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When Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Legend
Still from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 

When Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Legend

A classic John Ford western still holds lessons for our contentious democracy in 2022.

Sean Keeley

Among the great American filmmakers, few have so eagerly denied their own artistry as John Ford. When the director of The Searchers and Stagecoach was interviewed by an admiring Peter Bogdanovich in 1969, Ford gruffly denied all claims of artistic talent. When Bogdanovich pressed him on how he had filmed one particularly elaborate setpiece, Ford tersely replied, “With a camera.” Trying another angle, Bogdanovich asked whether Ford’s view of the West had grown more melancholy over time. Ford cut him short: “No. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

No conscious self-regard here: unlike an Orson Welles or a Stanley Kubrick, Ford presented himself as a mere studio craftsman, lucky enough to be able to ply the filmmaking trade for some 50 years.

Except, of course, that Ford was a great artist, capacious enough in his interests and ambitions to paint the full breadth of the American experience. It was Ford’s many Westerns that made his name, but he could also deliver the socially conscious realism of The Grapes of Wrath and the noirish expressionism of The Long Voyage Home. He filmed both folksy Southern yarns like Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright, which dabbled in Lost Cause mythology, and delivered cinema’s greatest tribute to Abraham Lincoln, Young Mr. Lincoln.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

In art and in life, Ford’s politics were all over the map. In his early years, they skewed progressive, as Ford adapted Steinbeck and fought the Hollywood blacklist. But by the end, his commitments were more muddled. While Ford the director made films like Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn, which sympathetically presented the perspectives of African Americans and American Indians, Ford the man shifted to the right to vote for Barry Goldwater for president and Ronald Reagan for governor of California. Like many great artists, he contradicted himself; he contained multitudes.

In Ford’s best work, the tensions in his views fueled his greatness. And there is no greater Ford film, or one more expressive of those tensions, than his late-career masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Now sixty years old, and newly restored on a 4K Blu-ray, the film is a parable about the foundations of political order. In one sense, its stakes are small: a lawyer, a cowboy, and a vigilante fighting for control of a dusty town called Shinbone. But in a larger sense, the film is concerned with the forces needed to create and sustain any democratic community. Those factors are law and order backed by the credible threat of force; community deliberations channeled into representative forms; and a legitimating common narrative, which may be clearer than the truth.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, unlike most Ford Westerns, was shot mostly on Paramount sound stages rather than the sweeping Monument Valley locations that he generally preferred. And though it was filmed decades after the advent of color, Ford insisted on shooting in black and white, lending the film a somber, elegiac quality. Ford heightened the effect by casting, as the two leads, fifty-something Hollywood icons who were far older than the characters they play.

Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, an idealistic lawyer from the East, as a combination of Mr. Smith going to Washington and George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life. John Wayne, playing the local rancher and sharpshooter Tom Doniphon, is–well, John Wayne, the embodiment of cowboy swagger. Their common enemy is the titular Liberty Valance, a thuggish outlaw played by Lee Marvin, who has been terrorizing the town with impunity. “I’ll show you the law—Western law,” Valance sneers as he whips Stoddard half to death after holding up his stagecoach.

When Stoddard first arrives in Shinbone as a young man, the town can best be described as pre-political. The marshal is a cowardly oaf, more interested in scarfing down steaks than establishing a legitimate governmental monopoly of violence. Most of the town’s residents are illiterate and ignorant. Liberty Valance looms over all of them: his very name suggesting an unfettered state of nature, a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Stoddard, a Lockean contrast, styles himself an enlightened idealist, and is determined to forge a consent-based social contract in Shinbone. He sets up his law practice in the office of the local newspaper, encouraging the editor to publish adversarial reporting on the oligarchic cattle barons. He earns the affections of Hallie, a local waitress, by teaching her to read and write, then draws crowds into a classroom where he teaches about the Constitution and democracy. He makes the local saloon a kind of town hall in which Shinbone’s citizens elect representatives to the statehood convention.

In all these settings–the courtroom, the classroom, the town hall, the newspaper office–Ford shows the deliberations of a small community forming the basis of a healthy democracy, as “little platoons” organize themselves into representative forms.

