A century ago, as the western frontier passed into memory, the art of American history began to fade away, too. In its place rose a science of history, heavily and proudly academic. The new breed of American historians believed that they had understood the past as the past could not have understood itself. The past, therefore, had nothing significant to teach them.
Woodrow Wilson gave classic expression to this progressive view of the world. The role of the professional historian and educator, wrote Wilson, was “to make the young gentlemen of the rising generation as unlike their fathers as possible.” The reason for this was that the older generation had “lost touch with the processes of life…and therefore they were out of sympathy with the creative, formative and progressive forces of society.” Old-fashioned education found greatness in the past. Progressive education would flatter the rising generation:
Progress! Did you ever reflect that the word is almost a new one? No word comes more often or more naturally to the lips of modern man, as if the thing it stands for were almost synonymous with life itself, and yet men through many thousand years never talked or thought of progress. They thought in the other direction. Their stories of heroism and glory were talks of the past. The ancestor wore the heavier armor and carried the larger spear. ‘They were the giants in those days.’ Now all that has altered. We think of the future, not the past, as the more glorious time in comparison with which the present is nothing.
For progressive historians, the past was not intelligible in its own right, but only with reference to the future, that is, to some form of the idea of progress which, although “almost synonymous with life itself,” was wholly unknown to past generations. What had seemed to Abraham Lincoln, for example, to be the American Founders’ heroic virtues and tragic limitations appeared to the sophisticated historian as mere reflections of outdated attitudes and beliefs—prejudices of a less enlightened time.
As it happened, America did not entrust its past entirely to the social scientists. While American intellectuals were succumbing to the charms of progressivism, Americans in the millions were thrilling to the most compelling form of mass entertainment ever created—the motion picture—and particularly to that most distinctive American art form, the Hollywood western.
The American western offered an artistic and popular response to the intellectual triumph of progressivism. Progressivism in all its varieties, as Wilson made clear, severs us from the past by asserting our fundamental superiority to all that has gone before. The implicit premise of the western, on the other hand, is that our fathers were in some respects better than we are: whatever they may have left us to live down, they also gave us something to live up to. The western restores our connection to the past by acknowledging the fullness or moral wholeness of the past. This could only be done by recognizing the possibility of true greatness of heroes in the past, and, of course, there cannot be heroes without villains. The greatest directors of western movies portrayed a world in which genuine heroes and therefore genuine villains were possible, where human and American virtues and vices contended in all seriousness and the heights and depths of human behavior—like the American Revolution and the legacy of slavery—came into view in a way that was and is meaningful to the moral imagination.
The poetry of the western, of course, gave a distinctive “local habitation and a name” to the world it recreated: it was the West. Like Homer’s Troy and the England of Shakespeare’s histories, the West gave its own peculiar shape to the human drama and the human questions it explored. The old West, celebrated in the movies, existed somewhere between the civilized East, and the oasis, the garden, of California. (Although California was the real home of the make-believe western, it was not, strictly speaking, a part of the old West. As the great novelist Wallace Stegner noted, “California is west of the West.” It was only a dream, especially for those who lived in the West: the cowboy was always going to California, but he never seemed to make it there.)
The old West was situated in the Godforsaken wilds of the desert or wilderness, without community, without law, without civilization. It was a place where simple survival was difficult, a place where nature was uncompromising, just as society had been in the places left behind. The West offered the possibility of a new beginning, of re-founding, of establishing governments form reflection and choice, rather than mishaps of birth and tradition. In the West, men seemed to have it in their power to make the world over again, and this made it necessary or possible to think again about the conditions, purposes, and limits of human community. But the western movie showed that even in a new land with a fresh start, the law was not easily established on principles of justice and the common good. More commonly, as Alexander Hamilton had lamented, government was a product of accident and force.
Even so, in showing the coming into being of community or the establishment of civil society, the most thoughtful westerns confronted the fundamental questions of politics. They attempted to examine the distinctions between nature and convention, law and justice, the individual and the community; they dramatically explored the meaning of those two great American themes, freedom and equality. In treating such matters, the best western movies probed the deepest tensions in modern conceptions of the human condition or human happiness. The western could show that the imposition of law and morality was a necessary condition of freedom in a community and at the same time how law and society, or civilization itself, could seem to deprive man of his natural liberty and rob him of his individual goodness. As Rousseau might have said, the western sometimes pitted the Indian, who was born free and had not put himself in chains, against the enslaving forces of society and civilization. The noble savage, engaged in a confrontation with civilization and its technology, became the defender of a kind of pre-political state of natural freedom.
The western, then, could look critically at the supposed virtues of progress and the forces—perhaps more virtuous—opposed to it. It did not take the superiority of civilization—or the future—for granted. The law, and civilization, too, had to justify themselves, in an almost philosophic way. It is for this reason that the appeal of the classic western was a universal, not just an American, phenomenon.
