The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) return to the small western town of Shinbone for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).  A local reporter and the owner and editor of the local newspaper want to know why an important politician like Senator Stoddard would come to the funeral of someone they had never even heard of.  Stoddard decides to tell them who Doniphon was.

Most of the story the reporters already know.  Stoddard came out West with nothing but his law books, and he was immediately made aware that the law counts for nothing in the territory when his stage is held up and he is beaten with a silver-handled whip by a vicious bandit named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).  He would have beaten Stoddard to death had Reese (Lee Van Cleef) not stopped him.  Later in the movie, Valance does the same thing to a newspaper man, Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brian), and again Reese has to stop him before he kills him.  Now, when a bandit played by Lee Van Cleef is the one who has to restrain the leader of a gang from being excessively brutal, you know that gang leader must really be evil.

The town marshal, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is afraid Valance, so he is worthless.  Doniphon is a match for Valance, but he basically just minds his own business.  All he cares about is Hallie, whom he hopes to marry.  The tension between Valance and Stoddard finally reaches the breaking point, and Stoddard picks up a gun he barely knows how to shoot and decides to meet Valance out on the street.  Things look pretty one-sided, but amazingly enough, Stoddard shoots Valance and kills him.  As a result, he becomes known as the man who shot Liberty Valance, propelling him into his political career.  He ends up marrying Hallie to boot.  Doniphon angrily goes home and burns up the house he was building for him and Hallie.

But then Stoddard tells the reporters something they did not know.  It turns out that it was Doniphon who killed Valance with a rifle from the other side of the street.  In fact, we see that when Stoddard fired his pistol, he shot way too high.  The thing that made Stoddard famous, then, is basically a fraud.  (We even have to wonder if Hallie would have married Stoddard had she known the truth.)  The owner of the newspaper wads up his notes and throws them in the furnace.  “When the legend becomes fact,” he says, “print the legend.”

This ending is reminiscent of Fort Apache (1948).  However, in this earlier film, we get the sense the people, especially children, need heroes, and so that is why the legend is made to prevail over the truth.  In this movie, however, we get the sense that the legend simply makes better copy.  But if that were true, we would not care for the movie.  That is, if Stoddard had been the one who killed Liberty Valance, the movie would have been just one more Western in which good triumphs over evil, and the hero gets the girl.  But just as this movie is far more interesting for having a twist ending, so too would the readers of the newspaper have found the truth to be more fascinating than the story they had previously been led to believe.  The local paper would have become nationally known as the one that broke the story about what really happened.

In many cases, the legend is more interesting than the facts.  Anyone who has ever read a paragraph or two about the real King Arthur knows that.  It is the story of the Round Table, of Excalibur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and the Holy Grail that matters to us.  Not so in this movie, however.  Here, the truth is more interesting than the legend.  That’s why it’s a good movie.

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Whispering Smith (1948)

When Whispering Smith opens, we see a man riding his horse out of the mountains.  We hear some lazy music playing as the credits tell us that Alan Ladd is starring in this movie.  If you didn’t know better, you might think that winter has passed and Shane has decided to ride back into the valley to visit Joe and Marian Starrett and their son Joey.  Of course, this is absurd, because Shane would not be made for another five years.

In this movie, Ladd plays Luke Smith, also known as “Whispering” Smith, because, as it is later explained to us, he is so soft spoken, even when he has the drop on some railroad robbers.  This often happens, because Smith works for the railroad in the capacity of a private detective, Western style, of course.  But it would seem strange to call a man “Whispering,” however, as in, “How have you been, Whispering?”  So he is also called “Smitty.”

The lazy music comes to an end and is replaced something a little more grim as two men with rifles take aim at Smith.  They shoot, and the horse rears up and falls over landing squarely on top of the stuntman, who was presumably scraped away so that Alan Ladd could take his place, who, as Whispering Smith, doesn’t seem hurt at all.  He sees three men ride away, who we later find out are the Barton brothers, who Smith has been sent to bring to justice for robbing a train and killing a guard.  His horse needs to euthanized, Western style, of course, and Smith ends up having to walk the rest of the way.

