Monday, November 9, 2009

1962: Hollywood's Second Greatest Year? Part 3

Fact vs. Legend in the Old West

In my two previous posts on the great American films of the year 1962, I discussed a historical epic, Lawrence of Arabia, and two brilliant adaptations of stage plays, Long Day's Journey into Night and The Miracle Worker. The fourth American masterpiece released in 1962 was a Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Directed by the undisputed master of the genre, John Ford, the movie was at the time dismissed by most critics as a throwback, a relic of an outdated genre. Since then the reevaluation of the films of Ford and his recognition as one of the major American auteurs have led to the reevaluation of this movie. It is now rightly regarded as his last great work, and of the same caliber as his greatest Westerns: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), and The Searchers (1956).

The film begins with the arrival by train in the small Western town of Shinbone of a distinguished U.S. Senator, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), who have returned to Shinbone for the funeral of an old friend—and onetime rival of Stoddard for Hallie—Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Stoddard is known as the man who first gained fame for killing the notorious gunman Liberty Valance in a gunfight in Shinbone, an event that launched his political career. When newspaper reporters pressure Stoddard into giving an interview, he agrees in order to set the record straight about his own history and his friendship with Doniphon. Most of the rest of the movie consists of a flashback that begins with Stoddard's arrival in the town decades earlier as a recent graduate of law school.

It is on the stagecoach ride into Shinbone that Stoddard has his first encounter with Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) when Valance and his cronies rob the stagecoach. Valance, a vicious sadist, not only robs the passengers but also humiliates Stoddard and vandalizes his most prized possession, his set of law books. With this irruption of violence and cruelty into the orderly world of Stoddard, the thematic concern of the movie is immediately established (and will be elaborated on in many variations for the duration of the film): the conflict between might, represented at this point by Valance, and right, represented by Stoddard, the enduring conflict between anarchy and the rule of law.

In the restaurant/saloon in Shinbone, Stoddard first meets his future wife, Hallie, who works in the kitchen, and Tom Doniphon, who comes there to visit her. When he hears of the encounter with Valance, Doniphon offers Stoddard a pistol and tells him, "Out here, a man settles his own problems." Stoddard refuses the gun. Amused by the naiveté of Stoddard and his idealistic belief in the power of the law, Doniphon nicknames him—half-affectionately, half-condescendingly—Pilgrim. Is he alluding to the self-righteous innocence of Christian Pilgrim in The Pilgrim's Progress, or perhaps to the Pilgrims of New England, who came to settle a new continent and encountered more difficulties than they had ever imagined?

Lee Marvin, James Stewart, and John Wayne

Embarking on a campaign to civilize and bring democracy to the Old West, Stoddard quickly gains many followers. He founds a free school in the town to teach literacy to both children and adults. He organizes a town meeting to discuss the territorial convention to petition Congress for statehood. He befriends the local newspaper editor, the alcoholic Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien), and persuades him to write articles and editorials in support of statehood.

But Liberty Valance is hired by the big cattle ranchers, who feel threatened by the regulation that statehood would bring to their industry and by the Constitutional rights that the people of the territory would gain. The school is destroyed, the newspaper editor Peabody savagely beaten after he writes in support of statehood, and the town meeting disrupted. The cattle barons and their hired gun, Liberty Valance, have set themselves in opposition to the most hallowed institutions of democracy: the rights to universal education, free speech, a free press, and free elections.

This is all too much even for a pacifist like Stoddard, who declares, "When force threatens, talk's no good any more," arms himself, and goes looking for Valance. It is this decision that leads to the nighttime showdown between the two men in the streets of Shinbone. It seems certain that Stoddard, no match for a practiced gunman like Valance, will be killed, but he miraculously manages to shoot Valance dead. In the rowdy town meeting that follows, Stoddard, treated like a hero, is elected to be the town's representative at the territorial convention.

At the convention Stoddard, whose reputation as the man who shot Liberty Valance has preceded him, is nominated to present the convention's petition for statehood to Congress. However, appalled at being lionized for committing an act of violence, an act that in retrospect he feels went against his conscience, he declines the nomination and walks out of the convention. Outside, he finds himself face to face with Doniphon, who has followed him, and who drops a bombshell: It was he, hiding in the shadows, who actually shot Liberty Valance, and we are shown the true version of events in flashback from Doniphon's point of view, Rashomon-style. Stoddard is at first stunned and then, relieved at last of the guilt he felt over killing Valance and becoming a celebrity for committing an act that violated his personal ethics, he returns to the convention and accepts the nomination.

