America has never been a simple nation. Its founding was borne of man’s inherent desire to be free and independent and his aversion to tyranny. It is a true and good country, but that does not mean it lacks complexity and variety. On the contrary, America’s revolutionary character remains. If things were static, there would not be any room for human flaws or perfection—no room, in other words, for individual independence. Americans would not be Americans unless they were shapers of their own lives.
Since human beings are imperfect, and since a nation is only as good as its people, it follows that America, like all nations, has flaws. The perennial question for America is how do we address those flaws while also acknowledging and appreciating America’s greatness as well as its potential for continuing greatness.
Today’s politics seems mostly to be a combination of action and reaction. It used to be that conservatives reacted to the liberal because liberals always wanted to push for change, even if it didn’t make any sense. A liberal (or a leftist) being perpetually dissatisfied with the state of politics lives by the mantra of change. Change is not necessarily bad, but for the leftists or today’s “woke,” change has become a euphemism for dismantling America’s founding principles and remaking the country in their own ideological image. The more chaos and disruption, the better. According to such a mindset, America is enveloped in sin and ill-gotten gains, and because of this, it must be punished.
The conservatives justifiably react to these claims with hurt and sometimes anger. Their reactions, because they are spurred by emotion, are often composed of sentimental reflections about America. In such accounts, America is a perfect country, we should be proud of it at every turn, and it is the only place in the world where liberty is possible. They look back wistfully on a time when people didn’t hate and despise America.
While we rightly deplore the deep contempt and cynicism of the woke and the Left as it reaches a level of fever-pitched anarchy fueled by darkness, there is something self-defeating about this reaction on the Right. For the woke Left, there is no “miracle of being,” as Hannah Arendt might have described it. But we miss something truly important and beautiful about America when we deny its complexity and its struggle with human weakness.
In the last two years, we have seen lawlessness and disorder, political and existential chaos, submission and rebellion, and mostly, uncertainty about how to proceed through the maze of astounding corruption all around us. How should citizens be citizens in this mess? How should we defend their rights? How should we deal with the fact that law seems to apply only to one side of the political divide (especially when there is little evidence of guilt), that justice is not blind, and that there seems to be no end to chaos? Are we really this powerless?
These themes, however, are nothing new for America. American film director John Ford confronted most of them in his films. This is true especially in Ford’s West. The American West exemplifies all the struggle and endless possibilities encompassed by being American—unfettered and fully alive—yet such independence comes with a full set of responsibilities attached.
Ford explores these tensions between law and the individual, land and our relation to it, change, and the striving for goodness and stability in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). Here, Ford tells the story of Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), two men seemingly on opposite ends of the political and existential spectrum.
Stoddard is an aspiring lawyer who thinks it is always just a matter of the law prevailing to create order in society. He hails from the East. Doniphon is a man of the West, where “a man settles his own problems,” mostly with a gun.
The story is told in a long flashback. Stoddard is a U.S. senator who came to the town of Shinbone 25 years later to bury a friend. The friend turns out to be Doniphon, who is now largely forgotten by the town. The editor for The Shinbone Star wants an exclusive interview to learn why Stoddard is visiting the town to bury an unknown, unimportant man. Stoddard then recounts the story.
Traveling from the East in a stagecoach, Stoddard and other passengers are ambushed by the infamous outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), an ironic name for a man who is essentially a tyrant. Valance and his gang rob the stagecoach. Stoddard defends a widow aboard the stagecoach and earns himself a heavy beating at the hands of Valance, who also tears apart his law books. Left for dead, Stoddard was then discovered by Doniphon, who places him in the capable hands of Hallie (Vera Miles) and a Swedish immigrant couple, Peter and Nora Ericson.
Penniless, Stoddard takes a job washing dishes and helping at Peter and Nora’s boarding house. In turn, they give him free room and board. He doesn’t shy away from menial labor but instead leans into it as a way to earn his keep and climb to the top of Shinbone society. Although everyone in Shinbone wants to see justice for Valance, captured or dead, nobody thinks that it can be done through a strict application of the law. The only thing Valance understands is the gun. It’s a truth Stoddard resists throughout the film—until in the final showdown. Only then does he realize a man like Valance might be so bad that the gun is the only way to defeat him.
But is he the man who shot Liberty Valance, or was there someone else hiding in the darkness?
There is a consensus among film and cultural critics that with this film, Ford moves away from romanticizing the Old West, and finally gives up on the mythology that was created by exposing the “when the legend becomes fact, [we] print the legend” line. But that is not true. All of Ford’s films dealing with America’s past are free of romance or sentimentality. We see this in “Stagecoach” (1939), “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939), and “The Searchers” (1956). Although “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” certainly deals more squarely with this darker shading, most of Ford’s oeuvre in the Western genre is free of sentimentality. Always present is the complexity and uneasiness of the West; of struggle, both interior and exterior (nobody embodied this better than John Wayne); and of difficulty in being free. It is precisely this that makes Ford’s vision align with what America once was and still could be. Although things have certainly changed, our complex origins and possibilities remain true.
Stoddard and Doniphon are both stubborn and very masculine men—although this is expressed in different ways. At the heart of each one’s project is a desire to enforce justice and establish order. Stoddard differs from Doniphon in that he wants to create a lasting order, but is this truly possible? Doniphon lives day by day, and faces life head on. Both men have courage, yet it stems from a different existential landscape. Both men embody literal and spiritual geographies.
Stoddard deems education to be the first and essential entrance into law and order. He teaches Hallie and others to read and write, as well as the essentials of American civics. Nora at one point proudly exclaims that America is “a republic . . . a republic is a state in which people are the boss.”
Pompey, Doniphon’s handyman who also happens to be black, learns about the Declaration of Independence. In a very poignant scene, Pompey stumbles in reciting it, especially the part that “all men are created equal.” Stoddard is kind: “That’s OK, Pompey. A lot of men forget that part.” Clearly, Ford recognizes that things are not and were never perfect. While men in town go and vote on the formation of statehood, women stay behind, and Pompey sits at the entrance to the hall, looking into the distance, reflecting in sadness, yet with dignity and, importantly, holding a shotgun. Is this the only way for him?
Ford’s film asks the most fundamental questions of America: what is change and what is stability? How should we defend ourselves? Are we free or merely independent? Is pure freedom impossible? We are facing those questions today. Maybe we always will.
At the beginning of the film, when the stagecoach is ambushed, Stoddard yells at Liberty Valance and his gang: “What kind of men are you?” He demands an answer. Why are they not honorable? Why are they evil? More importantly, why do they choose to be evil? Valance is amused: “What kind man are you, dude?” He doesn’t give a damn about Stoddard’s question because honor and goodness have no value for him.
What kind of people are we and what kind of people are we aiming to be? We can’t even begin to reflect on this question until we accept that America is far more complex than the hollow sentimentalism of its blind champions or the chaotic cynicism of its perpetual detractors. The future of America cannot be considered unless we recognize the past in all glory, which means confronting it squarely as Ford did.