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Mira Schor Headshot

Will Obama Shoot Liberty Valance?

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Maureen Dowd mentioned John Ford's 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in "Eggheads and Blockheads," her Sunday discussion of the GOP's embrace of stupidity. Here is a consideration of why this movie is relevant to our current political situation.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a stark, almost archaic yet profound meditation on the role of violence in creating the American democracy and on the nature of history itself.

The main action of the movie takes place in an extended flashback, with the most crucial scene in the movie replayed as yet another flashback within the central flashback. The protagonists are Senator Ransom "Ranse" Stoddard (played by James Stewart), who, when we first encounter him, is the most distinguished politician in his state, returning unexpectedly and mysteriously with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to Shinbone, the small town in the West where his legendary political career began. The central part of the plot takes place in the past, about 40 years earlier, and centers around Stoddard, a young lawyer come from the East to set up a law practice who, before his stagecoach even gets to town, is robbed and beaten, and his law books ripped up by Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin). In Shinbone, "Ranse" is befriended by Hallie, then an illiterate waitress by the local newspaper editor-publisher and town drunk Dutton Peabody, and, in an uneasy alliance, by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a local rancher and rival for Hallie's affections. Doniphon is always accompanied by his black farmhand, Pompey (Woody Strode) in a kind of dignified adult version of the "Come on back to the raft ag'in, Huck Honey" classic American master/slave homosocial partnership (Strode gives a great performance and the sparely choreographed working and affective part of this relationship gives the movie a compelling sub-texture).

The town is terrorized by Liberty Valance, a sociopathic, brutally clever, almost ironically self-aware robber, thug and murderer operating as a tool for the unseen cattle barons who want to prevent statehood for this Western frontier territory so that they can retain free rein over the land and its resources. He has no respect for the written law, although, significantly, he recognizes that the Eastern "dude" with the law books represents the most significant threat to his power. Valance lives by "the law of the West," the gun and a cat o' nine tails whip. He stands between Shinbone and civilization. Something has to be done about Liberty Valance.

At first glance, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a strange movie in its formal qualities and its casting. It was shot in black and white long after even Ford himself, a master of black-and-white cinematography in his earlier great movies, including such black-and-white film masterpieces as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine and The Grapes of Wrath, had turned to color in films such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers. It was shot on the cheap, using the back lot set of a television Western program, so the West as a physical space whose empty vastness was once one of the principle protagonists of many Ford movies, notably in his spectacular usages of Monument Valley, is barely present as subject. The action takes place almost as a play on sets reduced to the bare minimum of what each signifies: the saloon, the newspaper office, the restaurant.

This reductiveness is a strength, as the simplicity creates a convincing verisimilitude, and the theatrical structure keeps you focused on the story. Stripped to its cinematic essence, the film is a morality play, emphasized by the patent discordance between the ages of the two male stars and that of the characters they play. Characters in their early 20s are here played by actors in their 50s, and it shows. Yet this strange casting choice is extremely important to the greatness of the film.

First, you can't get swept up in their beauty or sexuality, so you are constantly returned to the meaning of the story.

Second, it's precisely because each actor is who he is and brings to his part his own history as a representation of American character that the movie has its unique gravitas. The idealism and incorruptibility of "Ransom Stoddard" is embedded in Stewart's iconic role as the idealistic young senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and other movies like You Can't Take It with You, from his pre-World-War-II career, particularly his Frank Capra movies, yet also inflected with the toughness and desperation he brought to his own post-war Westerns such as The Naked Spur. In those movies his persona is similar to many of Wayne's characters: in Wayne's Westerns, he is the good guy but often with an edge, beginning with the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, decent but bent on revenge for his murdered brother, or Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, another vengeful figure whose dogged pursuit of a kind of brutal justice is effective but founded on a bitter racism. Even though at the end of The Searchers he does not carry out the act of racial "cleansing" he has threatened throughout, he still cannot be contained in civil society. His character in Valance is all of the characters Wayne had played to that moment; thus he is the construct "John Wayne," a complex, collaborative artwork created by Ford and Wayne himself over nearly 25 years. So these two actors, their faces and histories, are part of the meaning of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The history of John Ford's movies is also part of the meaning. For instance, Valance's first appearance is a fascinating contrast to Wayne's legendary first appearance, almost a materialization, in Stagecoach: in that earlier Ford movie, the stagecoach, whose occupants the audience has been introduced to so that we are already invested in their voyage, speeds across the desert in daylight until it is brought to a sudden stop as, simultaneously, the camera suddenly swoops in to the indescribably open and surprised expression of John Wayne.

In Valance, on the other hand, the stagecoach careens recklessly out of nowhere down a narrow road at night until it is brought to halt by a gang of masked men. "Stand and deliver," declares the gang's leader, Valance. Everything that was open, bright, optimistic in Ford's earlier version of the West is dark and pessimistic in the later version.