As the film returns to the present, Stoddard has finally told the truth to the newspapermen and acknowledged that it was actually Doniphon who was the hero. He is unprepared for their reaction. They refuse to print the story, preferring to preserve the false version of history that has become accepted as the truth. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," they tell Stoddard, a line that itself has become almost legendary.

The truth behind the legend

One of the reasons this movie was dismissed when it was released is that much of the black-and-white picture was shot in the studio and very little on location. Because of this it lacks the pictorial grandeur of Ford's other Westerns shot in the Monument Valley and Moab, Utah, an essential element of those movies and one of the things that give them their distinctive character. But to make up for its lack of spectacular scenery, Liberty Valance has a far greater emphasis on theme than any of Ford's other Westerns. In his last great movie, Ford chose to explore larger issues than the character-centered conflicts of his earlier Westerns, specifically the question of the proper role of force in a democratic society. One critic, Richard Brody, writing about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in a recent issue of the New Yorker (Oct. 26, 2009), went so far as to call it "the greatest American political movie."

Doniphon's revelation at the territorial convention causes Stoddard to modify his position on the use of force. Stoddard learns that where force is concerned, things are not as simple as he thought. He learns that force is in itself neither right nor wrong, but that it is the application to which force is put that makes it right or wrong. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Ford suggests that force is necessary to create and maintain order, that force and the rule of law must work together to defeat anarchy and deflect destructive violence. Without force, the rule of law is powerless, but the controlled use of force and the rule of law working together can create an environment in which democratic institutions are able to flourish and civic stability is assured.

And Ford the storyteller seems to argue that the element of meaning created by mythology is just as important in forging a sense of community and civic identity as the facts of history. No matter how an individual viewer reacts to Ford's views—if indeed this is Ford's view, for equating the ideas of Ford with the ideas expressed by the characters in his movies can be a risky thing for a viewer to do—he makes a reasonable case that at the least must be given serious consideration. And as Peter Bogdanovich, perhaps the greatest Ford scholar and interpreter, points out, in Liberty Valance Ford does expose the facts behind the mythology, and one could argue that the idea that the facts don't always correspond to the myth is actually another important theme of the film.

In casting John Wayne and James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford achieved a real coup. The familiar screen persona of each makes him the ideal embodiment of the attitude his character represents. As the embodiment of force, the ultra-masculine Wayne is the ideal Tom Doniphon, a realist, a stolid loner who lives outside society but uses his strength to protect its most cherished values. As Doniphon's opposite, the embodiment of the rule of law, Stewart (the man who played Destry, the sheriff who refused to carry a gun) is the perfect Ransom Stoddard, an idealist who longs to establish and become part of a community based on order and democratic values.

Each man represents one of the elements essential to the maintenance of a civilized community: the power of reason sustained by the power of physical strength. And perhaps most important, by the end of the movie each man comes to see the philosophy of the other as complementary to his own and to incorporate in his own philosophy elements of the philosophy of his opposite.

In the next installment of this series, I'll be examining the final American masterpiece of 1962.


Rupert said...

Although it's been a long long time since I've seen this film, I agree with you that a cinematic coup was had with the casting of Wayne and Stewart. Both, very fine at what they brought to the screen through the preceding years, seemed to gel with age and really know there stuff.

Doniphon said...

Obviously I am very fond of this film. 1962 also saw the release of Ride The High Country, another of the absolute greatest westerns, in my opinion (of Peckinpah's films, I think only Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia and Cross Of Iron compare). I do disagree a bit with your reading of the film, though. I don't think Ford is arguing that myth is as important as history...I think he's lamenting it. Ford, who spent his life creating myth, is facing the fact that myths have consequences, and I think that's why it's such an incredibly melancholy movie. That's not to say myth does not have its place or that there isn't truth in myth (I love myths), but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance really chronicles the slow death of Tom Doniphon. Doniphon creates Shinbone, he makes it safe for people to live in, yet he can no longer exist there, cause people would rather identify with a prettier and less threatening face. He's similar to Ethan Edwards in that way. The reason, I think, that the final shot in The Searchers is so affecting is because it so perfectly illustrates the fact that Edwards helped create the West, but soon myth will cover up his existence, because what he represents is very unpleasant to some people. Doniphon is less extreme than Edwards, he's no racist or mean, but there would be no "civilizing" without him, and his killing of Valance really forges the way for the community to forget him, and ostracize his way of life.