But, as Wayne’s cowboy makes clear, this sort of democratic virtue is not enough for Shinbone to prosper. “You put that thing up,” says Doniphon, pointing to Stoddard’s law sign, “you’ll have to defend it with a gun.” Law without force is useless, he insists. If Shinbone is going to thrive, Liberty Valance will have to be neutralized—and not with a law book. Stoddard, reluctantly concluding that Doniphon is right, secretly takes up target practice.

When the inevitable showdown comes, Stoddard appears to kill Liberty Valance in an act of self-defense. He acquires local, then national fame for his stand against the outlaw. Gradually, the frontier wilderness gives way to civilization. The railroad comes to town, Shinbone becomes part of a new U.S. state, Stoddard becomes its senator and goes to Washington with Hallie, Doniphon’s old flame. We learn all this in a framing flashback as Stoddard, now aged and distinguished, returns to Shinbone for Doniphon’s funeral.

Except, as we learn in the film’s crucial twist, it wasn’t Stoddard who shot Liberty Valance at all—it was Doniphon. Not long after the event, Tom confesses to Ransom that he fired the fatal shot from the sidelines, leaving his friend to take the credit. While Stoddard rides his manufactured reputation all the way to Washington, Doniphon descends into an alcoholic stupor. Like Ethan Edwards, the character Wayne played in The Searchers, Doniphon is the man of force whose actions allow the other characters to enjoy the blessings of a civilization in which he himself has no easy place.

Doniphon carries this secret to his grave, believing it will ensure the future of Shinbone. Stoddard, with equal parts guilt and self-interest, goes along. The movie thus endorses the idea that myths can be useful, even necessary, to foster social cohesion and legitimacy. And at the end of the film, Shinbone’s newspaper editor refuses the Senator’s overdue attempt to correct the record, pronouncing the movie’s most famous line: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

To reduce the film’s message to this cynical quip, however, is to elide the tensions at work in Ford’s masterpiece. The movie deconstructs the mythology of the old West, yes, but it also suggests that the ideals those myths serve are not groundless, nor are they worth discarding outright.

The key to this buried message lies in a character often overlooked in analyses of the film.

That character is Pompey, played by Woody Strode. The only Black character in the movie, Pompey is the loyal ranch hand to Doniphon, who treats him with genuine, if paternalistic, affection. Pompey also becomes the faithful guardian of Tom’s secret, loyal unto death. But he aspires to be more than a servant. In one classroom scene, he earnestly recites the Declaration of Independence to Stoddard. Framed none too subtly by a background portrait of Lincoln, Pompey stumbles over the phrase, “[a]ll men are created equal.” His teacher gently reminds him, “It’s all right, Pompey. A lot of people forget that part.” Ford has made the film’s sole Black character the earnest mouthpiece of Thomas Jefferson, the voice of an ideal imperfectly fulfilled.

Equally important, Pompey is implicated in the act of killing Liberty, tossing Doniphon the shotgun that finally kills the outlaw. Even more than Doniphon, then, Pompey is the man in the shadows whose role in Shinbone’s founding goes uncredited. He guards the founding myth out of a conviction that the town’s promises—the values of equality and democracy espoused by Stoddard—will one day apply to Pompey himself.

At the movie’s end, Pompey remains behind in Shinbone, his secret preserved, as Senator Stoddard and his wife return by train to Washington. One day, perhaps after Stoddard’s death, Pompey’s side of the story may be told. Yet, judging by the evidence of the film, Pompey is as committed as Doniphon was to sustaining the founding legend.

Seen in the light of today’s debates, the movie suggests a way to reconcile the idealized and revisionist interpretations of U.S. history. On the one hand, it suggests that a purely mythical account of the American Founding masks the violence and mythmaking essential to its origins: Shinbone could not have been civilized without the murder of the outlaw, any less than the United States could have been settled without mass violence. On the other hand, the film suggests that our history is not all exploitation and hypocrisy either, that it contains valuable ideals worth believing in, contrary to those revisionists who see America’s own history as one long train of abuses.

Like Wayne’s character and like John Ford himself, Pompey knows all the facts — but also understands that some legends are worth believing in.

Sean Keeley is a contributing editor at American Purpose and a recent graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

On Screen