Terrorism in the Old West


The murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo didn’t surprise me, because of an odd personal coincidence. One of the very first movies I remember affecting me deeply as a child contained a similar incident. I have replayed this act of onscreen brutality many times in my mind.  When you’re a child, you believe what you see. To me it was history, a real incident, not drama. As a result, I have understood since then that there are “bad guys” who will kill because someone prints things they disagree with.

I didn’t select the film. My parents liked Westerns, and they took us to a double feature at the drive-in. I watched from the folded-down back end of a station wagon, my hands gripping the top of the front seat in hyper focused attention. Neither my parents nor I had any way of knowing it was one of the last classic morality tales directed by one of America’s finest mythmakers, John Ford.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is about the process and the cost of bringing order to a frontier. An esteemed old politician and his wife are returning home for the funeral of a friend. As they reminisce, the film goes into flashback. A stagecoach is held up, and when a man objects to the female passengers being robbed of their heirlooms, the leader of the thieves beats him savagely with a whip handle. The beaten man is the politician, who back then was a newly licensed lawyer. The territory he has traveled to is struggling to decide whether or not to seek statehood. Farmers and town dwellers want it, and the cattlemen do not.

The chief bad man is ironically named Liberty Valance. The name sounds like words meaning freedom and bravery, but the character epitomizes intimidation by violence. He and his henchmen have been terrorizing the town of Shinbone for some time. The only two with enough courage to oppose Liberty (Lee Marvin) are a local farmer played by John Wayne, and the lawyer, played by James Stewart. Wayne is good with a gun. Stewart wields the law, and he is being pressured to carry a gun as well, though he can barely shoot.

Shinbone must appoint two delegates to a territorial convention to decide statehood. Liberty tries to hijack the proceedings and force the citizens to elect him, but they vote for the lawyer and the local journalist. Valance challenges the lawyer to a gun duel. The newsman makes the “defeet” the next day’s front-page story. That’s where the scene that prepared me for the murders at Charlie Hebdo came in. The bad guys ambush the editor, assault him, and trash the office.

One reason this film is rightly considered classic is its assured ambivalence about the “security vs. freedom” question. The lawyer survives the duel in which Liberty is killed only because the farmer shoots the outlaw from a place in the shadows, firing at the same time the lawyer does. Wayne keeps the secret from the lawyer, who advances his political career using his new reputation as “the man who shot Liberty Valance”. The lawyer learns the truth from the dead farmer’s hired man and, partly out of shame, reveals it to Shinbone’s current newsman, a story local readers would never be able to accept.

I’ve seen this movie at least twenty times. Over the years it has continued to offer me much to think about. Are guns necessary to ensure the freedoms of those who don’t use them? Must we be prepared to die to express our opinions? To what extent can violence be avoided? In the film, statehood would have come even if the lawyer in Shinbone had been killed. The movie takes the hopeful position that despite delays caused by those who intend harm and chaos, the civilizing force is inevitable and unstoppable.

It also helped me recognize something about the current crop of jihadists and so-called religious fanatics. Their profession of a religious motivation for evil acts is nothing but a convenient lie, a mask worn to obscure identification. Don’t get caught up in irrelevant arguments about which cultural expression of faith is right or wrong, safe or dangerous. Those who murder are outlaws.


Filed under Cinema, Ethics and Morality

17 responses to “Terrorism in the Old West

  1. I have GOT to rent this Western classic; I am embarrassed to say I haven’t seen it. Nice tie in with today’s Wild West. Not much has changed. Every side kills and justifies it with a rationalization that allows them to keep killing. I’ll never understand.

    • If you recognize the mask is a disguise, you already understand, Cindy.

      I’m glad the material made you more curious about the movie. There’s even a good love triangle, and lots more about the nature of politics and power.

  2. I’m absolutely applauding the last paragraph (although the whole piece is epically written). I so wish this wasn’t even something that needed to be stated though, and that it was intrinsic to the thoughts of everyone. Unfortunately however we live in some terrifying times with some terrifying people.

    As always, I love you Mikey 🙂

    • Yeah, this cult of angry, marginalized youth has about as much relation to Islam as the C of E does to a biker gang with tatooed crosses. It’s probably easier to get caught up in the disguises than to do the police work.

      Love you too, Anna, and happy to see you’re publishing again!

  3. You’ve reminded me that I have to see this movie again. I haven’t seen it in a few years, but I’m pretty sure it would be in my top 20 or 30 favorite films of all time. Love it to death.

  4. Its refreshing to read such an intelligent take on this, love how you made your point through the classics!

    • Thanks very much. Everyone’s view is partly informed by stories from sources they didn’t choose consciously. My touchstones are old movies and TV shows. I read a lot too, but these influences appeared earlier.

  5. I haven’t seen this movie (but obviously need to sometime in my lifetime).

    I think that the media pander far too much to murders…be they lone gunmen to entire army’s of jihadists.

    Why does the identity of the latest ISIS executionist or the childhood / work career / household of any murder, serial or otherwise have to take up three days of TV news headlines, pages of column inches / centimetres, and hours of radio and social media airtime?

    If it were up to me they would get no mention, no media glorification, no “fame” at all. The families of their victims of course should have access to private information but how many copycat killings (ISIS or otherwise) would be avoided if there were no media storms of coverage, effectively glorifying perpetrators?

    By all means mention victims if necessary but the fact the more assassins are household names than the victims is wrong, they need have no glorification and not even 15 seconds of fame let alone 15 minutes or days….

    • Good point. I don’t understand news priorities either. My theory is that since news channels have to build audience to support advertising, dramatic footage (beheading videos etc.) inflates in importance. My wife, the ex-TV news writer, disagrees with me as to how often this happens, but even her version is “You work with the stories the broadcast’s producers assign you.”

  6. Now I want to watch this again! The classics are the best and were well thought out.

  7. I wonder what is up with Charlie Hebdo now?

    • Their global circulation increased several times over! The murders turned a struggling niche magazine into a much more stable enterprise. It’s not my preferred kind of humor, but I’ll take crass cartoons over fundamentalism any day. Thanks for stopping by, William.

  8. I just want to say that I’m a first time blogger today and I feel both excited and a bit discouraged. Excited to see what will happen, discouraged by the fact that I know nothing about blogging. Reading your piece, I feel that I have a better idea of what is possible with this medium. You’ve written about cinema in a way that I often think about, but never thought to put it in a blog.

    Aside from that, I never saw Liberty Valance. I’ve only seen three John Ford films and really only liked The Searchers. You’ve just made me want to watch my fourth.

    • Thanks for your kind compliments, and for stopping by to contribute. I believe anyone who wants to understand American mythology in cinema must see and study John Ford. His westerns and other historical films created many of the conventions made cliche by others, but he also pioneered deep-focus photographic techniques, was one of the first to use sets with ceilings, and had a unique sense for balancing drama and comedy. His sense of composition within the frame is quite painterly, and he was a populist in choice of subject matter.

      My Ford Top 10, in no particular order, (besides the two we’ve mentioned) would be:
      The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Quiet Man, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, My Darling Clementine, How Green Was My Valley, Stagecoach, Three Godfathers, The Informer and Cheyenne Autumn. Look up ones that might interest you on Rotten Tomatoes or Wikipedia!

      • I just remembered that I saw Grapes of Wrath so that brings up my number. I’ve seen The Searchers several times. Unfortunately, I never paid too much attention to composition or photography. But I was definitely taken in by the psychological aspects of John Wayne’s character. After watching it the first time at around at 18, I immediately knew what they meant by saying that it influenced Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. With that said and your analysis, I need some Ford back in my cinematic diet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s