Shot very near the end of John Ford’s career, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an odd western for Ford. Absent are the panoramic vistas of Monument Valley emblematic of the freedom and manliness of the old west seen in Technicolor only a few years prior with The Searchers. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is filmed in black and white, mostly on sound stages, framed close to its subject matter and, at times, dark and nearly claustrophobic. But this is 1962, and Ford has been present during America’s slow descent from the Progressive dreams of a brave new technocratic world to the reality of a dissipated, feminized, commercialized, sexualized and enslaved country. So it’s no surprise that Ford no long romanticizes the West. The hope he saw of a free land where men of virtue might carve civilization out of the wilderness has been crushed. The nation refounded by Progressives at the turn of the century, with its mistaken understanding of human anthropology, had matured. Or maybe metastasized.
A chastened Catholic John Ford might see this as an opportunity to redouble his efforts and get back to his roots. Instead, in his despair, he reimagines the American Western in a manner more consistent with the revisionist Westerns that will become popular in the 1960s and 1970s. In re-envisioning the Western, Ford embraced the destructive notion of an anodyne public sphere. Pluralism should consist of respecting individuals and mostly leaving them alone. But in our emasculated epoch pluralism requires that individuals file off their rough edges and tippy-toe into public spaces; whispering and curtseying. Ford seems to view this as tragic. But, it is what it is.
That’s not to say that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a bad movie. It’s fantastic. One of Ford’s best. With interesting themes and great performances from Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin and Woody Strode. But its message deserves critical assessment because it reveals the hermeneutic through which most American public intellectuals understand manliness, pluralism and the public sphere.
If you haven’t seen the film be aware that spoilers follow (and if you’d like to see the film before you continue reading it’s currently available for streaming on Netflix).
The Law vs. Liberty
The central conflict of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance involves a tripartite dissolution of Man represented by three characters: Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), an Easterner fresh out of law school who travels West to a town called Shinbone in a territory south of Colorado to ply his trade; Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a local horse rancher; and Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), an outlaw and hired gun of territorial cattle interests. Ransom is rationality, civilization, law and order, statesmanship, rule by the many, education and the intellectual life. Tom Doniphon is spiritedness. He’s a hard but virtuous man; he’s a steward and shepherd of nature and a natural leader of men; he’s self-sufficient and property owning. But Tom has no interest in matters of state. Liberty Valance is appetitive and unrestrained liberty; he’s a lone wolf, homeless, without attachment, beyond civilization, taking what he wants when he wants it.
The central themes of the movie are the twofold tension between Ransom and Liberty and Ransom and Tom. The viewer is first introduced to the tension between rule of law and liberty.
Ransom is accosted by Liberty prior to his arrival at Shinbone by stage coach. Liberty and his gang hold up the stage and steal Ransom’s father’s watch. Ransom tries to defend a widow from Liberty and is slapped and whipped for his trouble. Instead of finding valuables in Ransom’s bag, he finds legal tomes. This sets up the tension between Ransom and Liberty; the rule of law Ransom intends to bring to Shinbone and the law of the jungle practiced by Liberty. Liberty recognizes that bringing rule of law to the uncivilized West will limit his freedom. As he notes later in the film, his freedom is unlimited; he has no family to tie him down, his home is where he hangs his hat, his property is the property he acquires as he is able.
Upon arriving at Shinbone (having been found and rescued by Tom), Ransom immediately seeks out the marshal to report the theft and assault. Ransom recognizes that rationality was insufficient to stop Liberty, persuasion was ineffective. So, in civilization, the individuals who hold the sword on behalf of the state must punish the law breaker via proper judicial channels. But the marshal is a fat and cowardly man who fears Liberty. He is only one man with a badge and no desire to tangle with dangerous men. Tom Doniphon later explains the problem to Ransom when Ransom hangs out his shingle as a local lawyer, “If you put that thing up you’ll have to defend it with a gun. And you ain’t exactly the type.” The law is necessary as is persuasion, but neither are sufficient. They will only dissuade virtuous or weak men from following their short term self-interest. To stop unregenerate men requires force. As Machiavelli noted “Whence it comes to pass that all armed prophets conquer and the unarmed ones are ruined.”
