“A senator returns to the town of Shinbone for the funeral of his friend, and tells the truth about the death of an outlaw.”
Directed By: John Ford Rated: Approved, 123 min
A man killing a man don’t mean much. It might mean more sweat for the undertaker, less for the doctor. But a pinch of sand from here spilled there don’t much change the balance of things. It begins to mean something when two men fight for ideas. That kind of killing leaves a mark on a place that doesn’t go away.
Shinbone is hardly a name for a town, but then again, it was even less of a place before somebody shot Liberty Valance. Now the houses sit in ordered rows behind neat hedges. Trees grow dutifully in front lawns and the marshal sits in the shade of the porch like a lazy cat. A train rounds a hill and the sun throws the shadows of the cars so exactly they could have been sketched in charcoal on the dust and across the tired looking marshal who doesn’t wear a star anymore. He never fought crime and now he drives the buggy to places that no one remembers where no one lies. Today though, he’ll drive the senator. A senator steps out of the train. He is several sizes too big to fit in the main square of Shinbone but he kindly allows the sheriff and the editor of the newspaper draw him away for an interview. Unnoticed, his wife gets into the buggie. She remarks to the marshal on all the changes in the town. ”The desert’s still the same,” the old marshal replies. He might be right, but no one goes out to it enough to know.
The senator and his wife both wear black, but no one knows who died, apart from them, the marshal who was never a marshal, and a tall gaunt man who waits in a back room with so few words, he might as well have been a long shadow cast by a setting sun. A box sits in a back room. The box is small and plain and contains a man. His boots have been stolen. The editor of the town’s newspaper wonders why such an odd cast, high and low, have gathered for the burial of a person no one seems to know. The senator, Ransom Stottard, played by Jimmy Stewart, begins to tell a story.
Once, when Ranse was young, and the country was little smaller, and its dreams a little bigger, he followed another man’s advice, and went West where he had a fateful meeting. In the night, a bandit stops their coach. It’s nothing out of the ordinary – an ordinary act of violence for an ordinary greed. But when Liberty Valance sees the young lawyer’s books, he knows he has met his nemesis, perhaps for the first time. Before this moment, Valance is not an interesting villain because he doesn’t stand for anything more than himself. He is a pure expression of a man outside law and we wonder as little about him as we do about a storm when it uproots a tree. Storms have a nature to them, so do some men. However, the meeting marks both men with violence and they find themselves suddenly on opposite ends of a battlefield of ideals. Valance has come to represent freedom, though a shade darkened with violence. Ranse advocates the word of law, which will eventually tame and gentle the West, and birth the quiet orderly towns we know of today.
Four forces operate within the film. We have met license and law. The third, Tom Doniphan, played by John Wayne, saves Ranse and brings him to a saloon where he works for his living. Tom represents man when he is free. He believes in tangible things, like Valance, but where Valance believes in coin and blood, Tom believes in fields of grass, in the shy mysteries of the prairie. He believes in the hatred that rises like dust from the streets of the town and the unknown beyond the picket line, where the horses roam like vast thoughts. He might have turned out like Valance but for Hallie, the waitress at the saloon, and the fourth force of the movie.
Hallie is woman. The town dotes on her like punch drunk uncle. She would bully a man over the head with a pin for his cowardice and she’s never afraid to speak her mind but if a man reached out to touch her, she flutter to pieces, like a gathering of butterflies on a branch. Hallie waits tables and waits, never moving and never presuming to explain her feelings or follow them. She waits for Tom, who wanders so vast and lonely a prairie in her mind, he might as well traverse the dark beyond the Milky Way. His leaving fills her with feelings as wide as the sky, and therefore, unsaid, but when he returns, she turns sullen and angry. Because of his strange ideals, she finds Ranse at once opulent and clumsy, foreign enough that she feels obligated to prove herself to him, but in the end more attainable than Tom with his familiar longing for what is alien and apposite to man. Ranse represents a world with enough authority to hang a man for a crime. Hallie can barely judge where her feelings go from one day to the next. It’s natural she respects the mantle of order he dons.
The film appears to be about Ranse making a stand against the lawlessness that Valance represents. But the film operates on much subtler tensions than I expected. It examines men who live on the borders of the map, in places with houses, and yet not quite real. When Ranse arrives in Shinbone, it has a single jail cell and the marshall sleeps in it. He hangs around the back doors of saloons like an alley cat to beg food and when the criminals come, he slips away to his brother in law’s bar. The voice of the Shinbone’s conscience, Peabody, lays drunk in the street. Peabody prints the paper and soliloquies to his jug of cornwhiskey with lines from Hamlet. When he overturns it, and finds it dry, he says sadly “No courage left.” Peabody is probably my favorite character and is the nascent voice of democracy: rough edged, full of high sentence, pompous and overbearing, thoroughly drunk and forgetful, cowardly and yet, he has the courage to speak for liberty. Though Shinbone is not yet a town, its full of characters so big they jostle for room on the screen.
Shinbone has a mythical history and myths and legends are written in the dust . The town will become a place with a history, written in official ink, when Liberty Valance is shot. But the mere killing of Valance won’t provide the ink; the man who pulls the trigger makes the town, and idea behind him. If Tom represents the other face of freedom, then he too must fade away when order comes to straighten the roads and water down the dust and hang electrical lamps from poles. Tom, unlike the other voiceless heroes of Westerns, doesn’t want to bring justice to the town. He remains aloof and indifferent to everything but Hallie and when law comes, he senses his own end along with Valance’s. The words that Ranse carries in his books will smooth the landscape of man’s soul, garden it, tame it, and wear down his red spirit. Tom helps Ranse, knowing Ranse will end his very way of life, and he does it because he knows he is a dying breed. At one point, Ranse hangs a sign outside of the newspaper office. “Attorney at law,” it reads. It’s a small sign, but somewhere in the town a man leans against a wall and strikes his match on a shadow, already more substantial than he is. The sign means death, but for who, no one yet knows. Ranse hangs it anyways.
Progress always moves forward, even if some people stay behind. Progress can’t be stopped, and her skirts are soaked in blood. It’s the fading ideas that catch our eye, afterwards, because of their purity.
When we imagine how the West was tamed, we picture a lawless place that once a wordless hero walked into, and ordered with bullet and blood before receding into the sunset. Justice, like dusk, follows the setting sun. But men never touch the sunset and in the end, there’s always some town they retire to, where a woman they love cries into the arms of another man and gardens of wild flowers grow even more wild with neglect. Men get old while their ideals shine on, cleaner and brighter than they are. Men have to live with their choices. They quicken and fade and loose the edges of their shape faster than the places and virtues that shaped them. We live in a tame land now, a land of places with names written in ink and streets ordered by name. It was not always so. Someone had to die for that to happen. At some point in the golden haze of our past, our time of legends, before towns had names on maps written in ink, and men traded in their holsters for pens, a race of men were handed two choices when they had always known complete freedom. They made the choice to either stand before the funeral parade of progress and catch the final bullet that flew, or to step aside and cast a shadow across a land already fading behind a name like Shinbone.
The Good: John Wayne at his John Wayniness.
The Better: Shinbone is a town of larger than life personalities, the kind you can only meet in the best of Westerns.
The Best: A biopic on the death of the American Legend.