Genre and Gender
The portrayal of a definitive masculine ideal is the mainspring of the Western genre. In the classic Western, male and female dynamics are delineated and irreconcilably opposed. As in the screwball comedy, these contrasting values are represented by a series of antinomies around which the action revolves: the book versus the gun, the church versus the saloon, the homesteader versus the rancher, the community versus the individual, civilization versus nature, the garden versus the wilderness, and, indeed, the East versus the West. The first of each of these pairs is associated with femininity and domesticity which, in the world of the Western, ultimately encroach on and supplant the emblematically male wild west.
The Western hero is as tough and stony as the landscape that he inhabits. His identity is not dependent on his relationships or his possessions, since he has few of either. Rather, he defines himself through his ability with a gun and through his understanding of Western codes of behavior, particularly those pertaining to violence. He is a man who does what he has to do, sometimes reluctantly but always with a sense of duty that borders on fatalism.
Usually what he has to do is rid the community of savage forces (generally Indians or outlaws) to make way for the ineluctable coming of civilization. He has, however, a profoundly ambivalent attitude toward the settling of the once primeval West. Although he commits the necessary act of violence, thereby clearing the way for the march of progress, in so doing he helps to bring into being a world that has no place for him. By definition, civilization eschews violence; he, who is defined by violence, cannot exist in the settled, tamed West, so, of necessity, he ends up a loner and a nomad, riding off into the sunset to avoid the trappings of civilized society. The Westerner is, in many ways, a tragic figure. By his nature ineligible for domesticity or matrimony, he is unable to accommodate himself to the modern West and is thus doomed to be a creature of the past. For this reason, the purest instances of the genre have an unmistakably elegiac tone; from The Virginian (1929) through Shane (1954), they are rueful requiems for the death of a world in which real men were untainted by the forces of femininity and civilization.
Archetypal Western women come in two varieties. First, there is the transplanted Eastern woman who, by profession or personality, is a school marm. Educated, chaste, and proper, she represents all of the forces that threaten to displace the world of the wild West. The Western hero respects and protects her and often courts her. But she is his polar opposite, embodying as she does the seeds of progress. She also disapproves of his violent means and her opposition contributes to his own misgiv-ings about violence and, therefore, about himself. For a female soul mate (not to mention for sex), he turns to the other type of Western woman. Euphemistically referred to as the dance hall girl or the good-time gal, she is, in actuality, the town whore. As tough and independent and self-sufficient as the hero, her fate is generally even sorrier than his. Things inevitably end badly for the Western bad woman. At best, she is jilted in favor of the virtuous woman or shunned by the town's self--appointed guardians of morality. At worst she is gunned down or she dies, presumably of some unnamed but fatal moral malady. The details vary from film to film but, in routine Westerns, the women fall into one of these camps, with little latitude for movement between the two. Although unlike the male characters they do not wear black hats or white hats to signal their moral status, as symbols they are equally readable.
Due to its manichean moral vision and its preoccupation with key American conflicts, the Western was one of the earliest and most durable of Hollywood genres. Its prevalence and popularity have Oscillated since it first appeared around the turn of the century. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the last great efflorescence of the genre. During that time a number of directors, most notably John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah, and Bud Boetticher, made what have come to be referred to as mature Westerns: films that varied and complicated the basic formula in order to confront its fundamental moral questions. Often, their films were self-conscious genre transforma-tions that integrated a fondness of the Western's conventions with a purposeful reexamination of those conventions and their implications.
John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one such mature Western. In fact, its maturity borders on jadedness as Ford gazes back on the genre that he helped to create and finds it riddled with moral confusion and fallibility. This is a Western that cross-examines the very foundations of the genre: its inherent racism, its essentially conservative world view, its glorification of violence, its apotheosis of a flawed hero, and its rigidly circumscribed gender delineations. With its account of the making of a hero and its depiction of contrasting&emdash;and equally problematical&emdash;male ideals, Liberty Valance takes on the whole process of myth-making. In so doing, it becomes a film about, among other things, the very workings of story, legend, and genre, and how they indoctrinate us into certain ways of viewing the world.
Liberty Valance begins as an elderly Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) return, for the first time in many years, to Shinbone for the funeral of a now long-forgotten rancher named Tom Donovan (lohn Wayne). Stoddard has built an impressive political career on his legendary status as the man who shot Liberty Valance, a ruthless gunman who for years terrorized the territory's settlers. At the prompting of a local newspaper reporter, Stoddard recounts the events that followed his long ago arrival in Shinbone; these events are shown to us in flashback.
The flashback comprises the central portion of the movie. In it we discover that Tom has been in love with Hallie for some time when Ranse comes to town armed with a new law degree, a satchel of books, and a determination to clean up the area and impose upon it the civilized values of the East. Ranse wins Hallie over in spite of, or perhaps because of, his lack of typically Western manly qualities. Bullied by Liberty Valance, he eventually has to face a showdown with this nemesis of law and order. Local lore has it that, against all odds, he shoots Valance dead, and, thus ensconsed as a hero of legendary proportions, goes on to elective glory. In a flashback within the flashback, however, we learn that it was actually Tom who killed Liberty. Recognizing in Ranse the unavoidable face of the future, Tom reluctantly but inevitably saves him from certain death, cedes Hallie to him, and allows the lie about Liberty's death to remain intact. Whereas Ranse achieves international eminence, Tom languishes in obscurity. Having rid the community of Liberty Valance, he finds that, as a man with a gun and without any civilized ways, he is now an anachronism in the world that he helped to bring about.
In the film's finale, the reporter who has dutifully recorded Stoddard's story rips up his notes declaring, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Apparently, legend is more palatable than fact; we embrace its simplicity and purity and choose to overlook its lies. From the title through the last line of the film, Ford probes the legend and the lies of Western manhood and heroism. He gives us conflicting exemplars of manhood so that, in it, unlike most models of the genre, it is difficult to decide who is actually the hero. It could be either Ranse, the man whom everyone believes shot Liberty Valance, or Tom, the man who really did the vaunted deed.
If the identity and quiddity of the film's hero is in question, however, the claim to villainy is undisputed. Liberty Valance is Western maleness gone psychotic. He has no ambivalence about violence; in fact, he gets a sexual charge out of his sadism. Flaunting black hat and whip, he is the unremitting scourge of civilization. At the town meeting called to elect representatives to the territorial convention, he is brutally frank about his opposition to the values of community, to statehood, and, for that matter, to the entire democratic process. In classic films, the Western hero is something of an ubermensch who subscribes to a sort of holy moral law which, for him, supersedes the laws in the books. His self-sufficiency, ability with a gun, and opposition to change are couched as positive values. But these putative virtues are so distorted in Liberty Valance that he represents vice writ large: Western manhood run amok.