Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Read this recycled essay via the Beaufort Observer.

There are segments of the population who always think that they have a militia or an army or a police force to protect them.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about the clash of civilization with chaos and lawlessness.  Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, and, one of my childhood crushes, Vera Miles animate John Ford's characters perfectly.  Because of the actors involved, it likely would have been impossible to successfully cast TMWSLV at any other moment in the history of cinema.  This is a pinnacle of Ford's myth-making power.

To view the film as simply a somewhat strangely shot western about who gets the girl is really to miss much of its significance.  I'm not interested in doing a full-on, scene-by-scene review at the moment -- even if I had the time -- which I don't.  The point is that Liberty Valance represents the wild, chaotic and uncivilized nature of man.  Far from the "noble savage", without the boundaries of an accepted social contract, life has a tendency to be a tyranny of the strong over the weak.

Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) is a lawyer on his way to the town of Shinbone.  His stagecoach is stopped and held up by Liberty (Marvin) and his gang.  Stoddard is beaten badly, but he is undeterred in his attempt to bring law and order to Shinbone and the territory "south of the Picketwire" (Purgatoire).

Liberty continues to harass, threaten, intimidate and terrorize both Stoddard and all the law-abiding citizens of Shinbone, all but one -- Tom Doniphon (Wayne).  As Doniphon says, Liberty Valance is the toughest man south of the Picketwire, except for him.  Stoddard's words and rhetoric have no effect on Valance.  The executive power of the law as represented by the inept, whining, cowardly Marshal Appleyard (Andy Devine) is unable to enforce any restraint on Liberty's actions.

It is clear in a confrontation in the Ericson's restaurant that Valance fears nothing except Doniphon -- a man very much like himself, a man who understands the necessity of violence and action and the power of a weapon as an "equalizer".

In the end, Stoddard goes to confront Valance in a gunfight.  As Liberty is about to kill Stoddard, Tom Doniphon guns him down from an alley behind Stoddard.  Stoddard believes, for a time, that it is his wildly fired bullet that killed Liberty Valance.  Only later does Doniphon tell him the truth of the events of that night.

Although Hallie Ericson (Miles) marries Stoddard who goes on to become a Senator and statesman, she never stops loving Doniphon, who fades into the past with the passing of the frontier.  Hallie understood better than Stoddard, at least in the beginning, that men like Tom who were willing to look evil in the eye and make it back down are the ones that make civilization possible.  We may have our laws, our statutes, and our Constitutions.  We may have our many truthful, righteous, and beautiful words.  Without the power and the willingness to draw the line, the words will never be of any effect.

The link at the top talks about guns and civilization, but a weapon of any kind is only a tool.  They are necessary, and we appreciate them.  Firearms and, to a lesser extent, edged weapons, enable us to stand our ground.  Do not allow the left and the tyrants to rob us of the righteousness of that phrase.  Standing our ground is a natural, human right.  The ground we must hold is that of western civilization, of the Judeo-Christian tradition, of an exalted view of the rights and responsibilities of the individual.

Tom did not need the law.  He did not need Stoddard.  The righteous and the powerful man never does.  We will do what is right because it is right.  If Tom did nothing as he stood in the alley, Stoddard would die; Hallie would have been his.  He could have waited.  That is the action of the anarchist, the extreme libertarian who values liberty above all.  Liberty Valance is the chaotic savage.  But there is another liberty -- Hallie represents the freedom we have under the law, the freedom that must be "married" to the law in order for a civilized society to exist and continue.

Tom stands between chaos and civilization.  He is strong enough to walk that line, and he embraces it.  But he can see that most people are not that strong.  Though dismissive of Stoddard and his law, Doniphon knows that the world must follow that path upward for the good of the weak and the innocent.  He crushes the chaos then steps aside that law and freedom might be united.

I get frustrated with the system.  I do not like rules and regulations.  I live by the Bible.  I need no greater restraint.  I can fend for myself, for a while yet, and when I can't, well, nobody gets out of this world alive anyway.  But for America to function properly, to return to and fulfill its promise, we need the restoration of a Constitutional Republic where the laws are limited and reasonable and apply equally to everyone. 

That's what we are fighting for.  It will not happen overnight or in one election, but it is far better to -- at the very least -- slow down when we are clearly going the wrong direction.  I hope it can be done at the ballot box.  If it cannot, remember Tom Doniphon.


  1. That was a good essay. We watched it for the first time about two years ago. It was hard to get over the dated-ness of the production and the oversized characters since we normally don't watch old westerns. But, seen as an allegory or a myth it does a good job presenting those important ideas you mentioned. So, I liked the messages but not the movie.

  2. That's a reasonable view.

    Ford was really more interested in the mythology of the western and presenting these god-like creatures within vast panoramas. The Anthony Mann westerns with Jimmy Stewart are "better" in terms of films. Howard Hawks was better with movies like Red River. Ford, though, created Mt. Olympus -- the West where everybody else worked. And Stagecoach is good -- not just a good western, but, for my taste, one of the best films ever made.