The scene shifts to a train, where we meet wrecking boss Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston), hail-fellow-well-met.  It is his job to clear wrecks off the tracks, and he has just returned from performing that chore, nothing but a “rockslide and a broken arm,” as he puts it.  As far as he is concerned, the bigger the wreck, the better.  He deplores the way modern equipment and more frequent inspections will soon make his job obsolete.  We figure he just means that he likes the challenge, but later we find out that he has been profiting personally from these wrecks, claiming goods have been irreparably damaged and taking possession of them, when in fact they are still in good condition.

A conductor reaches out the window of the moving train and grabs a telegram (don’t ask me how).  It is from the president of the railroad, and it says that Luke Smith has been assigned to take care of the Barton brothers.  Murray waxes nostalgic about the old days, when he and Smitty (that’s what he calls him) first took jobs with the company, even rooming together until Murray married Marian.  Marian?  This is another Shane coincidence.  And just as Shane and Marian Starrett fell in love, though she was married to Joe, so too do we find out that Smith and Marian in this movie were in love too, but he never thought he was good enough for her, and she married Murray, figuring that Luke (that’s what she calls him) didn’t want her.  Later in the movie, Murray begins to catch on to the fact that there is something between the two of them, which strains the friendship.

Anyway, Smith manages to come aboard the train, which is then held up by the Barton brothers, two of whom Smith manages to kill.  He is also shot, but the harmonica in his pocket deflected the bullet, so he is not fatally wounded.  Murray brings him home with him, and Marian nurses him back to health.

Through conversation, we find out that Murray has a big ranch, and he offers Smitty a partnership to run it, but he is not interested, probably because he does not want to be around the woman he loves while she is married to his best friend.  Murray says he has to head into town to turn in his report on the train wreck, which is three days late, to “Shiny Pants,” George McCloud (John Eldredge), the new division superintendent.  Murray derisively refers to him as a “college guy,” who has “a little book called How to Run a Railroad.”  In other words, McCloud is not a real man, like Murray.

Then some cowhands come riding up, telling Murray that Rostro, a sheepherder, has been grazing his sheep in the North Flats again.  Murray tells them to take the dogs and run the sheep into the river.  Marian points out that the North Flats is government land, and that Rostro has a right to graze his sheep there if he wants.  Murray tells her to keep out of it.  “The trouble with Marian,” he says to Smitty, “she’s been mixing in things that are none of her business, and I’m going to break her of it.”  Even in 1948, the audience would have regarded this as verbal abuse, even if they might not have used that term.  So we are beginning to see the dark side of Murray.

Another clue to his dark side is the conflict with the sheepherder.  Even if we didn’t know that Rostro was within his rights to graze his sheep in the North Flats, we would know that Rostro is a good man and Murray is a bad man, because that formula, sheepherder good, cattleman bad, is almost without exception in a Western.  (The exception would be Devil’s Doorway (1950).)

Also adding to our suspicions is the fact that Murray and Marian do not have a child.  Now, a bad man in a Western might have adult children, like Ike Clanton in a Wyatt Earp movie, but he won’t have a really young child like, well, Joe and Marian in Shane, to bring that movie up once more.

Furthermore, Smith becomes suspicious about Murray’s ranch, wondering how he could have acquired it on the pay he receives from the railroad.  He suspects that Murray has been in cahoots with a thief and cattle rustler named Rebstock (Donald Crisp), who has a hired gun named Whitey Du Sang.  All in all, it is clear that Murray is corrupt.

Anyway, once Murray gets to town, he turns in his report to McCloud, asking him if he wants it written in “violet ink,” implying, of course, that McCloud is effeminate.  Later on, when McCloud arrives at a wreck, Murray offers him some brandy, saying it will “make a man out of you.”  McCloud confronts Murray, telling him that the merchandise that is in his wagon is not damaged, and that it is actually loot, and that what Murray is doing is what he, McCloud, was sent to stop.  Smith backs him up.  Murray becomes angry and tells his men to unload the wagon by smashing the boxes and bags as they do so.  One man tosses some material at Sinclair, saying, “Here’s a dress for you.”

