The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

May 26th is the birthday of the famous American actor John Wayne. The day was set to be named after the cowboy actor in California, but a quote was brought up from the 1970's that put that process down. The quotation in question was from a 1971 interview that was published in Playboy magazine.

We can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.

As we all know, Blacks are well renowned for their ability to think ahead, plan their futures, and take responsibility for their actions. Black rule in Detroit and Baltimore has brought those two cities from dreadful poverty to the heights of civilization. John Wayne has clearly been proven wrong in the 45 years since his racist statement.

John Wayne was a symbol of decent masculinity in (((Hollywood)))--something of a light in a sea of darkness. He was best known for the many Westerns that he starred in, although he did other genres on occasion, a good example being Green Berets, a film he starred in and directed; it's no coincidence that it was one of the only films about the Vietnam War that didn't focus on undermining American morale. John Wayne was an anti-communist, who made a conscious effort to oppose the leftist agenda often found in (((Hollywood))) films.

For all his efforts, and for what he came to symbolize through his acting, he became an American icon. Websites like Salon have noted that he is an icon specifically for White middle America--I'd agree, but I'm not saying it with disgust. White icons aren't a bad thing. John Wayne became the embodiment of what Americans loved about their country and what values they thought should typify American men.

I'm going to take this occasion to honour the man's life and image by writing about a film he starred in--John Ford's 1962 Western masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A good story isn't actually spoiled by spoilers, but out of courtesy I'm going to warn you: spoilers ahead.

The film starts with Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) remembering back to when he was attorney Ransom Stoddard on his way to the town of Shinbone via carriage. Outside of the town the carriage is stopped by a group of bandits lead by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a man who is something of household name in the town. When Valance takes a widow's heirloom Stoddard voices his objection and is beaten for it and left on the road. He is found by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) and brought back into town.

Stoddard recovers from his injuries, and he opens up a law practice in town. Everyone tells Stoddard that this is inviting more violence from Valance. Doniphon advises "pilgrim," as he calls Stoddard, that his law books won't do him any good out here; buy a gun or take a stagecoach out of town. Stoddard rejects the advice. He tells Doniphon that he's a man of the law and the law can stand on it's own against violence.

"I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems."

Doniphon is a very different sort of man. He isn't much of an idealist. He's a pragmatic type, but hardly without principles and conviction. Perhaps the largest difference between the two stars of the movie is that Doniphon believes that the only law that matters is the one you can enforce; being something of a gunslinger, Doniphon fits in well in Shinbone.

Sure enough, Valance stops by the restaurant that Stoddard is working in to pay his bills. Valance is eating his meal when Stoddard comes out of the kitchen carrying a plate of steak and potatoes. One of Valance's comrades with a large grin nudges his boss, who looks up and says to the laughter of his men "lookie at the new waitress." If Valance is intimidated by the lawyer and his lawbooks, we don't see it here. Smiling as Stoddard walks by, Valance trips Stoddard to which his gang react with more laughter. Suddenly Doniphon walks on to the scene, and the demeanor of the bandits in the restaurant changes immediately. Instead of relaxing in their chairs they stand up immediately and put their hands close to their holsters.

"That's my steak, Valance."

A moment of tense silence follows. Valance responds by saying to Stoddard, "you heard him, dude. Pick it up". Stoddard moves to object but Doniphon stops him.

"Pilgrim, hold it. I said you, Valance. You pick it up." Valance smiles. "Three against one, Doniphon". Doniphon smiles back and mentions he has backup standing in the doorway. One of Valance's men goes to pick it up, and Doniphon kicks him. "I said you, Liberty. You pick it up." More silence.

Stoddard steps up and yells "What's the matter? Everyone in this country kill crazy?" He walks over and picks up the steak. "There! There! It's picked up!" Valance drops some coins on the floor to pay for a new steak (Doniphon doesn't pick them up), and leaves. Valance turns and starts to pull his gun, but after Doniphon yells "try it," Valance leaves angrily.

Stoddard is clearly disturbed that men almost died over what he sees--incorrectly--as just a steak. Doniphon smiles and says "Well, now; I wonder what scared them off?", to which Dutton Peabody, the local writer replies with a laugh "the spectacle of law and order here, risin' up out of the gravy and the mashed potatoes."

