The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ★★★★

"You know what scared 'em—the spectacle of law and order here, risin' up out of the gravy and the mashed potatoes!"

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance presents the Wild West as a flashback about a dead guy. This narrative framework is crucial to Ford's deconstruction of his own mythology (as Sergio Leone proclaimed, this is where Ford "learned pessimism"): the Western hero's fate was always already sealed because his history/fantasy was only ever a retroactive narrativization. John Wayne is much more than just a dead guy in a coffin, he's a vanishing mediator, a symbol of the unacknowledged violence of the foundation on which society rests. The town has changed so much since the arrival of the railroad (a crucial symbol of shifting historical periods for the western) that the only place this violent hero can live now is in the past.

Our society's rule of law (Jimmy Stewart's star that he doesn't wear to Wayne's funeral) is founded on a threat of violence which was always a lie: Stewart's official law can never match Wayne's unofficial force, no matter how much time he spends practicing shooting. The law is founded on an act of historical violence which must be disavowed, fictionalized, made myth. Wayne is an outsider who was necessary to society's stability but who could not be allowed to enjoy the comfortable domesticity he created the space for. The cowboy doesn't ride off into the sunset, he rides off into his own grave.

The fact that the film is also permeated with news reporters and journalists draws a troubling parallel to this flashback structure: in every moment of our lives, more so now than ever before, we are always narrativizing our own modern history, whether out of an attempt to cement our own existence or simply because we're "doing our job." It is this fictional account of ourselves, not the real thing, that will live on past our finite existence. In spite news reports' supposed concrete nature, this account is never actually written in stone, and it will continue to be revised once we're laid to rest in our own coffins, just as Ford continues to revise his own mythos.

We're remembered not as we really were, but as society needed us to be. The individual is eliminated in the face of the requirements of the community.

"You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?"
"No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

John Ford
Removed from Most Popular Unseen Film per Year

The schoolhouse stuff is a bit too cutesy for me, but other than that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is another in a great string of recent (for me) examples of how I don't actually hate the western the way I thought I did.

Random thought: Will we embrace the inevitable demythologizing of the superhero subgenre when it happens, or like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance did, will it take decades of retrospective to finally appreciate it?

PS. I got a loooong string of John Ford reviews coming up. Brace yourself.

ScreeningNotes liked these reviews