Westerns are origin stories. Myths about taming the frontier, they narrate the first encounters between colonists and indigenous peoples, the lawless feudal era of the cowboy and the cattle baron, and the arrival of law, order, and the state. A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that Shane shows how order is built on a mythic violence which sits uncomfortably between the feudal age and the age of the nation; it uses feudal means to undo the feudal order. This violence, however, is kept at arm’s length from the peaceful community that benefits from it. John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance takes up a lot of the same questions but ends on a significantly more cynical note.
Even the first frames of the film establish a different atmosphere: a train steams across the plains and pulls into the platform at Shinbone. A well dressed gentleman and his wife disembark, and we find out that the man, Ransom “Rance” Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), is a senator just come in from the east. We learn in the first couple of scenes that Rance and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) are returning home for the funeral of a friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Most of the film is a long exposition that takes the viewer back to Rance’s first arrival in Shinbone many years previous. A young, idealistic lawyer moving west, he is waylaid outside of town by the unpricipled gunslinger and general bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who tears up one of Rance’s lawbooks and then horsewhips him after pronouncing with relish “I’ll teach you law…western law.”
Rance is found and brought to Paul’s Place, a steakhouse in Shinbone operated by Peter, Nora and their daughter Hallie, by Tom Doniphon. A cynical but noble horse rancher, Tom instructs Rance to “start packin’ a handgun” if he wants justice from Liberty. “I don’t want to kill him. I want to put him in jail.” is Rance’s only response. At this, Tom warns him that “out here a man settles his own problems” and slaps his holstered gun emphatically. Tom is apparently the only man Liberty is afraid of, but Tom operates almost purely as a feudal character – if Liberty gets in his way he roughs Liberty up, but feels no compulsion to bring Liberty to justice. Nor does the comical, weak, ineffectual Sherrif Link Appleyard (Andy Devine). The townspeople are afraid of Liberty, but have no real recourse for defending themselves against his violence.
The fundamental tension at the heart of the film is similar to that in Shane: how can you establish law and order in a world where only violence is respected? Rance, the perfect liberal, attempts to do so using education, egalitarian principles, non-violent social action, reason, and personal example; Tom, the feudal knight errant, through personal loyalty, social magnetism and martial ability. The order in Tom’s world is based on the force of Tom’s personality (and his abilities with a gun) – Rance’s world is based on personal weakness that manipulates rhetoric to inspire collective strength.
The key to this is Rance’s femininity. A casual viewer in the 21st century might disregard the fact that Rance spends a good deal of the film in an apron, but in a lot of ways it is the key to his character. Rance comes from a civilization in which dish-washing and pacifism are not understood to be gendered; when he comes west he is first criticized for these things because they are understood to be “weak.” However, as the townspeople see his reckless courage and noble idealism this femininity is recast as a bizarre kind of strength: he is powerful in a completely different way from Valance or Tom, a way that destabilizes the social order of Shinbone.
But though he destabilizes the social order, he cannot overturn it; a fact which is driven home when Dutton Peabody, newspaperman, local drunk, burgeoning politician and one of Rance’s best friends is brutally beaten by Liberty Valance. Rance and Peabody successfully ran to represent Shinbone in an election at the territorial capital; this election will decide whether the territory becomes a state or not. Valance, supported by the cattle barons, ran against them. It is at this decisive moment, with his friend lying almost dead, that Rance fully realizes how things stand: in the end, Valance cannot be converted, only destroyed.
The final shootout is a stark emasculation of the standard Western trope. Rance, wearing an apron, can barely hold his pistol properly while Valance plays with him slowly before deciding to finish the job. It seems almost miraculous when Rance takes a quick shot and Valance falls to the ground. It isn’t until later, in one of the film’s most iconoclastic scenes, that Tom Doniphon privately reveals that it was he who shot Valance from the shadows to save Rance’s life. He did not save Rance because he believed in Rance’s mission, nor did he shoot Valance because he thought Valance needed to die. Like a true knight errant, he saved Rance because Hallie (who he is in love with) loves Rance, and he wants Hallie to be happy. Curiously enough, it is only after Rance realizes that he is not the man who shot Liberty Valance but is only the man who appears to have shot Liberty Valance that he can go on to build a political career.
