"Liberty Valance" and the Obligations of Progress

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of watching and then discussing John Ford's inestimable The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with a group of college students.

By the end of the evening, the film had further cemented its position as My Favorite Ford not simply because of its technical and cinematic excellence -- has there ever been a better instance of meta-casting than Wayne's Doniphon? -- but because it is an absolute treasure-trove of ideas, and as discussable as anything I've ever watched. Each viewing brings new topics to the table, and I honestly wonder if I'll ever find the bottom. (Not that I want to, of course.)

This time around, I was particularly drawn to that moment when Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) convinces Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) to accept the nomination as representative of Shinbone and its people -- a nomination he is reluctant to accept because it is tied so closely to his status as "the man who killed Valance."

Tellingly, it is not Doniphon's revelation of the truth behind Valance's death that proves most compelling, but his reminder that Stoddard has forever altered the life and expectations of the film's heroine, Hallie (Vera Miles), and that there are certain obligations he must embrace as a result. "Hallie's your girl now," he says "Go back in there and take that nomination. You taught her how to read and write; now give her something to read and write about!"

As I watched, I was struck by the thought that this is also the film's most obviously allegorical moment: the self-made, self-sufficient, unquestionably charismatic Titans of the Old West (grudgingly but willingly) handing the safekeeping of their beloved "girl" over to the very men whose arrival now signal their demise -- the Lawbringers, the Democratists, the inexorable harbingers and purveyors of Progress. "We give this wonderful, youthful West to you," they say, "forever altered by your coming, and by the intellectual and technological advances that accompany you. We love her too much to fight for her at the risk of her destruction. She's yours; just don't forget the obligations that come with her new-won affections."

The insurmountable conflict between Stoddard and Doniphon and the impending demise of the "Western Way" are omnipresent themes in the film, so I suppose their presence in this vital moment comes as no surprise. Still, it's a reminder that our increasingly technophilic culture ignores at its peril: progress is not an unadulterated good. The very trends that set The West a'learnin' buried the noble Doniphons beneath them as they advanced, and that's something to regret.

Everyone loves an irrigated garden, but the cactus rose has an entirely different (and incalculable) beauty to offer. Let's not force ourselves to pick just one.

For those lucky folks looking forward to watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for the first time, it is currently streaming on Netflix. And Stagecoach -- the equally masterful bookend to Ford's cinematic history of the West -- is available through Hulu+. The two make a spectacular double feature. (Here's a bit of bonus Ford content from our own Dr. Pat McNamara. And here's some excellent bonus Valance material from a Western-lovin', Claremont-graduatin' friend. So much great material to read; so little time.)

Attribution(s): All posters, publicity images, and stills are the property of Paramount Pictures and other respective production studios and distributors.