THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (I Watch Westerns: Take Nine)

The Law and Jake Wade (1958)
D. John Sturges

(Mild spoilers concerning film’s first ten minutes included)

The Law and Jake Wade begins with Robert Taylor’s Jake Wade riding alone into the deserted streets of a two-horse town just after dawn. Five minutes later, he’s broken Richard Widmark’s Clint Hollister out of jail.

They aren’t about to ride off on an adventure together. And they aren’t exactly friends. Wade owes Hollister a debt of honor. That’s all.

The complicating factor is that Wade also knows the whereabouts of twenty thousand dollars that he doesn’t care about. Hollister knows Wade knows. It’s his twenty thousand dollars. And he wants it very badly.

Wade, for reasons that never need overt explanation because they emerge from the story the way such things should, like a photograph from emulsion, doesn’t want him to have it.

It’s what you might call a conflict. Its resolution makes for one of the tightest plots you’ll find anywhere.

By the time Hollister kidnaps Wade and his girl (that’s about five more minutes in), he’s rounded up his and Wade’s old gang. From there, with cross-tracking aplenty, the story runs on three rails: the feud between Wade and Hollister, now centered around the implicit threat to Wade’s fiance (Patricia Owens, whose preternatural softness creates a startling contrast with the harsh men and harsher landscapes–the effect of her separateness doubled by her being the only woman who appears on-screen, where, like everyone but Wade and Hollister, she has one name, which might as well be “Peggy” as anything else); the journey to the gold (complicated by not only Wade’s reticence, but the presence of both cavalry and Comanches) and, most tellingly, a study in a William Quantrill-style psychopath’s hold on his command of a dwindling outlaw band.

The band consists of four additional men–all register strongly, delivering nuanced portraits of men caught between fear of their leader and the incrementally conflicting urge to survive. They’re types you recognize, but rendered indelible: Henry Silva’s Rennie as The Kid, currying favor with the leader’s authority one minute, itching to challenge it the next; DeForest Kelley’s Wexler, consumed by grievances that may burn all the deeper for being ill-defined; Eddie Firestone’s Burke, a weak-willed Robert Ford type, in the process of losing his last illusions; and, foremost among them, Robert Middleton’s Ortero, in a beautifully shaded performance as a second lieutenant caught between his respective loyalties to feuding commanders.

Those loyalties have been forged in a hot fire–the guerrilla warfare exemplified by Quantrill and Bill Anderson in the Civil War’s most vicious theater–a life Wade has ridden away from and the others are caught in for good, whether or not they ever reach the gold.

It’s the gradual dawning of that recognition–the present dangers merging with the underlying desperation of lives headed for violent death in any case–that lifts The Law and Jake Wade into the very highest echelon of fifties’ westerns, which is the highest echelon there is.

Well that and Sturges’ always crisp direction being delivered at the business end of a razor-sharp script by William Bowers. Sturges was a peerless action director and The Law and Jake Wade contains some of his tersest sequences. Despite being considerably shorter, the final shootout between Widmark and Taylor rivals the one between James Stewart and Stephen McNally at the end of Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73. There’s no higher praise than that. And it follows on other startling sequences: Wade and Peggy’s sudden leap to freedom over a sand cliff; a brutal Indian attack highlighted by Sturges’ unique ability to put danger straight in the audience’s face, to experience it as his characters do; sometimes, just the way Sturges catches Widmark’s feline style of movement like no other director.

All this adds up to a story that winds tighter and tighter–and doesn’t disperse its basic tension on repeated viewings. In good stories, lives are at stake; in great ones, souls are at stake. Souls were never put more consistently to the test than in the top-drawer westerns made between 1946 and 1962. The stakes here are more personal, less civilizational, than in the era’s best known, definitive westerns. But they’re just as real and just as intense.

And the great theme–the one we’ve since neglected at our civilizational peril–remains the same. You can shove it under the rug–let it be handled by special forces ops, for instance, whose usefulness to the presiding Overlords of any given age has a spiritual affinity with the likes of Quantrill we’ve decided is best left unexamined–but it always crawls back out.

