Studies in tortured masculinity

Dark shadows: Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir. John Ford, 1962).

I re-watched John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) earlier this week for the first time in seven years or so, and I’m happy to report that it’s still a masterpiece—one of the most complex and cynical films that Ford ever made.  It’s a film that insists, brutally but casually, that the United States was founded on necessary fictions and transactional deceptions.  Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) knows that the fate of the territory and the nation depend upon the leadership of well-heeled men like Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart), not on the street smarts of tough but unschooled men like himself.  And so he gifts Stoddard the phallic power that the latter needs to win the respect and admiration of the community, knowing even as he does that it will end up costing him the woman he loves (Vera Miles).  More so than in any of his other films, Ford shows that he is deeply aware of the constructedness of the mythology behind America’s heroes at the same time that he insists on the importance of that mythology in building a nation.  (This film would make a superb double bill with Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.) 

The film also remains a portrait of failed masculinity that is almost relentlessly painful to witness.  By this point in his career (especially as a result of his collaborations with Hitchcock) Jimmy Stewart had basically become a specialist in playing impotent men, and Stoddard is perhaps the most painfully impotent of them all—deeply principled and immensely likable in the typical aw-shucks Jimmy-Stewart way, but tortured by the humiliation of not being able to fight back against sadistic bullies like the titular Valance (Lee Marvin).  As a liberal, an academic, and a pacifist, I identify with Stoddard in ways that are themselves torturous.  Tripping up the feminized Stoddard at the local eatery, sending plates of food flying, Valance is the lunchroom bully of every wimpy kid’s nightmares.  In a conservative move typical of Ford, he insists that non-violent men like Stoddard ultimately need to be saved by real men like Wayne’s Tom Doniphon.  But one of the (many) things that saves Liberty Valance from being a vaguely fascistic piece of Cold-War-era gender politics is Ford’s gradual acknowledgement that Stoddard possesses a form of phallic power all his own—intellectual, social, public—to which Doniphon, lacking such power himself, ultimately helps contribute in the only way that he knows how.  All of that said, the first two-thirds of the film, as Stoddard suffers one humiliation after another (at the hands of both Valance and Doniphon, who inflicts upon him a series of taunts, teases, and practical jokes) are quietly agonizing.                   

Stewart and Vera Miles at the end of the film.

The haunted nature of this film is sustained right up to the very final scene with Stoddard and his wife Hallie (Miles) on the train.  Stoddard winces when a steward hails him as “the man who shot Liberty Valance”; we realize that he is doomed to carry the knowledge of his fraudulence to the grave.  (Even when he tries to confess, no one wants to hear it.)  This moment immediately follows his wife’s admission that she placed a cactus rose on Doniphon’s coffin—a reminder that even in matters of love Stoddard has never gotten out of Doniphon’s shadow.  Stewart and Miles, of course, were supposed to have played opposite each other in Vertigo (1957) until Miles got pregnant and had to be replaced by Kim Novak.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is, in its own way, a variation on that film’s tragic crises of masculinity.  Liberty Valance’s ending is not quite so devastating as Vertigo’s; the Stoddards’ marriage appears to be more or less secure, loving and genuine.  But Jimmy Stewart’s face at the end of Liberty Valance is that of a man forever plagued by the feeling that he will never be John Wayne.

John Wayne as Tom Doniphon.

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