POST-GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS….A HANDY TEN

The “Golden Age” of the Hollywood western is generally conceded to have stretched from 1946 to 1962. It’s bounded by the respective releases of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in the former year* and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in the latter.

Based on the films each man released in ’62, the hand-off from Ford to Peckinpah should have been a natural one. What happened instead was what we like to call The Sixties.

All that’s beyond the scope of what I’m after here, which is simply to suggest some films for viewing that, taken together, make up an impressive legacy of their own. Call them markers on a trail to what might have been…

The Shooting (1966)
D. Monte Hellman

Harrowing. This film is as unsettling as In a Lonely Place…perhaps more so, because it doesn’t have Humphrey Bogart’s, or even Gloria Grahame’s, level of star power to supply a set of foundational assumptions. With this and Ride in the Whirlwind, Hellman invented what came to be called Acid Westerns. That’s a ridiculous moniker (did anyone think to call Lonely Place Acid Noir? As though it’s destabilizing qualities were merely hallucinatory? Thought not.) When Warren Oates is the stable one, you’re in another land alright. But it’s one that could only be reached through the gateway of the western–not a pill. Next to this, the best spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch look silly and ham-handed. Not to mention light-hearted.

Hombre (1966)
D. Martin Ritt

Strong by any standard. One of Newman’s signature “H” movies (The Hustler, Hud, Harper) and perhaps the best. Not least because his character has no redeeming quality except that he’s right. This is Stagecoach turned into a nightmare. One where the characters never quite wake up. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Martin Ritt (who made an awful lot of good movies for a guy who doesn’t get talked about much) watched a lot of Boetticher-Scott westerns somewhere along the way. Or maybe Elmore Leonard (who wrote the source material for this and Boetticher’s The Tall T–as here, Richard Boone played the villain) just brought certain qualities out of people.

True Grit (1969)
D. Henry Hathaway

Don’t sleep on this one just because John Wayne’s Oscar winning performance is larger than life even by his standards or because there’s been a fine remake. Kim Darby is still the definitive Mattie Ross. George MacDonald Fraser’s assertion that the line readings throughout are the closest we’ll ever have to hearing Victorian western speech as it was actually spoken makes it plain this is a window into a lost world. Charles Portis’ source novel provided dozens of memorable lines…and Marguerite Roberts’ script added a few more, without missing a beat. I still wish they had kept Portis’ ending, but everything else is in place. For Wayne and Darby and a host of fine characterizations (Strother Martin and Robert Duval are especially memorable) it will always be worth revisiting.

Bad Company (1972)
D. Robert Benton

One of the best roles Jeff Bridges ever had while he quietly went about being the best actor of his generation. Here, he and an equally effective Barry Brown are green as grass Civil War draft-dodgers heading west….and finding out maybe marching off the war wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all. Bridges’ brand of American innocence is even funnier–and warmer–in a western setting. It’s a shame he didn’t come along twenty years earlier, when he might have made a dozen of these.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
D. Robert Aldrich

Aldrich and star Burt Lancaster had been players in the Golden Age and even made a couple of fine westerns together (Apache and the wonderful Vera Cruz, with Gary Cooper). This gave them an opportunity to raise their game and they were more than up to the task. Lancaster was never better than as a grizzled scout trying to help a green lieutenant (a superbly callow, but learning fast, Bruce Davison), track down a renegade Apache band and perhaps even live to tell the tale. This might be seen as re-revisionist western–a kind of answer film to Arthur Penn’s misguided Little Big Man, which had perverted Thomas Berger’s great novel from comedy into parody, and presented the warrior cultures of the Plains Indians (in that case the Cheyenne, who held the U.S. Cavalry at bay for forty years) as peace loving flower children. No one, at least, will emerge from watching Ulzana’s Raid for the first or twentieth time under any misapprehension that Apaches would have been at home in the Age of Aquarius….or welcomed hippies into their own age.

The Shootist (1976)
D. Don Siegel

A setup to be sure. John Wayne, cancer victim and last of the Golden Age cowboys, playing John Bernard Books, cancer victim and last of the Old West gunfighters. But, with the great Don Siegel (like Martin Ritt, an underappreciated pro’s pro) at the helm, an impeccable cast (Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone–one could go on) and a lean, well-measured script, it defies expectations and transcends its own nostalgia. It self-consciously echoes a hundred westerns, none more than Shane. Except this time, the gunfighter does not ride out of the valley. And it isn’t clear what he has done for Civilization–except represent the best of what it inevitably washes away.

