow him as he rounds a corner onto the main muddied street, deserted but for a rowdy Mexican band strumming and frolicking outside of a cantina in the background of the composition. Tom simply moseys to the right and walks off into the night toward a saloon. At this point in the film, we have just seen Stewart’s reticent yet charming protagonist Ransom complete his seeming mission and bring about the resolution of a supremely engaging justice narrative—the villain and thorn in everyone’s side has been summarily dispatched, and perhaps the long crawl towards the establishing of law and order can come to an end. When the climactic choice is made, by Ransom and the film itself, to do away with Liberty Valance, Ford’s capitulates but eschews spectacle. The massacre-like trashing of the office of newspaper man Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’ Brien) and his subsequent near-death beating by Valance and his goons remains the most graphic moment in Liberty Valance, the sheer anger and irrationality of the act resonates as though a rape. Yet the oddly unsatisfying presentation of Liberty Valance’s death, shot by Ford from a great distance, robbed of detail and swathed in obscuring shadow, is compounded by this with John Wayne’s eerie moment of quietude. There is no swelling triumphant score to buoy this moment of supposed resolve, just the wind whistling through the barren streets and that far-off Mexican revelry accompanying Tom as he tiredly walks out of frame and hence denies the pleasure of the wrap-up itself.

Of course, as anyone who has seen Liberty Valance knows, this is far from the end of the film itself, as the remaining half an hour ambitiously continue to follow Ransom’s ascension into politics, and then finally the U.S. Senate, which brings us back to the present-day wraparound and the discovery that Tom Doniphon and not Ransom Stoddard, whose legendary reputation for killing Liberty Valance has implicitly aided him in his way up the ladder of American politics, actually shot the villain. The disparity between what took place, shown to us again in a supposedly more definitive visual approximation, and what is only legendarily true calls into question not only the figure of the mythic hero in American cinema but also the trap-door foundation of American politics. As Shinbone’s primary educator, he had taught English to a largely illiterate town, yet also he had taught concepts of American history and legality; the revelation of the false past of this towering historical figure establishes his involvement in the ongoing manipulation of history, and the newspaper man’s refusal to print the supposed truth of his story at the film’s conclusion presages the media’s complicity. In Ford’s version of the old west, government, media, and myth are ultimately all variations on the same perpetuated idea: that masculine pride is inseparable from violent action. Ford most memorably exposes the circus-like artificiality of the political machine in the sequence in which Stoddard is lassoed into taking his “rightful” place on the delegate throne of the congress of the U.S. Stoddard’s competition, the preening, mustachioed Buck Langhorne, is introduced onstage with much fanfare: trumpets and a player cowboy’s flimsy rope tricks. It’s an embarrassment if only because the hoopla is simply a different manifestation of what the film acknowledges as intrinsically American ideals, confetti and magic tricks covering up the bedrock of bloodshed on which the country is founded and maintained.

If Ford is examining this correlation in full, he still can’t help but fall into the same traps here and there. In the inescapably dynamic dichotomy between James Stewart and John Wayne, Ford dredges up and pits against each other a twinned history of Hollywood representation of male behavior—the self-doubting, neurotic, string-bean­limbed aging intellectual visually sparring with the no-nonsense, gruff, square-jawed aging cowboy. In the context of the western, Ford can’t help but make Wayne the more appealing figure: nattering and loud, Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard often comes across as a bit of an annoyance in comparison to the appealingly stoic Tom Doniphon. And there’s no doubt that when initially spouting jurisdiction laws while scrubbing dishes to help future wife Hallie (Vera Miles) in her kitchen and dressed in particularly floral apron, Stewart’s emasculation is total—he is simply in the wrong place. Ford’s reassertion of Stewart’s masculinity, the shucking of that apron for a rifle, however imaginary, in a sense becomes the film’s trajectory. And then begs the question of what James Stewart’s final, ravaged expression truly means. On a train out of Shinbone, after burying Doniphon so many years after he had saved his life and inadvertently given him his political manhood, a car waiter announces that the conductor will be speeding up the train to get Stoddard in Washington quicker than planned, saying, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!” Stewart’s pain is palpable, the weight of so many years of living a lie is written on his face; yet is he overwhelmed by the idea of having or not having partaken in the violent act which set the stage not only for his career but the establishment of a more peaceful west? Or is it his complicity in a national mythmaking he knows to be false?

“Is everybody in this country kill-crazy?” maniacally shouts Stoddard early on, soon after being deposited in Shinbone. It’s a question Ford always seemed ready to propose but here was able to make most persuasively, after a career of expressing himself through such generic parameters. To act or not to act, to kill or not to kill—The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance could be American cinema’s Hamlet, in which dramatic resolution is belabored in favor of ethical quandary. Like the train that pulls off in the last shot back east, Ford’s questions about the place of violent action in American belief and self-definition stretch off into the distance—for miles, years, decades, traversing both cinematic and historical address.