Friday, November 16, 2007

The Western Heroes Dual Part III

Starring two of the genre’s biggest names – John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance strips the Western of its window dressing, providing a reflection on the motifs and common themes that only a director as experienced in the genre as John Ford could produce. However, perhaps most striking are its competing protagonists who, through their dual natures, become a commentary on the Western hero and on the power of mythmaking, the film’s central theme.

Liberty Valance makes its dual protagonist structure quite clear from the very beginning. Stewart’s character, an established politician named Ransom Stoddard, heads to the small town of Shinbone for a funeral. Acting as narrator, he recounts the story of the deceased – John Wayne as Tom Doniphan – through flashback. This structure, coupled with the billing of two top stars, immediately implies dual protagonists.

Doniphan, “the toughest man south of the Picketwire”, is pragmatic and bound to nothing. Like Shane, he represents the savage side of the West: he lives in a house well outside of town, is nomadic and authoritative, and, most importantly, believes in the power of a gun. Doniphan doesn’t see much use for the law books and school teaching that Stoddard brings to the town of Shinbone. Stewart’s character represents civilization in its most pure, democratic, idealized form. A young lawyer from the East headed west to strike it big, Stoddard’s knowledge of the law, ability to read and write, and sheer idealism prove to be quite useful. However, over the course of the film, Stoddard finds that he needs to adapt to Doniphan’s more savage ways to survive. In the end, he comes out on top, remembered forever as “the man who shot Liberty Valance.”

This myth is the central point of the film: while Stoddard is memorialized for ending Valance’s reign, it was Doniphan who actually did the deed. Liberty Valance pits these two characters in direct competition and uses this structure to comment upon the myth-making abilities of the West. The fact that Stoddard is remembered for Valance’s death, and not Doniphan, shows how the West as an open frontier was rife with possibility for a man to prove himself – and how rumors could easily become truths by way of the press. As Maxwell Scott, editor of a now civilized Shinbone Star says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Doniphan is forgotten by nearly everyone at the end of the film. Unlike Shane, his valiant efforts and self-sacrifice are not lauded or memorialized, but hidden, rejected by those who control the myth-making process for the sake of civil progress. However, Stoddard’s civility is not portrayed as cut-and-dry as that in Shane either. Stoddard lapses into savage ways, and finds his well-intended career built on a myth. It is in such a way that the themes of Liberty Valance differs from that of Shane; whereas one films finds honor in the Western Hero, the other exposes a bittersweet reality.

Check out The Western Heroes Dual Part I & Part II!