R. D. Finch said...

Doniphon, thanks for your comments. You make some interesting points, which you articulate nicely. A lot of people (and critics, like David Thomson, who is quite vitriolic about Ford) dislike Ford for his mythologizing of the Old West, which they view as falsifying history. The search for the truth behind the legends is certainly the prevalent ethos of modern revisionist historians (and directors of contemporary Westerns), and Ford often seems to go against this grain. My own view is that in this film Ford asks if meaning--the collective view of a culture about itself--isn't as important as the literal truth, that the transmutation of history into mythology says a lot about how a society creates an identity for itself. The negativists see this process as one of manipulation by those in power to perpetuate falsity. I certainly agree that this is in many ways a melancholy film and that Doniphon finds himself isolated and forgotten at the end, although I think this may be largely his own choice. I would argue, however, that Shinbone is created by the joint efforts of Doniphon and Stoddard. Doniphon seemed content to leave Shinbone the lawless place it was, with individuals taking responsibility for their own safety, whereas Stoddard wanted safety and order for the entire community but couldn't achieve this without Doniphon. The theme of the cowboy left behind by the events in history he helped set in motion also plays a big part in the Peckinpah film you mention. Hint: Stay tuned for the next installment, which will appear in about a month.

Doniphon said...

This is a kind of awkward and precarious position for me to be in because I'm usually defending films from a mythic viewpoint (how else can The New World, one of the best films of the decade, be defended?). I should make it clear that I am a student of history, especially American history, but that I don't feel movies need to be indebted to all. I mean, let's face it, when we talk about history we are talking about a specific interpretation of events, and it will always be filtered through the (often radically politicized) fashions of the day. So yes, I agree with you that myth (as well as folk art and folk music and folk tales) can be just as important as history, and often I think there is actually more truth in those things because they are coming from the people who were there. You mention Thomson, and I hope you don't lump me in with him, because I consider Thomson's oppressively analytical approach to film criticism to be antithetical to what cinema is (but that's another discussion!).

I think we mostly agree. I do kind of take issue with your characterization of Ford though. You say that Ford introduces the idea that maybe a town's mythology is as important as its history. I'm with you there. But I think Ford is REALLY ambivalent about this idea. You don't say it straight-out, but I feel like you're implying that he's okay with this. I don't think he is. I don't think Ford believes that, and I don't think he believes that Shinbone is created by Doniphon's and Stoddard's joint efforts, as you put it. That Doniphon is forgotten is his own choice only in that he is too much of a man to kick up dirt about it (in the same way that Robert E. Lee would only suggest, rather than order, that his officers press forward, which probably cost him Gettysburg). I don't think Ford likes Stoddard. At all. I think he sees him as an outside force who doesn't understand the West, and eventually corrupts it, casting aside the man who helped him build it (and you're right, that's completely Peckinpahesque, but I would argue that Peckinpah was Ford's spiritual heir).

Thanks so much for this discussion. It's one of my favorite movies.

R. D. Finch said...

Doniphon, your speculation about Ford not liking the character of Stoddard (which I don't get from the movie myself) reminded me of the time I saw this on TCM and the host commented that as filming progressed, John Wayne became progressively more disenchanted with John Ford because he felt Ford was favoring the Stoddard character and casting Doniphon in an unfavorable light. (I don't get this from the movie either.) I think we do basically agree on the larger issues. However, my interpretation of the movie is that it is the dialectic between the opposing elements of force and law that establishes order in Shinbone. And I do think that Ford is ambivalent toward the legend or truth issue but in the literal sense of the word, that he sees the value in each. There are so many elements of this complex movie that I could have included in the post, but I wanted to focus on the thematic. Westerns are often very good with characters, setting, and action but can be awfully heavy-handed when they try to deal with theme. This is one of the rare ones in which a strong thematic strain just gives the movie greater gravity. But it also has so much more going for it. The poignancy of that sequence when Hallie and Andy Devine go back to Doniphon's ranch to get the "cactus roses" (which he had originally taken to her as a gift) for his funeral and she sees the house he started building for her and never finished.