The last scene in the movie shows the older Rance and Hallie returning from Tom’s funeral on the train. Rance thanks the porter for the service, and the porter responds by saying “you think nothing of it. Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!” The shot lingers on Rance as he pensively blows out the match he was going to light his pipe with while Hallie looks melancholically off into the distance.
The film meticulously presents the basic complications in the origin story of the American state; Rance explicitly embodies the ideals of law and order. He doesn’t want personal revenge on Valance, he wants institutionalized justice – he wants to see Valance in jail. He wants things done fairly, he wants people to know their rights. But he cannot shake the ghosts of feudalism. He does not have the Sherrif deputize him so he can raise a posse to go after Valance when Valance attacks his friend, as a good statist like himself should have; he goes after Valance himself. While there is an element of justice to what he is doing, because his ineptitude as a gunfighter has already been brutally established it is impossible to read the shootout as the efficient, teleological institutional justice that Rance has been preaching since he arrived in Shinbone; this is personal justice, which is why Rance must put his own body at risk to claim it despite the fact that failure is almost inevitable.
Rance, though he survives, is haunted by the fact that his victory came because he put aside his principles. In what surely must be one of the most bitterly ironic scenes in American cinema, we watch Peabody speak on behalf of Rance at the convention of delegates at the territorial capital. Rance, who is running against the established candidate and cattle baron Buck Langhorne, is visibly uncomfortable with Peabody’s passionately eloquent characterization of him as a man “who came to us not packing a gun but carrying instead a bag of lawbooks.” When Major Cassius Starbuckle (John Carradine, in a scene-stealing performance), Langhorne’s mouthpiece, calls Rance out as a hypocrite for running on a platform of law and order after killing Valance, Rance flees the room. It is only when Tom tells him that he is not guilty of killing Valance that he feels able to return and become the territorial delegate.
The whole scene is a carnival of overblown rhetoric and deep-biting cynicism. Government is shown to be nothing less than a soft glove which masks the iron-fisted realities of the frontier; the cattle barons who hired Liberty Valance as an assassin are recast as upright citizens, the drunken Peabody as a noble statesman. At one point Starbuckle paints Valance as an “honest citizen” cut down by a bloodthirsty Rance. However, the reality is that Rance’s killing of Valance has actually added to his image – the people want a man who stands for law and order, but they also want a hero, a man who can transcend law and order. They want the illusion of democracy and law but venerate the reality of founding violence. Everything is appearance, and victory goes to the one who can sell appearance most successfully.
The only character who remains uncompromised is Tom Doniphon, and the film is really about him. Everything he does he does for the people in his life – for him there are no abstractions, no principles that could be seen as universal or existing outside of context. He does not even claim that Rance is wrong in general, just that Rance is wrong when it comes to the west (“out here a man settles his own problems”). But Tom’s moral code leads to the destruction of his own world – because of his loyalty to Hallie, he saves Rance’s life and by doing so accepts that he will lose both Hallie and his place in the world. As he bitterly says to Rance, “Hallie’s your girl now; you taught her to read and write, now give her something to read and write about.” There is no place for Tom outside of the feudal order. Link Appleyard mentions at the beginning of the film, at Tom’s funeral, that “he didn’t carry no handgun, he didn’t for years.” By shooting Liberty Valance, he doomed himself to a life in which he would slowly become nothing.
Herein lies the key difference between Shane and Liberty Valance; while Shane has the gunfighter whose founding violence has allowed for the establishment of law and order ride off into the darkness at the end of the film, Liberty Valance has the gunfighter’s fame appropriated by a politician and his life emptied of meaning as the world around him changes; Ford does not let our consciences off the hook – instead we must accept that we have benefitted from this feudal violence and yet made an alien of the person who carried it out on our behalf. Moreover, while Shane gives us a gunfighter who fascinates an otherwise quite peaceful community but remains clearly outside of it (thus allowing it to remain ideologically pure), Liberty Valance shows that mythologization of originary violence is integral to the nation state; it reminds us that we glory in the remembered violence that created us.
I believe that the difference between these two films, divided chronologically by almost a decade, points to a deepening sense of cynicism towards the accepted American origin story, a sense of cynicism which in the later sixties would give rise to the social upheavals of feminism, civil rights, protest of the Vietnam war, etc. The next instalment will take up Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as a way of looking to the further disintegration of the American mythology.