The Quick and the Dead (1987)
D. Robert Day

In the eighties, the western was represented most ably on television, with adaptations of Louis L’Amour (usually starring either Sam Eiliott or Tom Selleck) leading the way. This and the Selleck vehicle, Crossfire Trail, are my own favorites and can stand for the lot–fine westerns that might not have stood out in the Golden Age, but certainly would have held their own. Elliott and Selleck, both excellent, are a wash and Crossfire Trail gave Wilfred Brimley the role of a lifetime. Still, I’m giving this one the edge because it has a slightly more expansive story and a fine performance by the always under-utilized Kate Capshaw, as an eastern woman adapting to the mindset of the frontier more rapidly  than her husband (an equally good Tom Conti), in part because she grasps how vulnerable any woman (let alone one as fetching as Kate Capshaw) is in a land where the law is what you make it.

Lonesome Dove (Miniseries) (1989)
D. Simon Wincer

Speaking of television….This epic mini-series blew the doors open when it first aired. There was serious talk of the western being revived in a way that hasn’t really occurred since. And it’s all that. None of the fine cast were ever better, and, though the story is an old one (it’s about a cattle drive after all), the mini-series length gave Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval, among others, a scope rarely afforded elsewhere. They took full advantage. The effect on Duval’s career was unfortunate. He’s satisfied himself with playing old coots ever since, with markedly diminishing returns. Jones didn’t get his mojo back until he learned to laugh at himself in the Men in Black series. But that doesn’t diminish what they did here, in the company of the strongest female cast to appear in any western (again, the length matters)–Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Glenne Headly, all superb. The other volumes in the Lonesome Dove series are good, especially Streets of Laredo, with James Garner and Sissy Spacek taking over the Jones and Lane roles (and being everything you would expect from those two). I also recommend Larry McMurtry’s source books. But the space opened up here has never been filled by anything else, making it, in its own way, as epic as anything done by the old masters.

Appaloosa (2008)
D. Ed Harris

An entertaining, if troubling, update on the town-taming ethos. The set up is similar to Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s entertaining, if troubling, take on the town-taming ethos from 1959. I like Appaloosa better. The story is tighter, the grim psychology more relentless and logical. And there’s a rare good middle-age role for Renee Zellweger. Those who worry about the western (or any action) genre bleeding into fascism will not be comforted, but not being comforted is a symptom of the concerned citizen and you could spend your life worrying about subjects a lot less worthy of your time and attention. And I’m normally not big on actors directing, but Ed Harris does a lovely, understated job here. No fancy camera tricks, just straight, non-nonsense storytelling that lets the good actors (including himself) do their thing.

True Grit (2010)
D. Joel and Ethan Coen

It feels a little odd to include both versions of True Grit on such a small list. Thee are other worthy candidates even if I did leave off spaghetti westerns (God help me, I do like Sergio Leone), Peckinpah (I like several of his later westerns, including, until the end, The Wild Bunch–that’s the part that excites a lot of people but seems to me senseless bluster), or spoofs (highly recommend the Kennedy/Garner Support duo and Waterhole #3).

But I can’t choose between them and I certainly can’t leave them both off. This has the advantage of great atmosphere and sticks reasonably close to Portis’ story and language. Jeff Bridges proves again that a lot was lost when he didn’t get to make more westerns. Matt Damon acquits himself well. Hailee Steinfeld makes for a compelling contrast to Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross and gives the role her own stamp–maybe proving that, like Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s just a great character, open to a wide array of interpretations. And the Coens more or less restored the book’s ending, pulling the punch only slightly by not having the older Mattie recite the entire last paragraph of the novel, which gets my vote for the finest ending of any American novel. It was a hit and, once more, there was talk of reviving the western. There always will be such talk–the western is in our DNA. But if we have to live with what we have, it’s still a lifetime investment getting to know the best of it. If you want to take that journey, everything here is worth adding to your list.

**NOTE: Howard Hawks’ Red River was shot in 1946 but not released until 1948. According to one of the film’s stars, Joanne Dru, the main reason was trouble in the editing room, resolved when Hawks sought Ford’s advice (Ford did not, so far as I know, do any actual editing but made some key suggestions). Hawks later admitted to Peter Bogdanovich that Ford was always in his head anyway. I mention it only to illustrate that Ford was always in everybody’s head. Regarding anyone who’s up to any good, he still is, even if they’ve never heard of him.