Sooner or later, you have to kill the bad man….

Because if you don’t, he’ll kill you.

HAUNTING THE PRESENT…THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE AT FIFTY-FIVE (I Watch Westerns: Take Six)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, D. John Ford)

Some day I’ll get back to John Ford’s people, which is the only way to get at the  unique narrative depth of his films. For now, the present calls.

And you know the drill: “This is the west sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

As our benighted populace works itself into its latest Twitter-fueled tizzy, busily convincing itself that it really is different this time, that “fake news” is something more than the latest euphemism for “news,” the only news fit to print is that John Ford, the “mythmaker” who couldn’t have made myths as rapidly as he deconstructed them if he had spent his life on a gerbil wheel, remains both the most misunderstood American artist and the most contemporary. What he asked, we spend our lives–and what’s left of our national narrative–answering, even if more and more of us never heard of him.

What he asks in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is not whether we should allow comfortable legends to displace disorienting facts (an issue he does address, here and elsewhere, often in profound and troubling ways) but something which is itself both simpler and more difficult.

“Aren’t you proud?”

The question is posed near the end of the film. It’s directed at James Stewart’s Senator Ransom Stoddard by his “good wife” Hallie, whose maiden name we have never learned. They are riding a train–especially commandeered for their use–away from the western town of Shinbone, which exists in a territory-become-state that seems closest to Colorado. As it is asked by Hallie Stoddard–and by the actress who played her–the question has no answer.

Yes, of course, we are proud–Ransom Stoddard and our pioneer ancestors and us.

Yes, of course, we are the furthest thing from proud. Ransom Stoddard. Our pioneer ancestors. Us.

After all: Look….Look what we’ve done!

And:

God help us, look what we’ve done….

“Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden….Aren’t you proud?”

Vera Miles spoke those lines on a movie set, sometime in the early sixties. She was playing a character sitting on a train as it rolled through a “garden” at the turn of the previous century, a character who has spent the previous half-day being brought face-to-face with the memories of her life in the “wilderness” of the 1860s or 70s.

We’ve seen who she was: an illiterate firebrand who has never seen a “real rose” and yearns–one might even say burns–for betterment, learning, civilization.

We’ve seen who she has become: cultured, worldly, frozen.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is her story because it’s the entire American story, maybe the entire story of Western Civilization, boiled down to a single scene.

This scene:

Only Ford would make a complex narrative film where the central conflict is played out between two people who share only this one scene and never exchange a word of dialogue.

Do they need to?

It’s all right there. Her fear. His arrogance. A room full of men in which only one (John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon, glimpsed at the far rear of the second frame above, where only Ford would resist cutting to an instant reaction shot of him**) can protect her.

Doniphon’s presence is felt. The scene even plays out with him challenging Valance, not over whether he’s Hallie’s protector–that’s a given and, like so much else, unspoken–but whether (by proxy of a dust-up over a steak spilled on the floor by James Stewart’s “new waitress”) he will extend his protection to a Civilization which, by the careful none-of-my-business postures of every other man in the room, we know will not assert, let alone defend, itself.

And, of course, in the end, he will do just that…and make the garden where the existential question “Aren’t you proud?” can finally be asked, some thirty years hence, over the memory of his own coffin.

By which time every answer the question can yield is a tragedy because the “garden” has come at the expense of the only happiness he cared about.

Not his own.

Hers.

Aren’t you proud?

(**Peter Bogdanovich, a Ford confidante in the years after Valance was made, is fond of telling about a similar sort of decision from the set of 1941’s How Green Was My Valley. The outline of Walter Pidgeon’s Doniphon-like priest is seen in the far background while Maureen O’Hara’s Hallie Stoddard-like bride rides off to a loveless marriage in a rich man’s motor car. A cameraman asked Ford if he didn’t want a reaction shot of Pidgeon up on the hill. “Aw no,” the Narrativist groaned. “They’ll just use it.”)