Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Bringing Civilization to the Wild West
Not too long ago I watched John Ford’s classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It was released in 1962 — nearly 50 years ago — and shows its age.
That’s not because it was made in glorious black and white or because it features John Wayne and James Stewart near the end of their long and storied careers. It’s not even because of the John Ford hokum and blarney (unimaginable in a movie today) which can test the patience of even the most sympathetic modern viewer.
No, what dates the movie to the modern sensibility is its theme: The benefits of law and government, and in particular, the federal government. For all the talk about Hollywood being a viper’s nest of liberals and worse, it’s hard to see how a movie with that theme could be made today. Who wants to hear a message like that?
A brief synopsis, if you don’t know the film. Idealistic young lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) arrives in the frontier town of Shinbone hoping to bring the power of the law to the wild west. He finds the town terrorized by sadistic thug Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) who fears no one but the aging gunfighter Tom Doniphon (Wayne). Stoddard starts a school to teach reading, writing and government to the farmers and shopkeepers.
Called into a showdown with Valance and facing certain death, Stoddard gets off a seemingly miraculous wrong-handed shot that leaves Valance dead in the middle of main street and the townspeople feeling empowered. Based on his reputation as the man who shot Liberty Valance, Stoddard leads Shinbone’s delegation to the territorial convention debating statehood and later goes on to become the state’s first governor, a United States Senator, and Ambassador to the Court of St. James. When he returns to Shinbone after an absence of years he sees the progress and prosperity that resulted from his political work and is ready to move back.
Most directors would have made the movie 15-20 minutes shorter by leaving out a lot of the government stuff, but Ford dwells on it lovingly and sentimentally. To these people trying to settle a hard, wild land, the federal government wasn’t the problem — it was the solution.
Joining the United States meant having law and order; it meant getting a state legislature that would enable all the settlers to mediate and resolve their issues without resorting to hired guns; it meant dams and irrigation projects that would allow farmers and communities to flourish.
Of course the movie was fiction and of course there was more to the story, but that theme rings true. At the time Ford made it, John F. Kennedy was president and most people still believed in the country and its government. Americans could see the difference that government had made in their lives. Factory workers enjoyed good wages and benefits thanks to unions, which grew in power after the New Deal’s Wagner Act. The GI bill enabled many people to get an education and move into the professional classes. Social Security allowed old people to retire in a semblance of economic dignity.
And it won’t do to say that government has become corrupt since then. It was always corrupt. At the time the film was set, in the late 1800s, large corporations controlled Congress even more than they do now. At the time the film was made, the Southern bloc of congressmen and senators was stifling civil rights while the just-departed president was warning of the growing power of a military-industrial complex.
America worked through a lot of those problems because we believed in ourselves and believed in our ability to make the government work toward a more just society. If a movie celebrating that theme seems passé, it’s a sad commentary on our times.