 

JOHN FORD’S WOMEN….A HANDY TEN

This is a rare photograph of John Ford without either his eye-patch or trademark dark glasses. It was taken in a military setting (1951 in the Philippines according to the on-line source I copied it from), but it’s appropriate for this post because the old line about Ford wearing those dark glasses to hide his vulnerability is in line with today’s subject…and fully evident here.

Now here’s a subject. Ford has been accused of every bad thing–he might be unique in the degree to which he is suspected of bad-think by progressives and reactionaries in about equal measure–and there are plenty of people who consider his treatment of women regressive at best.

As usual, this view tends to say more about those who hold it than Ford’s actual films. Not more than a handful of directors across the world–forget Hollywood–gave as many good actresses as many good roles. The list of those who delivered breakthrough and/or career-defining performances in Ford films (often against the grain of everyone else’s expectations*) includes Hattie McDaniel, Anne Shirley, Jean Arthur, Claire Trevor, Shirley Temple (as child and young woman), Maureen O’Hara, Donna Reed, Jane Darwell, Sara Algood, Anna Lee, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Olive Carey, Constance Towers and Vera Miles. That’s not even including all the performances listed below (Henrietta Crossman did not, alas, become a big star), the great performances he got from established stars like Claudette Colbert and Anne Bancroft, or the legion of small parts that deepened some of Ford’s best films (see Marjorie Weaver in Young Mr. Lincoln ** or Beulah Archuletta in The Searchers for prime examples).

It’s true that giving great roles to women was not the first thing worth remembering about Ford (as it was, perhaps, about George Cukor), but I suspect the criticisms that have come from the Left (in Ford’s day and ever since) and often been verified by the Right (that’s what “conservatives”  mainly do…accept, and therefore conserve, whatever Narrative emerges, be it true or, as in this case, false), have more to do with disapproval of the kinds of women Ford valued (pretty much all of them, so long as they had a spark of honor and didn’t represent one of Hollywood’s plethora of easy ways out), than the sensitivity and nuance he, almost alone, accorded them.

Even in westerns.

Even in war movies.

The depth and breadth of the women he did portray, and the broad spectrum of actresses he hired to play them, did not really permit a “type” in the manner of Hitchcock or Howard Hawks. There was no room for fantasy creatures, however beguiling, in a canon devoted to understanding how civilizations are built and maintained.

For that you needed a gallery like this one, where Ten hardly scratches the surface.

Henrietta Crossman as “Hannah Jessop”
Pilgrimage (1933)

Knowing Crossman only from Pilgrimage, Ford’s first great narrative film of the sound era, it’s almost shocking to come across pictures of her that prove she was once young and occasionally even smiled. None of that is evident in her harrowing, embittered performance as Hannah Jessop a rural southern woman who signs her son up for the draft in WWI rather than see him marry a local girl of whom she does not approve. In early cinema, this is as striking and unsettling a performance as Renee Falconetti’s title role in The Passion of Joan of Arc, except Crossman’s character is not at odds with either history or herself.

Not, in other words, for the faint of heart.

Claire Trevor as “Dallas”
Stagecoach (1939)

The girl Hannah Jessop didn’t want her son to marry, cast back to the Arizona frontier of the previous century. On one level, it’s a Hooker With a Heart of Gold cliche (though it had much to do with defining that cliche). But it’s also a sound representation of the travails faced by women on the frontier. The life John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is determined to save her from flits in and out of her expressions for an hour and a half.

Then they take a walk into the heart of it, side by side, and, the first or fiftieth time you watch it, you can feel that life closing back around her.

Trevor (and Ford) got that the cliche not only had a foundation in reality, they understood that the reality involved a great deal of self-loathing, which needed only the tiniest scratch on the surface to show through This is one of those performances that seems all about that surface at first, until you realize that’s just how such a person would be forced to live, just the masks they would be forced to adopt–unless, as here, a miracle arrives.

She gets that part–and all that such a miracle would mean to this woman–as well.

