The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is told in one long flashback, with the senator, Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart), explaining to the reporters why he has come back to Shinbone after so many years. He and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles) have come because an old friend has died, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). But the story is not just one of these three people, it is also about democracy in America, hence the relevance of mentioning Tocqueville, and his major study of the US, Democracy in America (De la démocratie en Amérique) published in two parts 1835 and 1840. His analysis of, for example, the grassroot democracy in small towns, such as Shinbone; the habit of having elections for all positions (although de Tocqueville disapproves of having judges elected); his talk of "self-interest well understood" as the bedrock of American society; his emphasis on the importance of justice, including as a check on democracy itself. These are things which Liberty Valance and other films by Ford address. Combining Ford and Tocqueville has been done before (see for example Robert Pippin's essay "Tocqueville, the Problem of Equality, and John Ford's Stagecoach") but I wonder if not more can be done here. Most of Ford's films that are set in the past, at least those set in the American past, could be studied in tandem with Democracy in America. The fact that Ford's depiction of that past changed over time might make such a comparative study even more interesting.
Hallie, Pompey and in the back the Ericsons.
John Wayne's character Tom Doniphon is similar to Ethan Edwards, Wayne's character in Ford's earlier The Searchers (1956). They are both interstices between the past, which they represent, and the future, which they help bring about but are unable to join. They are also in-between violence and peace. Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin) is the villain in this film, but there is not a neat line between him and the rest of town, it is a grey area. Doniphon is right in the middle. He is not psychotic and homicidal like Ethan Edwards, instead he descends into self-pity and resentment, but they still have the same role in society.
Liberty Valance is an ambivalent villain because, while he is often referred to as pure evil, he is insecure and bitter too. It sometimes seems as if he is violent and arrogant as a reaction against the town's hatred towards him. Sometimes he looks at Doniphon and Stoddard with a puzzled expression, sometimes with envy, sometimes with resentment. In the end, when he is shot, the doctor contemptuously rolls him over and says "He's dead." after which he is thrown on a wagon and driven out of town, his legs hanging down and the boots almost dragging in the sand. It is like as if the minute he is killed, he is forgotten.
I also said that Doniphon died alone and forgotten, but that is not quite true. His friend Pompey (Woody Strode) was with him until the end. Their friendship was of the "close personal" kind that might be given a queer reading, although it is not necessary. But Pompey is an important character, and there are a few pointed scenes with him, based around the fact that he is a black man. In one scene he is reciting the Declaration of Independence, standing beside a photograph of Abraham Lincoln, but is unable to remember the words "that all men are created equal". Perhaps he was unable to say them because he had never been treated as an equal. In a later scene, when he is denied service in a saloon, the audience is reminded of this.
The joy, hope and aspirations of the church building scene in Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) are nowhere to be seen in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it would be a mistake to see this is a sudden change in Ford's outlook. His films have rarely been cheerful and optimistic. There is great beauty in them, and sometimes love and kindness triumphs, but there is frequent darkness, tragedy, a mourning of something that has gone missing but was probably never there in the first place. In How Green Was My Valley (1941) the grown man remembers his childhood with affection and longing, yet that childhood is presented as being filled with poverty, death, prejudice and oppression. There is usually a double view of the past in Ford's films, and so it is in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
"The place sure has changed. Churches, high schools, shops." Hallie said, and the marshal replied "Well, the railroad done that." Then he added, wistfully, "The desert's still the same."
This post does not walk alone, it has a partner. My friend and former guest blogger Sofia Åkerberg has also written about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for today. Read her here.
The Iron Horse is not a great film, and maybe it would have been better if Raoul Walsh had directed it. But it is not a bad film either. There is especially a scene on a train filled with wounded men and women, among them an old man who is weeping inconsolably next to his dead friend, which is heartbreaking.
Three earlier post by me about Ford are here: The Grapes of Wrath, Tobacco Road, The Searchers.