Fast Times at Liberty Valance High; or The Reel-Life Politics of Ford’s Anti-Western

I knew where it was going. Anyone who’s done his or her western homework would.

There are two American archetypes that were sometimes played against each other in old Westerns.

The egghead Eastern lawyer who lacks the skills or stomach for a gunfight is contrasted with the tough Western rancher and ace shot who has no patience for book learnin’.

–Maureen Dowd, “Egghead and Blockheads,” New York Times Op-Ed, September 17, 2011.

First, the analogy: James Stewart’s ineffectual lawyer. John Wayne’s blustery westerner. The woman who loves them both. The villain who’s so nasty the rule of law can’t put him away. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962. Yessss!


Liberty Valance–making womenfolk hide (they’d hide) and men step aside

“…Because the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood

When it came to shooting straight and fast, he was mighty good…

And the man who shot Liberty Valance would be the bravest of them all.” (Thanks,Gene Pitney!)

It was an anti-western, maybe the first of its kind–a western that gave a nod to all the oater conventions (good hero and bad villain; earning the love of a civilizing feminine force of a woman; showdown with awesome theme music) then deftly reversed and flipped them.

Marvin, Stewart, and Wayne in Liberty Valance. OMG! And Lee van Cleef!!!!

  • The villain who is as bad they come–Lee Marvin being so bad he’s good (“This time, right between the eyes.”)
  • The tough-talking cowboy who can walk tough too–John Wayne acting so much a piece of the Wild West you’d think he was a prickly cactus.
  • The woman yearning for book learning–a beautiful Vera Miles (“I know the Good Book from preacher talk; but it’d be a soul comfort if I could read the words myself.”)
  • And the egghead, an Eastern dude who’s beaten and shot at until his cultured veneer cracks–James Stewart who channels both worldliness and naivete, cool reserve and righteous fury.

And next, the political-media narrative–out-of-touch professorial type against the swagger of the big Texan. Duh, guys, Barack Obama vs. Rick Perry. They certainly look their parts, all squinty Wayne-ish and stammering Stewart-ish.

Maureen Dowd draws the film into a scathing indictment of Know-Nothing-esque Rick Perry, a Republican contender for president and a man who boasts of his educational underachievement and hard-on-crime execution stats. If you despise the man and who he stands for, you’ll chortle at her one-two punches; if cowboy talk makes you spontaneously proclaim the Pledge of Allegiance, your eyes will blister with rage. In deference to my readers, who range from coastal elites to red-staters to real-life cowboys to those in other countries who are groaning at the thought of yet another half-assed political commentary from someone who pays more attention to red-carpet photo bombs than carpet bombing, I will not comment directly. I will instead shout “Huzzah!” for a journalist bringing in a epically awesome western classic to make a point and “Boo!” for fostering a misconception about what Ford actually was making a point about.

Which takes us back to the anti-western Fordian flippage. The filmmaker who, you could argue, started it all with 1939’s Stagecoach brings back the typical gun-toting heroic rancher Tom Doniphon (played by ur-gun-toter John Wayne), who is fully at home in a rough-riding town out West, complete with pretty young thing (Vera Miles) and nasty gunslinger (Marvin, looking bad-sexy as all get out in his…right. Sorry. Back to summary).

Then a stranger comes to town: the earnest but ineffectual Easterner Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), who turns the head of the pretty young thing away from the virile cowboy. Yeah, yeah, there’s a potentially lethal conflict between the lawless Liberty Valance and the lawful Stoddard, but the real conflict, buckos, is whether Hallie will choose the man who can protect her from thugs or the man who can teach her how to read.

(Hence the Obama-Perry storyline–will the US public choose the lawyerly prig or the bully? The man who is passionate for civilizing law or the one who knows a gun is the surest way to win? Stay tuned…)

But what many shoot past is the way Ford and his actors created a dynamic in which the cowboy and the lawyer complement each other–they may be rivals but without the stalwart rancher, Ransom Stoddard knows he would be ground under the spurred boot heel of Liberty Valance. And the stoic rancher Doniphon knows the shoot-from-the-hip days of the Wild West are numbered–which is why, when Stoddard and Valance finally face off, Stoddard shoots Valance and lets Stoddard be the hero and literally win the West, becoming in time a senator. Oh, and he gets the girl, too.

Ford takes the audience’s expectations and does that foldy-magic-trick thing people can do with dollar bills in which George Washington’s head turns into a mushroom. I picture 1962 audiences’ heads exploding but maybe by then there was a growing cynicism of how the West was winning the world. It’s too bad that now this film gets lumped into Dances with F**king Wolves category, which makes my head explode, but that’s a different post.

What is the West, Ford was asking. It’s what people tell us it is–it’s what’s written up in newspapers as fact when it’s all legend. But it’s also about the close, volatile connection between like- and unlike-minded people–a community of Others who have to get along to save civilization. And a rootin- tootin’ western with Lee Marvin slinking along like sex in spurs. (Dang. Sorry. But look at him. I mean, look at him!)

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