Sinclair fires Murray and his men, and Murray becomes so angry that he decides to go in with Rebstock all the way, purposely causing trains to wreck so they can steal the merchandise.  Eventually, a guard is killed.  From this point, the movie follows an unimaginative plot.  Du Sang kills Rebstock and steals his money.  Smith kills Du Sang.  And finally, Smith has to kill Murray.  It is left to our imagination that Smith and Marian, after a decent interval, will get married.

But let’s back up a minute.  When a posse is formed to go after Rebstock and his gang for holding up the train and killing the guard, McCloud tells Smith that he can ride and shoot, and that he would like to come along.  Smith agrees.  Once the shooting starts, however, McCloud ends up being killed.

It would have been an interesting variation in the standard formula if after Smith killed Du Sang, McCloud killed Murray.  But the people who produced this movie apparently agreed, perhaps without being fully aware of it, that Murray’s contempt for McCloud as bookish and effeminate was justified.  And so, what could have been a refreshing change of pace became routine fare, an unremarkable Western barely worth the effort of watching it.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)

If you’ve seen one revisionist western, you’ve seen them all. It’s always the same old thing. The heroes are actually unheroic. That’s it. That’s the whole point, and we already knew that. To make matters worse, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson is directed by Robert Altman, who keeps running his MASH style of movie making into the ground: people talking over one another, lots of silliness, quirky characters. It worked great in MASH, but it won’t make silk out of a cow’s ear. This movie ranges from boring to irritating.

Duel at Diablo (1966)

Duel at Diablo is one of the last movies in which Indians still scalp men, rape women, and subject their prisoners to cruel tortures, although some of the white men are portrayed in a pretty bad light too. One raped woman, Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson), who ends up with a papoose, is married to Willard Grange (Dennis Weaver), who regards her as defiled. That’s fine with her, because she’d rather live with the Indian that raped her anyway.  She might as well, because now that she is regarded as an outcast, some white men try to rape her as well.

James Garner’s character, Jess Remsberg, is a squaw man whose wife was scalped by a white man, and he is out for revenge.  That man turns out to be Willard, who wanted to get even for what had happened to his wife.

Sydney Poitier is also in this movie.  Since race plays such a large role in this movie, we expect his race to also be a factor, but no one mentions it or reacts to it. Other than that, it’s the cavalry versus the Apaches, and what a slaughter! Not only do men die left and right, but many are wounded and crippled. Even the horses get killed.

Perhaps as a step toward the apologist Westerns of the seventies, there is reference to the way the Apaches are mistreated on the reservation at San Carlos. As the Apache prisoners are led away by the cavalry at the end of the movie, Jess makes a remark to the effect that the Apaches will probably go off the reservation again, because they have no reason not to.

Angel and the Badman (1947)

Of all things the Bible says we are supposed to do, the injunction of pacifism found in Matthew 5:38-39 is the most problematic:  “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:  But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  It hardly needs to be said that most people who call themselves Christian do not follow Jesus in this regard.  But there have always been a few who do so.  Typically, such people retreat from the world, say, by entering a monastery.  There they can hide out from the world, hoping to be left alone.

In American Westerns, however, such people cannot hide, for by its very nature, the setting of a Western is fraught with danger.  If there is any place where pacifism seems to be wholly out of place it is in the American West, especially as depicted in the movies.  In some cases, the pacifist capitulates, taking up arms in the end, as in Destry Rides Again (1939) or High Noon (1952).  In other cases, there is a community of pacifists, and they are able to remain true to their ideals by piggybacking off others who kill all the bad guys for them, as in Wagon Master (1950).  In Friendly Persuasion (1956), results are mixed.  There is some resistance to evil, but it is kept to a minimum, and the central characters (the Birdwell family) seem to survive mostly by luck with their ideals mostly intact.  Angel and the Badman falls into the same category as Wagon Master, except that in the latter, the religious community consists of Mormons, whereas in the former, the community consists of Quakers.