As for Thomson, I've just recently started reading him and find I can take him or leave him. I like an analytical approach, but he does often become overly dogmatic and like a lot of professional critics tends consistently to overstate his position. (I haven't seen this in what I've read by you.) With Thomson I find that I totally agree with him about half the time and totally disagree with him the other half of the time. It is exactly the truth or legend issue that makes him so virulently anti-Ford.

I've always been a student of literature and don't know a lot about American history beyond the basics, so I naturally gravitate toward meaning over historical authenticity. But in the post I was dealing more with my interpretation of the movie than with my own views on the subject. By the way, I was knocked over by "The New World" too. And as with "Liberty Valance" I didn't expect to be going in to it.

And thank YOU for the stimulating discussion!

Karla said...

I would like to also submit 1954 as the second greatest year in Hollywood history for consideration. On the Waterfront, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers - the list goes on and on!

Doniphon said...

Just a couple things:

Your thoughts on the western genre are so spot-on. I love westerns, and you're right; when they got thematic and "deep," they got bad. Walter Hill has really famously described the western as a stripped down moral universe outside the parameters of normal social control, and when a filmmaker tries to say something beyond that he almost always trips up (Hawks once told Bogdanovich, "For God's sake, don't make a message movie," and that seems pertinent here). I see you're a big fan of The Naked Spur, and for me Mann really embodies everything that was right about the western (if you haven't seen it yet, check out Man Of The West, his best western). With all that said, you're also right about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It's a wonderful exception to the rule.

I agree, it's an incredibly poignant movie, and in my mind the most moving western ever made. The scene where Doniphon gets drunk, and especially when he burns down his house, is so real for me, which is surprising considering how artificial the film looks (it's almost expressionist in a profoundly accidental way).

My problems with Thomson are different from yours. I think any critic has a personal connection with cinema, and should write about it in a way that expresses how it is a part of them and their life. So I don't really mind if a critic overstates his/her position, as you put it, so long as it's sincere, and reflects how the critic feels rather than how he/she is supposed to think. I believe Thomson is just chasing academic objectivity though (an elusive specter if there ever was one), and that he doesn't connect with the movies he is watching so much as the readership he is pandering to. To be even more blunt, I think he is more concerned with being respectable than being honest, which is a cardinal sin for me.

John said...

Fortunately, the film has gained respect over the years and your magnificent essay reflects the high status it now holds. This was a stretch for Wayne, as I do not believe he has ever done anything close to the drunken scene he does in this film. Thoroughly engaging, as is the discussion with Doniphon. The comparison of Tom Doniphon to Ethan Edwards (by Doniphon) in “The Searchers” is interesting. Both men helped create the west but their time is now past and in the new “civilized” world order there is no room for men like them. Both characters, IMO can be seen as Ford’s lament to a bygone way of life. The future is not friendly to folks who will not or cannot accept change. One of my favorite westerns, which I wrote about myself a while ago.

Sam Juliano said...

Wow. Comment threads at The Movie Projector are always a veritable enrichment, but this one takes teh cake. I am not pwersonally a huge fan of this Ford western. but I still repect it. Our site's official voting tabulator, 58 year-old Angelo A. D'Arminio Jr. always asserts that it's his favorite movie of all-time, and I can't say I haven't been reminded of this hundreds of times through the years. But Doniphon (kudos to all you say here Sir!) and my dear friend John are big fans too. I am not sure where I fall on the "myth" speculation, if indeed there's a single answer, but this is a deliriously entertaining film that revitalized (unbeknowst at the time) the traditional genre elements that brought teh film into pre-eminence in the first place, and kept it there for decades.

R.D.'s great skills as a writer are again proven magnificently, and the final paragraph, considering the superb chemistry between Wayne and Stewart really provides a powerful coda:

"Each man represents one of the elements essential to the maintenance of a civilized community: the power of reason sustained by the power of physical strength. And perhaps most important, by the end of the movie each man comes to see the philosophy of the other as complementary to his own and to incorporate in his own philosophy elements of the philosophy of his opposite."