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In the hands of directors like John Ford, the western allowed us to go back to school again, to learn some lessons that could not be taught by value-free social science or progressive history. In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), for example, Ford attempted to recreate on screen the necessary conditions for the mergence of a democratic way of life. He did so by showing those forces that permanently menace a regime of civil liberty and the rule of law. In the film, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is bringing the word and the law—two necessary ingredients of civilization and political order—from civilized East to the town of Shinbone, a virtual state of nature located in the “territory.” There are two dominant figures in Shinbone. Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) is an outlaw, who understands freedom as the indulgence of his desires in the absence of any restraint; he has neither home nor family. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) is a kind of naturally superior individual who wants only a private existence and who, because of his superiority, can secure one for himself. Apparently he owns a slave, his “boy,” Pompey. His only desire is to marry Hallie, an illiterate waitress who grew up in the West. Everyone in town knows that Hallie is his girl—until Ransom Stoddard, the law, and education come to town.
When Stoddard, “attorney at law, duly licensed for the territories,” approaches the town of Shinbone, he is beaten and left for dead, with his law books ripped to shreds, by Liberty Valance. Doniphon rescues him, and brings him to Hallie’s house, where she nurses him back to health. When Stoddard is struggling to recover, he insists that his assailant should be brought to justice through the law, not the vengeance of a handgun. But Doniphon drily notes that “out here a man settles his own problems.” Stoddard cannot believe his ears: “you’re saying just exactly what Liberty Valance said! What kind of community have I come to?” Not much of one. There is no effectual law in Shinbone. The residents in town, some of whom are illiterate immigrants, know little of what the obligation of citizenship entails. Consequently, Ford literally takes us into the classroom. He provides a lesson on the principles of democratic government, showing how private individuals are transformed into a public, how passion is subordinated to reason, and how the rule of law replaces the deeds of those outside the law.
When Hallie is compelled to admit to Stoddard that she cannot read or write, he promises to teach her, and others join the class. Stoddard’s classroom is the office of the newspaper editor, Dutton Peabody. On the blackboard, Stoddard has written, “Education is the basis of law and order.” In the classroom are the Spanish-speaking children of the sheriff; Hallie; Peter and Nora Erickson, who want to become citizens; and Pompey, Doniphon’s slave. First, Stoddard insists that the children recite the alphabet in order to show that they have learned the importance of a common language, in this case English. Then he asks Nora what she has learned about the United States. The immigrant Nora replies, “The United States is a republic, and a republic is a state in which the people are the boss.” Finally, he asks what the basic law of the land is, clearly referring to the Constitution. Pompey replies, “It was writ by Mr. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, and he called it the Constitution, and it begins with the words, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that…'” but he forgets the rest. Stoddard notes that Pompey is reciting The Declaration of Independence and that the part Pompey had forgotten was the part that said “that all men are created equal.” Stoddard adds, “A lot of people forget that part.”
Indeed, no one in Shinbone seems to understand the meaning of the Declaration of Independence or the importance of a Constitution. The two dominant characters, Doniphon and Valance, seem to believe that the basis of rule is force alone. Ford makes it clear in this scene that it is only because men are equal that the people can be the boss. It is clear that the law offers no protection to Pompey; nor does he show any consciousness of needing it. As soon as Doniphon returns from his trip, he enters the class and orders Pompey out of school. The lesson on the rights of man is over. Doniphon does not want his slave to become educated; he insists that Pompey go back to work. The school is shut down when it is learned that Liberty Valance is coming back to town.
The action reaches its climax when Stoddard is finally driven to take up a gun and meet Liberty Valance in a gunfight—the law and the word have proven ineffectual against force and violence. When Valance is about to finish Stoddard off, Doniphon, who had been urged by Hallie to do something and is now lurking in the shadows across the street, kills Valance with a rifle shot. Doniphon lets it appear that Valance was shot by Stoddard in the gunfight—even Stoddard himself believes this is what happened. Stoddard becomes a hero as the man who shot the outlaw Liberty Valance, and he is nominated as a delegate to the territorial convention on statehood. But when his opponents denounce him as a man whose only qualification is the blood on his hands, his conscience will not allow him to accept the nomination, and he rushes from the hall with every intention of returning to the East.
Doniphon stops Stoddard and reveals to him privately the truth—that Stoddard had not killed Liberty Valance in the gunfight, but that Doniphon himself had killed him: “cold-blooded murder,” says Doniphon, “but I can live with it.” He sends Stoddard back to accept the nomination, telling him, you taught Hallie to read, “now give her something to read about.” Stoddard goes on to marry Hallie and have an illustrious political career. Doniphon dies a pauper’s death, without his boots and gun. The movie makes clear that without Doniphon’s heroic virtues and unlawful deeds there could be no law and civilization in Shinbone, but also that a civilized Shinbone has no place for such virtues or for such a hero. Only the man who profited from Doniphon’s heroism knows the truth about him and the importance of his deeds.
In the famous ending of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the editor of the Shinbone Star gets the story of a lifetime: the great Ransom Stoddard, now an elder statesmen, tells him the truth about the man who shot Liberty Valance so many years ago. The newspaperman refuses to print it. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Because it still knew a hero—and villain—when it saw one, the distinctively American poetry of the Hollywood western helped us to see, in ways that American intellectuals no longer could, how the facts may be made worthy of becoming legend.