The “badman” in this movie is Quirt Evans.  Since he is played by John Wayne, we wonder, “Just how bad can he be?”  I mean, has John Wayne ever played a badman in the movies?  It turns out, much as we suspected, that for all the talk about his being a badman, it seems to be just that, talk.  Apparently, he once worked as a lawman for Wyatt Earp.  Then he became a cattleman for a while.  But one day, Wall Ennis, the man who raised Quirt like a father, was shot down by Laredo Stevens (Bruce Cabot) while another man grabbed his hand as he was going for his gun.  That’s when Quirt sold his herd and began plaguing Laredo, hoping to goad him into a gunfight in front of witnesses.  For example, when Laredo and his gang rustle some cattle, killing all the cowboys who were herding them, Quirt and his boys bonk Laredo’s gang over the head, knocking them off their horses.  Then Quirt’s gang takes off with the cattle and presumably sells them.  I guess the idea is that the cattle were already stolen, so what Quirt did was not really so bad.

Before that however, at the beginning of the movie, Quirt beats Laredo to some land he wanted.  Laredo’s gang chases him until he collapses from exhaustion and a gunshot wound.  A couple of Quakers help him get to a telegraph station to make the claim and then take him in so that he can convalesce.  One Quaker in particular, Penny (Gail Russell), is the “angel” in this movie.

Dr. Mangram (Tom Powers) comes over to take the bullet out.  He makes a snide remark about the way the wicked always seem to be able to survive gunshot wounds while the godly succumb to infection, and Penny’s father chastises him, saying, “You so-called atheists.  You always feel so compelled to stretch your godlessness.”  With this brief exchange, the movie expresses its attitude toward atheists.  First, the atheist is rude and churlish, entering the house of a family he knows to be devout and mocking their religion. For a long time in the movies, atheists were never allowed to be congenial and easygoing, as in reality, many of them are.  Movie atheists had to let everyone know just how much they despised religion.  Second, this movie was made at a time when a lot of people believed that there really was no such thing as an atheist, that their denial of God’s existence was a self-deluding pretense.  Hence the use of the term “so-called.”

Another feature of the stereotypical movie atheist is the emphasis on reality and logic, at the expense of sentiment and feeling.  Mangram says to Penny’s mother, “You can carry this head-in-sand attitude just so far in the world of reality.”  She replies, “We assure you that you will finally realize that realism untempered by sentiments of humanity is really just a mean, hard, cold outlook on life.”  She is right, of course.  But that is precisely the sort of thing David Hume might have said.  In reality, atheists have as much sentiment as anyone else, but movie atheists tend to lack these feelings.

Anyway, Quirt and Penny fall in love.  She is willing to follow him anywhere, but he is not sure he wants to be tied down.  So this struggle goes on throughout the movie, while she acquaints him with the views of the Society of Friends, such as that a person can harm only himself, even if he appears to harm someone else.  One day, she gets him to leave his gun behind while they go for a ride.  As this is shortly after the cattle rustling incident, Laredo and his boys show up and give chase until the wagon goes over a cliff and into the water.  Penny almost drowns.  Quirt gets her back to the house and Dr. Mangram is sent for.  When it looks as though Penny is likely to die, Quirt decides to kill Laredo.

Right after he rides off, Penny comes to.  She seems to be completely well.  Mangram is stunned.  “I can’t understand it,” he says.  “I can’t understand it at all.  There must be some logical, scientific explanation.  I am too old to start believing in miracles.”  And thus does the movie refute the atheist.

A common feature of the Western is the gunslinger with a guilty past.  He wants to hang up his guns, but there is one last thing he must do.  Another recurring feature involves revenge.  The hero relentlessly pursues his goal of getting his revenge against a man who killed someone he loved.  But when the moment arrives, he renounces his revenge.  However, the man he was pursuing somehow gets what is coming to him anyway.

And so it is with Angel and the Badman.  Quirt rides into town and calls out Laredo, who is in the saloon with the sidekick who helped him gun down Wall Ennis.  Suddenly, Penny’s parents ride into town in a wagon with Penny in the back.  She gets Quirt to hand her his gun.  Just then, Laredo and his companion step out into the street.  Quirt turns around unarmed.  And then Marshall McClintock (Harry Carey), who has been threatening to hang Quirt and Laredo throughout the movie, shoots Laredo and his friend, killing them both.  Quirt tells McClintock that from now on he is a farmer.