Christianity vs. Manliness
The second tension to which we are introduced is between Ransom and Tom. The viewer can’t help but notice the Christian implications of Ransom’s name. The film’s association of Christianity with Stewart’s character serves a few different aims: (1) it associates civilization with Christianity, (2) it pits Christianity against liberty and (3) it pits Christianity against spiritedness and associates Christianity with a feminized and emasculated culture.
Ransom’s femininity is apparent throughout the film. Take, for example, the actor chosen. While in his personal life Stewart may be an admirable man, in film he’s a milquetoast guy. He’s the hero in the wheelchair, the aw shucks politician who goes to Washington to shame us into better behavior, the sad-sack suicidal beta businessman. He is a contrast to the self-reliant heroics of John Wayne. And the film works hard to exacerbate the differences between these two characters. He works washing dishes and waiting tables. He eats beans and bread while Tom eats thick steaks and potatoes. In the final shoot-out he’s wearing an apron. He rides a pretty little buggy instead of a horse. His gun is small and effeminate and his shooting incompetent (and likely impotent; no mention is made in the film of his children). He doesn’t appear to have any legal clients, he doesn’t own property and the career at which he eventually succeeds is politician; a man who lives off the tax dollars of productive citizens.
By closely aligning Christianity with the character of Ransom, Ford emasculates the Cross. This becomes more obvious in the conclusion of the film. Christianity, like law and political rule, is for tame men and their assertive wives and their meek children. Because the kind of Christianity that will be welcomed in the city must be a gentle and toothless Faith where men worship in private (if they must worship) and enter the public sphere only to proclaim acceptable platitudes and maybe to hug somebody. The manly among them must be exiled because there is no room for the self-sufficient in a culture built on rent-seeking, interdependence and the need for community. This theme is continuously explored throughout the film. Men must remain outside the city gates. Noble men will willfully stay beyond the gates, pursuing their private interest. Ignoble men will continue to interfere with the city and must be imprisoned or killed.
What does that mean for the city that remains when all the men have been exiled? It will be made up of ineffectual men, politicians, women and children. Pseudo-intellectual men without spirit. If only they were also without appetites. Because these spiritless men can be enslaved as long as they are sated. This is the perverse view of civilization presented by a despairing Ford. The prophet doesn’t need arms if he has pornography and a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Oh brave new world! How beauteous mankind is!!
Education is the Basis of Law and Order
Even the intellectual life must be lukewarm. When Ransom teaches the town to read and teaches civics his classroom is full of children and women and a handful of unmanly men forced by various circumstance to attend. And the subject matter of the classroom is interesting as well; it’s rudimentary civics for patriots and the lesson is inaccurate, declaring the governing document of the United States to be the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution. The message is clear, the education necessary for civilization is political indoctrination for the disenfranchised and the weak. Those who are not self-sufficient. Because they are not self-sufficient they must demand effective government that will provide them with the things they cannot provide for themselves (but deserve nevertheless).
Shinbone’s newspaper, the textbook for Democratic man, is run by a drunk. He is a brave enough man, willing to attack Liberty and the cattlemen in print; willing to push for statehood contrary to the desires of the cattlemen. But, like Ransom, he cannot defend himself. And the newspaper itself is a problematic institution. Its intent is less to communicate truth than to communicate the message of the day. In a Progressive Democratic society where men are incapable of self-rule, it’s a daily reminder of what they should think.
Civilization: A Feminized Culture Promising Satiety
Other than the eponymous gun fight, the second central scene of the film is a political convention to elect two delegates to the territorial convention on statehood. Ransom wants statehood because it will bring law and order and schools and progress. The cattlemen are opposed to statehood and their man, Liberty Valance, arrives to receive the vote of delegate from his fellow citizens. Liberty has been able to bully men one on one. But in a Democracy where every individual has an equal vote, Liberty is only one among many. “The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” When men combine against him, Liberty is powerless. He can threaten, but when they are gathered together his fellow citizens forget they will, on another day, be alone. Democracy allows them to pretend. They can pretend to be brave, pretend to be good, pretend to know that they know what’s best for the community. We each have a vote. We must be equally wise.