Stoddard hasn't fought Valance, but by refusing to run or capitulate to Valance, as so many others have done, Stoddard wins the admiration of the people of Shinbone. He starts teaching reading, writing, and law in a school that he opens. In one scene we see a Swedish immigrant reading out parts of the Declaration of Independence, after which Stoddard tells his classroom of women, elderly and children that because of these documents power rests with them, the people.

In order to try to put power into the hands of the people, Stoddard cooperates with Dutton Peabody, the writer of the local newspaper, to try to get statehood for the territory and disempower the ranchers. By doing so Stoddard puts himself into direct conflict with Liberty Valance who has been hired by the cattle barons to prevent statehood, since statehood will bring with it more regulations and restrictions.

The townsfolk later convene in the saloon to choose two delegates to send to the statehood convention, choosing Peabody and Stoddard. Valance is in the saloon and hears this, and challenges Stoddard to a duel. Doniphon again warns the evangelizing "pilgrim" with his holy law books to get out of town. Living up to the moniker given to him by Doniphon, Stoddard again insists that he's going to make a stand for the rule of law.

Latter in the day, Liberty Valance and two of his men pay a visit to the newspaperman Dutton Peabody. They trash his office, smash his equipment, and Valance beats Peabody with the same whip that he incapacitated Stoddard with at the start of the film.

Upon hearing of the assault, Stoddard comes running to the scene where a small crowd has gathered. Holding the beaten man in his arms, Stoddard tries to talk to Peabody. Before passing out, Peabody gets in a joke; "l sure told that Liberty Valance about the freedom of the press!"

Stoddard is finally worn down, and no longer sees a way around responding to Liberty with anything other than violence. He agrees to duel Liberty Valance.

The two finally meet late at night. Valance is clearly intoxicated, but this does nothing to dampen his confidence. Valance quickly draws his revolver and shoots a pot next to Stoddard, and starts laughing. He puts the next shot through Stoddard's arm, making the attorney drop his revolver. Valance taunts him, and lets him pick it up. "This time, right between the eyes". Before he can fire, Stoddard shoots his gun, and Valance drops dead.

Everyone, including Stoddard, is shocked. Stoddard has won out over Valance, not with lawbooks or the rights of man, but with a gun. To do what he did for civilization and law, he had to embrace Doniphon's--and Valance's--understanding of power. Liberty Valance wasn't talked to death by the NAP or the Constitution.

The attorney becomes the town's hero, and is swept off to the convention. On the convention floor, a representative for the cattle barons questions Stoddard's right to represent anything, calling him a murderer. Stoddard's supporters are unmoved, but Stoddard is not so unshakable. He leaves the room.

Here he is confronted by Doniphon, who asks him what he's doing. Stoddard tells him he's having a crisis of conscience, that he doesn't think he can stand for what he believes in after he has shot Liberty Valance. "You talk too much, think too much. Besides, you didn't kill Liberty Valance, I did."

With the revelation of the identity of the man who shot Liberty Valance, the film concludes its scathing critique of the myths underlying American liberalism. Not only did the starry-eyed idealist have to eventually resort to the law of the jungle, he had to have a gunslinger intervene to deliver the verdict. Not only did it take violence outside the law to establish the law, it took a man of violence to do it. Doniphon has more in common with Conan than with Locke, but it took a man like him to make Locke's vision feasible. It wasn't a little old lady quoting the Constitution that brought about law; it was force, entirely uncivilized and uncodified. Here the film stops dragging Stoddard's idealism through the dirt, but only because the film itself is at an end.

In what is a fitting metaphor for America's fate, Doniphon's hard work only serves to clear the way for Stoddard. Doniphon is forgotten, whereas Stoddard gets the girl that Doniphon loved, and he goes on to become an important politician. The West is won by Doniphon, but it is not governed by him.

Wayne once said that he didn't like ambiguity in his roles. "Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don’t like ambiguity.” That is essentially what made Wayne such a beloved actor--he didn't real act or play complex characters. All of his characters can be understood in their first four minutes on screen, and so many of his roles were so similar that you could understand his roles before you saw them! Wayne portrayed American masculinity and simplicity on screen, with no artsy complications. His character was that of the straight-to-the-point American. That the America he symbolizes has largely vanished from the world won't do anything to lessen his popularity.

So here's to to the Duke and his films. Take the time to watch one today.