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I know this is a bit of a change from my more recent posts, but after a few recent encounters with Trump voters and republicans in general, it made me think about one of my favorite films- “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Of course, on the surface, it is a John Wayne movie. That would certainly fit into the narrative that modern republicans try to sell us. Of course, they see themselves on the side of John Wayne and what is right. Well as it seems, they are actually on the side of Liberty Valance.
“Stand with Ransom Stoddard.” May 26, 2017
By Lucas Cuny, MFA
Liberty Valance stood on the side of the cattle barons in the territory then known as Texas when the story picks up. These barons are, as George Carlin might refer to them, “the owners” of the country. They aren’t interested in sharing in the overall wealth of the community, but keeping more for them. But then comes this uppity lawyer from the east that wants to bring law and civil rights to the west. I might also add that some of the settlers who long for statehood in the film are, of course, immigrants. Does this narrative seem too ring true today? Liberty for the cattle ranchers is a necessary evil.
Liberty Valance, the film’s title villain, is a man that stood against the progress and rapid economic change of the era through the expansion of the railroad. The homesteaders wanted protection under the law as they began to immigrate and settle in the wild west. A west, at the time, ruled by those who enjoyed the open spaces to freely move their cattle. Any infringement on that old way was seen as an attack on their livelihood. Liberty Valance is the man they hired to keep it that way, even if he was rough around the edges. Then you have Jimmy Stewart’s character, the Lawyer from the East Ransom Stoddard who wants to bring justice to the west through the law. In the middle of this, of course is John Wayne, Tom Donaphin. Donaphin in many ways is like many Americans now- we want to value each other’s privacy and mind our own business, but if you push us hard enough we may have to be drastic. Stewart’s character actually makes him stand up for something. I suppose you could see Bernie Sanders in that role and the Democrats or Moderate Republicans such as John McCain or Governor Kasich of Ohio as John Wayne, at some point they have to stand for something.
It just seems that every interaction I have with a Trump Republican is this longing for a time before the major economic disruptions came to be, the late 70’s to early 80’s. That’s the railroad in the “Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” for us it is trade and digital. The train west was a major economic upheaval, for years the west was open, but soon that feeling collapsed under statehood. The control of their own way of life gave way to government interventions. As America expands, so does it’s government. It seems if I just said to a Trumpilican in frustration, “why don’t we just go back to the old west,” they would agree with that assessment. Hence they hired Liberty Valance to take them there.
This is why this film stands the test of time. It is more that just the surface. It is about something. Films or television must be more than surface, there must be a meaning behind it all. Which is why I cringed slightly at Bill Maher’s assessment of Comic Book films. John Ford could not directly state in his films that sometimes we need to support government intervention to protect civil rights and progress in the early 60’s, but he could tell a tall tale about facing push back of old power against the progress of a new economy. You can’t directly talk about the police state we face in a film right now but you can tell us about how Batman and Commissioner Gordon may have to sacrifice freedoms to get the Joker. These are morality plays and they are often hidden.
Lucas Cuny has a Master's in Screenwriting from California State University Fullerton, runs a film festival in the Inland Empire, Teachers Film and Media at The Art Institute, and Produces Video for California State University, Los Angeles.