Pilgrim goes to Shinbone

The year 1939 was hot for Hollywood. Gone with the Wind. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Wuthering Heights. The Wizard of Oz. Another fertile year, an embarrassment of riches, was 1976. Taxi Driver. Network. Rocky.

Vera Miles and Jimmy Stewart share a tender and defining moment, which underscores a conflict as big as the threat to a man’s life.

But the year I’m stuck on hit me as I re-screened a film so good that I see it over and over: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Roger Ebert called it John Ford’s “pensive” film. It’s one of Ebert’s Great Movies.

Researching critical reaction to this work, and this moment in filmmaking, reaffirmed my sense of another seminal year in movies, maybe the greatest. That year is 1962. I could offer as evidence a confluence of brilliant, disparate films, not just this one but To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.

My ruminations on the four films would run long. I could deal with each in a separate post. Today I just want to talk about the Ford.

Jimmy Stewart’s naïve attorney, Ransom Stoddard, takes Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west, young man,” and meets the face of evil in Lee Marvin’s ruthless thug, Liberty Valance, a hitman for cattlemen vying for perpetual free range. After being beaten savagely by Valance for trying to protect a woman during a stagecoach holdup, Rance recuperates in the town of Shinbone, where he washes dishes in the town restaurant and has a bed off the kitchen. Against the advice of people who say it’ll only attract violence, he hangs up a lawyer shingle.

Macho John Wayne warns our new town lawyer, whom he calls ‘Pilgrim,’ how men handle conflict out West (Pinterest photo).

Vera Miles’s Hallie, illiterate, rough mannered, begins to fall for a man whom nothing in her past could have prepared her for; a man quite unlike Tom Doniphon, played by broad-shouldered John Wayne in a role made for him, a role that is, for my money, better than that of his racist scout in the much lauded Ford movie The Searchers.

Stoddard won’t bow to Doniphon’s suggestion that disputes get settled with guns out West. The stammering, loveable Stewart character steadfastly studies his law books, bent on figuring out a way to put the notorious local terrorist in jail. Meanwhile, Valance jeers at apron-clad Stoddard, who, undaunted in his mission to do good, has started a little school for local citizens, including Hallie.

Meanwhile, Dutton Peabody, played by brilliant character actor Edmond O’Brien, is the erudite, drunken newspaperman who decides to act bravely in reporting on the depredations of Valance and his gang, bent as they are on intimidating everyone “south of the picket wire” into forgetting about their vision of statehood. Valance is paid by big ranchers to make sure open range does not yield to towns, schools, and civilization.

Valance continues to menace. Lee Marvin does bellicose villainy to perfection, including just that touch of wit that makes a bad guy all the more tingly and watchable. As the clamor against Valance and his ilk gains momentum, he finally calls out Stoddard, who has helped the town nominate delegates to the territorial convention. The feckless town marshal, Link Appleyard, a sympathetic if clownish Andy Devine turn, can do nothing about it.

When Liberty Valance beats the newsman Peabody nearly to death for the temerity to print the truth, Stoddard cannot find it in himself to run, an option offered by Doniphon, who has his helper ready with a buckboard to get the endangered tenderfoot out of town. Rance Stoddard will face Liberty on the street, though he has no skill with a gun, as a previous tutoring session by Wayne’s peerless shootist made clear. Stoddard’s willingness to die brings the story to a climax — and a denouement of excruciating poignancy.

Nobody does menace better than Lee Marvin (Pinterest photo).

One needs but to view the ruined, embittered visage of Doniphon after he sees the girl he fancies (and intended to marry) clutching and crying over the miraculously alive Rance Stoddard to witness John Wayne’s brilliance.

When I used this movie in the classroom, I asked students to tell me who the hero was. Their thoughtful hesitancy in responding spoke to the complexity of the film.

The truth of the title does out; the whole movie is a flashback confession. But the reaction of the frame-story editor of the Shinbone Star, a line that became famous, defies the perception of media as sleazy and opportunistic.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says the editor of the paper that was decades before helmed by Peabody. He balls up the pages of notes — a blockbuster score for any mercenary newspaperman — and commits them to the potbellied stove.

When Jimmy Stewart, white haired, now married to Hallie, has to hear yet again the tagline he has never been able to shake in the trainman’s well-meaning “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” and that match he was going to light his pipe with burns out, and both he and his wife gaze into the horizon of their collective fates, we feel everything merging in a perfect symphony of grief, gratitude, and wonder. This black-and-white classic rings with myth.

We might have associated John Ford with a hawkish and chauvinistic attitude about the destiny and role of America, but this movie asks the complex questions. I wonder if the pivotal character might be Hallie, whose heart cannot help reaching out to the man who possesses none of the qualities her upbringing might have associated with manhood, but a man whose courage will define the lives not only of him and her, but of a people.

Who is the hero?

“Maybe there’s more than one,” one boy in my class ventured.

I think he’s right.

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