15 August 2011

Separating Justice and Law in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

There's a starman waiting in the sky
He'd like to come and meet usBut he thinks he'd blow our mindsThere's a starman waiting in the skyHe's told us not to blow itCause he knows it's all worthwhile- From Starman by David Bowie

Justice is a concept, really. The law can be written and defined and debated but justice is an ideal that is not always served by enacting or enforcing laws. Some people get away with murder, literally and figuratively. This makes us ache. Some people will employ extra legal measures before or after the fact. It's a slippery slope when individuals "take the law into their own hands." Those hands become dirty. Sometimes.

Eighteenth and 19th century Americans saw themselves as good people bringing civilization to a savage land. This was at the heart of Manifest Destiny and the "taming" of the West. They made the same law that they brought. They defined and enforced it. Yet curiously and clearly justice was not always served. The history of America's western expansion is, as the cliche goes, written in blood. Fair enough, but the blood of so many innocents and on so many occasions done within the law and well outside any concept of justice.

There's a movie that does a superior job of exploring this whole idea. It was directed by John Ford and is called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Yes it's a good old western starring John Wayne and James Stewart with a supporting cast including Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef and Andy Devine, none a stranger to the genre. It also features Lee Marvin as the title character. He is walking, talking evil, right down to his whip and six gun.

But this is a film that has deep meanings and I do not refer merely to the famous "print the legend" line or its explanations. 

Stewart plays the lawyer, Ransom Stoddard, who moves out West with high and noble ideals but a stunning naivete about life in the territories. He reckons that law trumps violence and criminals and should be the basis for correcting injustice. But the law can't and won't get its hands on Valance who reeks havoc at will, often in service of rich land owners who are trying to stymie statehood for their own gain. There there is Tom Doniphan (Wayne) who is as good a man as Stoddard but ten times tougher. He has no illusions about the capacity of the law to serve justice in the face of Valance and his ilk.

What we have here is a fascinating dichotomy. At stake is the struggle between the rule of law and frontier justice. One is the basis of a civilized society and the child of high ideals. The other claims reality on its side, it has its principle the idea of fighting fire with fire. Stoddard and Doniphan are allies concurrent with being bitter enemies and rivals. They are very different sides to the coin of the realm. Oh yes, they are also in love with the same girl (Vera Miles).

One could read ambiguity into the resolution of this film. But that supposes a full color world in which all answers come in black and white. When we meet him years later, the man of the law is a former Senator, Governor, Ambassador to England and now again is a Senator. He's long been married to the girl. But what propelled him to this lofty status? Was it his erudition and grasp of the law? They helped. But it is the gunning down of an evil man that set his course. Ironically, a slaying he did not actually commit.
The man of the gun has died forgotten and as the movie begins and ends, is in a simple wood coffin, stripped even of his boots.

What are we to take from this story? Well as with any other tale we are at liberty to see what we choose. Certainly TMWSLV is widely open to interpretation. For many it's just a ripping good yarn from the Old West, replete with colorful characters. I wrote about it as such three years ago.  But for those looking for deeper meanings they are there. The ascendancy of the lawyer over the gunmen as the closing of the frontier is evident, as is the enduring power of myth. There is certainly a serious question raised about how the West, or for that matter, any wilds are won. The point of a gun? The rule of law? The victory of justice no matter the method? Certainly many answers lie in between the questions.

The great man said: justice delayed is justice denied. And he said this in the name of fighting unjust laws. So perhaps it really comes down to morality and seeing to the primacy of a group conscience over the tyranny of the minority.

It's not just another old Western, is it?

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