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.”)

QUEEN OF THE EMERALD ISLE (Maureen O’Hara, R.I.P.)

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Maureen O’Hara was as Irish as Irish gets (born a Fitzsimmons) and proud of it. But after about 1939 it was almost impossible to imagine that Ireland, or any land, could have ever contained her particular multitudes. Her rise to the most international sort of stardom was swift and sure, from playing Esmeralda opposite Charles Laughton’s Hunchback, then straight to Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford in three short steps. And, once she got there, her stay on the mountain was as long as just about anyone’s.

Longer frankly than mere talent or star-power could guarantee alone. For the run she had, you need both in abundance. That and the ability to play just about anything while maintaining a core persona that is strong enough for the folks in the cheap seats to never have any doubt it’s you up there.

Just about every film fan has an instant picture in their mind when her name is mentioned. But unlike so many of whom we could say the same, she was impossible to pigeon-hole, even with the false boundaries that so many have tried to hang on her favorite co-star John Wayne. All you need for confirmation is a quick run through her truly iconic parts: who else really pulled off pirate movies, westerns, a Christmas classic, a Disney classic, spy thrillers, comedies, good wives of both the cantankerous and eternally faithful sorts and, oh yeah, Esmeralda? Sure, there were maybe a few. Pick your own list. But you probably won’t need your second hand to count them all.

Good luck getting a read on her away from the screen either. She never forgave Walt Disney for billing her second to Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap and went to her grave insisting there was nothing to do with John Ford but to love him even though he once punched her in the face.

Very Irish all that. But more than that, very Maureen. She was a truly brilliant actress and a luminous movie star who was always absolutely and thrillingly herself.

Somebody who could break your heart just by being…

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…or put a smile on a blind man’s face a thousand yards away.

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Not just the last of her kind, then. The only of her kind.