So Liberty loses to Ransom and the local editor of the newspaper. This will be the beginning of Ransom’s political career. He will eventually be governor, a US senator, the ambassador to the UK and, possibly, a candidate for Vice-President of the United States.
Manliness as the Precursor to Civilization
Still, manliness is important in Ford’s vision (and in the vision of the modern Progressive state). This is observed in the climax of the film. But before we get there we should consider Progressivism in our own history.
The political Progressive movement finds its genesis in the desire to achieve equality among all men. So it’s no surprise that the movement will find adherents among the Republican party. But how does a movement concerned with justice, with creating a level playing field, with eliminating corruption and corporate cronyism, become an emasculating, feminized, statist movement of technocrats and secular bureaucrats? Teddy Roosevelt’s calls for a robust global military presence and federal income and estate taxation have ripened into President Obama’s policies of drone assassination, universal healthcare and unisex bathrooms. Fans of TR will protest this is unfair. TR was manly. But TR’s manliness is odd. Harvey Mansfield suggests that TR’s willpower manliness is “too emphatic to be true because true manliness has more quiet in its confidence, less stridency in its assertiveness.”
A man wants to protect those within his sphere of influence without reducing the freedom of other men within his sphere of influence; because manliness is part of other men’s nature too and to impose on the natural freedoms of another is at the very least bad form. But TR wanted to dictate terms for all men within his control and desired to expand his control to dictate terms to those beyond his reach. That’s not manliness. That’s rational control. It might even be tyranny if we believed we had natures that could be tyrannized. And a man who attempts to do that in the presence of other men will be unsuccessful. Because those other men will stop him. Unless he can convince those other men that manliness consists of pursuing something other than virtue and honor and self-sufficiency and defense of family. If manliness were to consist of acquiring stuff and pursuing satiety, well then, that might be a group of men with whom we could do a thing or two. That’s the kind of man we could let into the city. Interestingly, on the question of who is more manly, Ransom, the bookish politician and apron wearing gunslinger, or Doniphon, breeder and breaker of horses, builder of homes and protector of the innocent, TR would certainly side with Ransom. Tom refuses political office. Tom’s a shirker.
The Noble Lie and Death of Manliness
The climactic gun fight of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance involves Ransom, in his apron and with his ineffective and tiny gun, against a drunken and angry Liberty with his enormous piece. Ransom, emasculated Christianity, rule of law and civilization are no match for a violent Man and his well-tended weapon. Fortunately for Ransom, Tom Doniphon is standing in the shadows with his rifle. When Ransom draws to miss, Tom shoots to kill. Men are required to establish civilization. Tom is necessary, but only briefly, to bring the enemies of pre-civilization to heel.
And it’s important that we who live in the city believe that our ineffectual men can get the job done. So a legend is necessary. Ransom is a man who can defend civilization. He will be known as the man who shot Liberty Valance. Like TR, when the sun sets, he is tough and ready to defend women and children with his side arm from the terrors of the night. And when the sun rises he will quote the Declaration of Independence and call it the Constitution and indoctrinate women and children about civics rightly understood. Ransom, by sacrificing veracity, has purchased for us the rewards of everlasting consumption.
So at the end of the film, Ransom, the man who shot Liberty Valance, is a hero who goes on to be a politician, to bring the territory to statehood, which will become a state among the United States where civilization will allow pseudo-men to be equal to other pseudo-men and to learn stuff and to sell stuff and to buy stuff. And Tom Doniphon will go back to his land, alone. Because Ransom, the man who shot Liberty Valance, got the girl. So Tom will hang up his gun. And he will grow old. And he will die. And have a pauper’s funeral. And the desert will grow over his homestead. And after Tom’s death Ransom will look over Tom’s land and feel sad that Tom wasn’t sufficiently manly to sell enough stuff to buy a place in town where the desert isn’t such a nuisance.