Edna May Oliver as “Mrs. McKlennar”
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Supporting role or not (I wrote about Claudette Colbert’s lovely performance as the lead, here–it shouldn’t be overlooked that Ford often had two or more strong female performances in an era when one was nearly always enough for his competition), this is one of the towering performances of pre-war cinema.

Oliver captures for all time a type that was invaluable on the frontier and still recognizable in the neighborhoods where I grew up in the sixties and seventies. Bawdy, prickly, judgmental, generous to those worthy of her respect, ready with a tongue-lashing for those who weren’t, level-headed, good-humored, nobody’s fool and a rock in any crisis.

Except for here, she never got full representation in our movies. I haven’t seen her around lately and I hope she’s not really gone. Because if she is, we are too.

(Oliver lost the Oscar to Gone With the Wind‘s Hattie McDaniel, who had her breakout role in Ford’s Judge Priest five years earlier. I don’t want to call that one. It’s one of those years I wish there had been a tie.)

Jane Darwell as “Ma Joad”
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Iconic. The only actress to win an Oscar in a Ford film (there should have been others–starting with Crossman–but that’s a topic for another time).

As Darwell portrays her, Ma Joad is broad, sentimental, prone to bouts of emotion (except when there’s a real crisis). Again, the wrong kind of woman to appeal to our “modern” ideas. And, again, a type familiar from my childhood (Ford’s films are virtually the only place the people I grew up around have ever found sympathetic representation).

Florence King had the best line about the women Darwell’s “Ma” embodied: “They got their name in the paper three times. When they were born, when they married and when they died.”

Growing up, I took the permanent presence of such women for granted.

More fool me.

More fool us.

Donna Reed as “Sandy Davyss”
They Were Expendable (1945)

Reed’s breakout role, as a WAC caught in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor.

This is one of those characters who might seem rote at first, like all any good actress needed to do was hit her marks.

Until you realize how much Reed has to convey–the full weight of a first record of how American women bore up under the existential crisis of the twentieth century–and how easily and naturally she does every last bit of it. Then you start thinking of who else could have done it as well….and the mind blanks. Then the mind laughs.

How did Ford know, in 1945, that the mousy little contract player taking bit parts on the lot would be Donna Reed? (And I’m not saying he knew it in casting, because I don’t even know if he was responsible for casting her–but you can bet he knew it by the time the camera rolled.)

Well, that’s just the sort of thing Ford always seemed to know.

(FYI: Based largely on this role–a model, witting or unwitting, for Dana Delaney in China Beach, one of the three or four best characters in the history of television–Reed received hundreds of letters from servicemen. She read every one, answered every one, kept every one, told no one. Her daughter discovered the letters only after her mother died.)

Joanne Dru as “Denver”
Wagon Master (1950)

A hooker who doesn’t come close to having a heart of gold…but she might be persuaded to settle down.

Ford’s dreamlike ending leaves the question of whether she does less settled than you might think and Dru’s performance (her best for my money, though she was also excellent in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Hawks’ Red River, on which she claimed Ford gave extensive editing assistance) is filled with glances and expressions and lost looks that don’t give away so much that you can ever feel like you know her all the way through.

Just well enough that you’re rooting for her. Again, the right choice for a woman in her position. Given the 1849 setting she might be the mother who was massacred and left Stagecoach‘s Dallas an orphan who was forced into the same trade.

If she settled down, that is….

Maureen O’Hara as “Mary Kate Danaher”
The Quiet Man (1952)

O’Hara starred for Ford five times (more than any other leading lady in the sound era), including her breakout role in How Green Was My Valley and her defining role here.

My own favorite is her Cavalry wife in Rio Grande, but there’s no gainsaying this. It’s the most iconic role any woman had in a Ford film (edging Darwell in Grapes of Wrath as it’s a lead). And O’Hara is brilliant. She and John Wayne made every other screen romance look contrived and Ford was able to hang anything he wanted on the combustible chemistry they created.

He got carried away here and there, but every time the camera swung back to Mary Kate Danaher–which was often–the film was back on track. In some ways, it was the director’s chance to prove he could do the things so many claimed he couldn’t–mainly sex and romance.

Those people were already wrong. Here, with the Irish redhead’s fiery assistance, he made them look silly.

Ava Gardner as “Honey Bear Kelly”
Mogambo (1953)

And if that hadn’t done it, this would have.