It is worth noting that, although Penny and her family would have been disappointed with Quirt if he had killed Laredo, they are just fine with the way McClintock killed Laredo instead.  And so, once again, pacifists manage survive in a violent world, because someone else was willing to do the killing for them.

Heaven with a Gun (1969)

In many ways, Heaven with a Gun is mediocre and formulaic.  There is a conflict between cattlemen and sheepherders.  As usual, the sheepherders are good and the cattlemen are bad.  Enter Jim Killian (Glenn Ford), the gunfighter who wants to hang up his gun and become a pastor, but not before he uses his gun one last time.  Finally, there are some whores with a heart of gold, headed by Madge (Carolyn Jones).

At the same time, the formula has been modified to suit the late 1960s.  To begin with, there are a couple of Native Americans that are also sheepherders, consisting of a father and daughter.  The father is hanged by a couple of the cattlemen, one of which is Coke (David Carradine), leaving Leloopa (Barbara Hershey) orphaned.  When Killian happens along and sees the man hanging from a tree, he cuts him down and buries him.  Later, when Killian walks into the small house he just bought, he finds Leloopa inside, cooking some baby rattlesnake.  Leloopa saw Killian cut her father down and bury him, and as a result, she says that she now belongs to Killian, otherwise Hopi law says her father’s soul will wander forever.  Killian is forced to relent.  The fact that they will be living together in a one-room house creates a little taboo tension:  They are not married, she is a minor, they are of different races, and we are not sure whether she thinks of herself as a daughter to Killian or as his wife, giving us a tinge of incest.  However, Killian leaves at night to sleep somewhere else, presumably at the hotel.

Leloopa mentions that her mother was white, a captive whom her father married.  In the old days, her mother would have been raped, but movies were trying to portray Native Americans in a more favorable light by this time.  Because of this trend of treating Native Americans in the movies in this way, it shocks us a little when Killian tells her she is going to have to take a bath, and she has no idea what a bath is.  Leloopa says it was her mother who taught her English, but her mother apparently didn’t bother to teach Leloopa about bathing, so I guess her mother went completely native.  But why, we ask ourselves, would a movie made as late as 1969 suggest that Hopi Indians are a bunch of dirty, smelly savages?

The answer is that the movie wants to titillate us some more.  You see, when Barbara Hershey is in a movie, it is usually just a matter of time before she gets naked.  In fact, when Killian tells Leloopa that in order to bathe, you first have to take your clothes off, we are not surprised when she starts undressing right in front of him.  He stops her, however, and leaves the house so she can have some privacy.

Later in the movie she manages to get raped.  Coke starts making advances to her in the street.  Instead of remaining in the street where there are plenty of people around, she gets the bright idea of running into a barn, which means that Coke can rape her in private.  We figure, “All right, this is where we get to see Barbara Hershey naked.”  But she is only partially undraped as she leaves the barn.

Killian beats up Coke.  Finally, that night, when he gets home, Barbara Hershey is sitting outside completely naked, although we only get to see enough of her body to give the movie an M rating (“M” for mature, a designation eventually replaced by PG).  She says she knows he is trying to find her another place to stay.  After he puts her to bed, she asks if he will stay with her, which was probably the real reason she got naked and not all that Hopi nonsense she was spouting.  But he leaves.

After Killian kills Mace (J.D. Cannon), the gunslinger that had been hired by chief cattleman Asa Beck (John Anderson), Madge convinces him that if he really wants to hang up his guns and become a pastor, he must stop killing.  That makes sense.  But what to do about all those evil cattlemen threatening to wipe out all the sheepherders?  Here we see another influence of the 1960s.  Killian gathers together all the townspeople, including the wives and children of the cattlemen, and they all go to the lake where there was to be a showdown, placing themselves in what would have been the middle of a battle between cattlemen and sheepherders.  It is suggestive of the civil disobedience, civil rights marches, and nonviolent resistance so characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s.

