Teasing Threads – Three Classical Westerns: 3. John Ford’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

The third and final of Chris Palazzolo’s little series Three Classical Westerns is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, directed by John Ford, 1962

Image result for the man who shot liberty valance imagesJohn Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance gets a regular outing on Gem, which is interesting in itself because I’m old enough to remember when Australia only had three tv channels, 2, 7 and 9, and while Westerns were often played as weekend matinees, I don’t ever recall this one getting a run. Someone programming for Gem must really like this movie because it seems to get played every six months or so.

The two things I noticed about this movie when I first saw it (only a couple of years ago) were the date of its release, 1962, and its stagey and unrealistic look. 1962 was a time when revisionist westerns began to appear. Movies such as Ford’s The Searchers (1959) and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) made verisimilitude to the gritty realities of 19th century American frontier life, and the expressionistic portrayal of a western ‘psychology’ (racism and misogyny) the benchmarks of value for the genre. The studio bound sets and flat lighting of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance gives it the look of a throwback to an earlier stage of the genre; a time when studios would release a western a week. John Ford’s own career begun in that era, so he knew how to knock ‘em up and churn ‘em out. But this is a late John Ford, so the style is not accidental. Neither the authentic recreation of life conditions of the old west, nor the inner lives of its characters is the purpose of this movie. This is because it is a parable of the beginnings of American democracy in which each of the characters signifies a principle of that democracy.

The obtuse style of the movie is like the smooth opaque surface of a nut. A nut is a protected seed. That seed is the pre-democratic society of a small Texan town which is both tyrannised and protected by the gun; the gun of the bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and the gun of the farmer Tom Donavan (John Wayne). These two gunslingers are the shiny hard shell of the nut – shiny, because everyone can see where the power lies – hard, because there’s no arguing with it; might is right and that’s that. The demos of the town is in proto form, all crammed together unable to move and flourish. There’s a town Marshall, but he’s a coward who won’t dare take on Valance; there’s a drunken newspaper man who doesn’t dare write articles about Valance, and then there’s the townspeople whose only protection from Valance is Donavan. But Donavan will only take on Valance if his own interests are affected. If, as a farmer, his interests usually align with those of the town then that’s lucky for the town, otherwise he won’t stick his neck out for nobody. In other words the protection Donavan offers is as arbitrary as the beatings Valance dishes out. If the whole thing is closed into a nut of lethal might an external force with the hardness of a hammer is needed to split it open and allow the seed of American democracy to germinate.

This hammer, paradoxically, is the newly arrived pacifist lawyer Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) who refuses to be cowed by Valance’s gun or respect Donavan’s gun. Stoddard’s naked willpower is the hammer. His crazy brave principles which includes refusing to defend himself means certain death until Donavan takes a step outside of his self-interest, kills Valance and spirals off into ruinous obscurity. Once the shell is broken all the elements of the demos – the law, the press, the legislature (Stoddard becomes a senator for Texas) – separate and grow. They start to constellate and flower, stabilising in that dynamic relativity we now know as representative democracy. Some of the loveliest scenes in the movie are the town hall rallies as newly emboldened citizens deliver their rambling pitch for the vote amid raucous bunting and vaudeville. The violence that marked the origin of this democracy becomes legend, separated from fact (everyone believes Stoddard shot Valance), while the question as to why Donavan stuck his neck out on that occasion remains the deepest private mystery for Stoddard. Whatever Donavan’s motive was (and to me it is obvious: Stoddard was the bravest man he ever met, he couldn’t bear to see him shot down in cold blood) his action marked the original separation of powers – an armed yeoman ceding to the democrat his place in the sun in order to serve as executioner from the shadows.

    – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

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