This is a fairly straight remake of Red Dust, a pre-code sizzler from Ford’s buddy Victor Fleming. Gardner has the Jean Harlow part as a show girl stranded in the wild (here, Africa), hoping to hang her hat on the local big cheese (here, as in Red Dust, Clark Gable, only now graying at the temples).

Somewhere along the way, it turns from lust to love. For her at least. Again a pretty standard part…but Gardner does wonders with it. I love Harlow and Red Dust might be her very best. But Gardner’s Kelly feels like she has miles on her and knows there’s one chance to shed them before they add up to a weight she can’t throw off….and an empty life.

You never felt Harlow’s character was on the verge of breaking, that she was walking all the way up to a line that couldn’t be re-crossed.

You can feel Honey Bear Kelly doing just that.

Watch this on a triple bill with Stagecoach and Wagon Master some time for a master class in how to pick up the same stone and draw blood from it three completely different ways.

Vera Miles as “Hallie Stoddard”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

There are actually people who profess not the get either Miles or her character in this movie.

I wonder if it’s just possible they get her all too well.

This would be one of the great performances if only for her reading of the greatest passage in American fiction: “Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?” (You have to run some to beat “You don’t own me!” which, two years before it showed up in Lesley Gore’s demo pile, is also here, also hers–and perfect.)

But it’s not comforting. It doesn’t permit the space modernity demands for cuddling up.

Miles wasn’t so much the aging Ford’s perfect muse as his perfect match. Every other western he made after The Searchers–all of which featured fine actresseswas diminished by her absence.

All she had to do here was hold her own in the middle of a triangle formed by John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin, all at their best. She made it look easy, which is probably why, like a lot of Ford’s women, she’s never gotten credit for it. Either that, or it’s the character people are afraid of–a woman who chose the only way she could and lived to realize that she will never be granted the comfort of knowing whether she chose wrongly.

One of the ten best performances given by an American actress–and I’m not sure you need the gender distinction.

Had it not been given by a woman in a John Ford western this would be nowise controversial.

Anne Bancroft as “Dr. D.R. Cartwright”
7 Women (1966)

Ford’s final completed film.

The frontier has moved to a Chinese mission post, where Bancroft’s D.R. Cartwright–doctor and skeptic–arrives as the emergency medical assistance.

There’s probably more debate about the quality of this film than any of his others. I lean toward the positive, though I’d like to see a quality print before I die (with Ford, the visuals comment on everything else, so being forced to watch a washed-out bootleg is even more of a handicap than usual).

But most people agree on the quality of Bancroft’s performance, which is on a par with her iconic work in The Miracle Worker and The Graduate. Ford was a devout Catholic but his films are filled with bristling critiques of both religious fanaticism and false piety–never more than here. A mission post isn’t as far from his usual concerns as you might think and Cartwright is as representative of his world view as any character could be.

That Ford didn’t like Bancroft’s performance (she was cast after Patricia Neal had a stroke a few days into the shoot) was probably indicative of his capacity for self-loathing. This is one of those times when it’s best not to take him seriously.

There’s never a time when we shouldn’t take his great films seriously.

Certainly not now.

I won’t give away the ending, but D.R. Cartwright’s final scene still has a lot to teach us.

[NOTES:

*One of my favorite Ford anecdotes, which I really hope is true, regards Grace Kelly, not considered “box office” enough at the time for the role Ford wanted her to play in Mogambo (where she would have to hold her own against the established star power of Ava Gardner and Clark Gable).

The honchos were not impressed by either the films she had done (including High Noon) or her existing screen tests, all of which were in black and white.

“Shoot her in color,” Ford said. “She’ll knock you on your ass.”

They shot her in color. Mogambo–unjustly neglected these days–became the biggest hit of Ford’s career and made Kelly a star. Alfred Hitchcock and the Prince of Monaco were among those suitably impressed.

**Mary Tyler Moore’s performance on television is, to my mind, the definitive Mary Todd Lincoln. But it’s a shame Weaver never got a shot at a full-length portrait. In Young Mr. Lincoln she has to convey a Mary Todd who was rarely, if ever, seen elsewhere in history or fiction–the one who Abe Lincoln either fell in love with or simply regarded as his likeliest portal into the good graces of the polite society which would be required for the fulfillment of his political ambitions. Weaver–who has perhaps ten minutes on screen–does not neglect either possibility, or the perils lying within.]

 

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.”)