The movie's anchor scenes are of the killing of Liberty Valance, seen twice, first as Stoddard experienced it, and later as it is replayed from the point of view of Wayne. This is not a Rashomon situation; this is not about the basic fungibility of truth. Here there is the first mise en scène (the "legend") as it is experienced by Stewart, from the point of view of a protagonist you trust. It's carefully and excruciatingly choreographed, to emphasize Stewart's terror and his bravery as, already shot in the right arm, he reaches, trembling, for his gun with his left hand.

Later, there is the second mise en scène (the truth), where the same exact events are re-shot from a greater distance, and a different angle, as experienced by Wayne. Just as there is ultimately no doubt of which version is true, this dual iteration of staging is precise, concise, even didactic, a textbook of basic film staging, reverse shots, reverse angles.

So what does The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance have to tell us about our current predicament? You have the skinny young lawyer from the "East" (Obama the law professor and community activist from Chicago) up against the many thuggish representatives of the unseen cattle-barons (the Koch brothers, FOX News, et al.). The nitty gritty of politics take up a big portion of the movie. In one scene the townsmen assemble in the saloon to chose a delegate to the statehood convention. The cattle barons who are against statehood are represented by Liberty Valance, who nominates himself as delegate to the convention, even though he is not a resident of the town. Marvin's line reading of Valance's retort -- "I live where I hang my hat" -- is particularly wonderful. The cattle barons' interests are also promoted by a Major Cassius Starbuckle, a grandstanding politician who, with florid oratory, vilifies Stoddard as a killer and puts up for nomination a fellow in a fancy white suit who gallops onto the stage on a white horse (Texas Governor Rick Perry, anyone?).

The crux and the complexity of the movie is that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance actually didn't shoot Liberty Valance, but his distinguished political career is built on the public perception that he did. At first glance this seems like a perfect example of the political mendacity and inauthencity we've become all too cynical about, and most critical analyses of the film focus on the line spoken by the journalist who, having heard the whole story of what really happened, destroys his notes: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That has become the takeaway quote from the movie.

But the movie demonstrates that, though his career is built on a "lie" or a "legend," Stoddard was in fact a courageous man, maybe even more courageous than the man who actually did shoot Liberty Valance. The man of law does give in to the need for the gun, even though the gun is old, he can't shoot straight, he is alone, and he's wearing an apron to the gun fight -- indeed, significantly, through much of the movie, we've seen him in this humiliatingly feminized (dis)guise. But he is prepared to sacrifice his life, because of his belief in the law.

There is an important scene in the movie that shows us what Stoddard truly offers the country: in a shabby one-room schoolhouse, he has welcomed a significantly diverse student body: Mexican children, girls, adults, even the black man Pompey is allowed to attend. Here, significantly, he wears a suit, the mantle of his future authority. And the subject beyond the ABCs is democracy: "We've begun the school by studying about our country and how it is governed." The Scandinavian restaurant owner continues, "It's a Republic, which is a state in which the people are the boss -- that means us -- and if the big shots in Washington don't do what we want, by golly, we don't vote for them no more."

Also Stoddard is willing to walk away from a political career, first because he is disgusted that it would come to him because of a violent act, second when he discovers that it would be based on a lie, and third when he tells the whole story to a journalist.

The man who did shoot Liberty Valance is basically apolitical and acted without personal risk; it was "cold-blooded murder, but I can live with it." Yet he loses everything: by letting Stoddard get the credit, he loses his girl and his individualistic dream of personal happiness. We know what happened to Stoddard: his resume is repeated by various characters (governor, senator, ambassador to Britain, senator again, possible vice-presidential candidate). Doniphon's life in the years that passed between the central flashback and the "present" are blank. He lived out his life until he died. That's it. And the country has becomes the United States of America, for better or worse -- the film's conclusion is ambivalent about that.

But the movie doesn't seriously question the fact that Valance must be eliminated for civilization to thrive. The ends do justify the means, although the film acknowledges how much this is intellectually a contradictory and, morally, a deeply troubling position, and that the history of American is based on such demonic bargains.

Meanwhile we're surrounded by Liberty Valances and the cattle barons they stand in for. Someone has to "kill them," but with belief in ideas, not guns. Yet for the most part, Obama hasn't stopped turning the other cheek and many have concluded that he won't fight back because he doesn't believe in what the people who elected him want him to fight for.

On Sept. 19 a bunch of people tried to occupy Wall Street. People must not just stand behind Obama, but go ahead of him until, if only for political advantage, he won't just "man up" but "belief up." Stand and deliver. Somebody has to shoot Liberty Valance.

A longer version of this is cross-posted on my blog, "A Year of Positive Thinking."