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.