Finally, it becomes clear that Killian is going to allow Leloopa to stay with him, presumably as husband and wife, though that is not explicitly stated.  This too is a change from the old days.  Normally, Leloopa would have been off limits for Killian, not so much because they were of different races, but because she had been raped.  Miscegenation was something of a taboo in the old movies, but it did happen from time to time, as in Broken Arrow (1950).  But a raped woman was damaged goods, and the movies usually figured out some way to keep the protagonist from marrying her, as in Man of the West (1958), assuming she was even allowed to be alive by the end of the movie.  The idea of a raped woman marrying a man and living happily ever after was just too offensive in the old days.  Maybe it still is.  But this movie doesn’t see it as a problem.

Devil’s Doorway (1950)

Devil’s Doorway is one of those movies about Indians that is not much fun, because the movie cares more about showing us the mistreatment of the Indians at the hands of white men than with entertaining us in the traditional manner, such as by having the Indians scalping, raping, and otherwise terrorizing white settlers.

Robert Taylor in redface plays Broken Lance, a Shoshone Indian who has just arrived back home in Wyoming after service in the Civil War fighting for the North, where he won the Medal of Honor.  In other words, this movie lays it on pretty thick.  He intends to return to his peaceful ways as a free range cattle rancher, but he finds he is beset by a bunch of white people that intend to homestead on his land and raise sheep.

This is an interesting twist.  First, in most movies where there is a clash between men who want an open range for their cattle and families that want to homestead, it is the homesteaders that are good and the cattlemen that are evil, as in Shane (1953).  Second, in most movies where sheepherders come into conflict with cattlemen, it is the sheepherders that are good and the cattlemen that are, once again, evil.  Glenn Ford seems to show up in a lot of these movies.  He is said by villain cattleman Rod Steiger to have the smell of sheep about him in Jubal (1956), is the title character in The Sheepman (1958), and intervenes as a pastor/gunslinger on the side of the good sheepherders (some of whom are Indians) against the bad cattlemen in Heaven with a Gun (1969).  So, it is strange that the good guy in Devil’s Doorway is a free range cattleman pitted again evil homesteading sheepherders.  In fact, if this good guy had not been an Indian at a time when audiences were ready for movies about how Indians were good and white people were bad, the reversal might not have worked.  Actually, not much works in this movie in any event.  It is tedious and boring, as are all moralistic, preachy movies.  It is of value only to historians of the cinema.

As long as the movie was going to be about injustice toward Indians, I suppose the producers figured they might as well put in a word for gender equality as well, though they would hardly have termed it as such in 1950.  And so, Lance’s lawyer ends up being a woman, who goes by the name of Masters (Paula Raymond).  Actually, being a pretty white woman, her real function is tantalize the audience with a little unconsummated miscegenation.

When Lance finds out from Masters that the law does not allow Indians to homestead, he berates her for her faith in the law, as a kind of religion, saying that when you have the law, you don’t have to worry about your conscience. It tells you what is right and wrong and no more thinking is required.  He sarcastically says he wishes he had something like that.

This is immediately followed by a scene in which a pubescent boy staggers and then crawls toward Lance’s house. It turns out that, like all boys, he had to go into the mountains with only a knife, no food or water, go above the snow line wearing only moccasins and a loin cloth, and come back with the talons of an eagle within three days, or he is not a man. When Masters says that this practice is cruel, Lance justifies this custom, saying it is necessary so that the tribe knows whether the boy can be depended on to fight.

Needless to say, a lot of boys probably die in making this attempt.  I just knew Masters was going to say, “It looks as though I have faith in my laws, and you have faith in yours. Neither one of us has to bother about our conscience.” And Masters could also have noted that white men are pretty good at fighting, and they don’t do that to their children. Amazingly enough, she makes no such remarks. There is probably a kind of bigotry of low expectations at work here.  White civilization is held to the higher standards of reason and justice, whereas there is a tendency to think of the customs of primitive peoples as too precious to subject to any serious criticism, the result being that the people who made this movie seem to be oblivious to the irony of these scenes, even though they put the one right after the other.  Maybe they were being extra subtle, allowing us to have a laugh at Lance’s expense, but it sure doesn’t feel that way.

Before the movie is out, the chief villain, played by Louis Calhern, who was the one that instigated the sheepherders’ attempt to homestead, is killed off.  And Lance is killed off too, in part to show that he is too manly to yield or compromise, and in part to keep him and Masters from exchanging bodily fluids across racial lines.