John Ford, son of Irish immigrants, one of eleven Irish Catholic siblings, last of the seven surviving infancy, grew up in Portland, ME. After high school, he followed his brother west, worked odd jobs around the region, landed in Southern California, worked as a laborer in the budding movie industry, and gradually worked his way up to stage hand, equipment operator, setting scenes, director’s assistant, then ultimately movie director, making scores of silent western movies through the 1910’s-20’s, continually refining his filming techniques, completing 140 films over a 50 year career. Ford’s rough-housing early years remained habitual as his career progressed, and he was well known among the Hollywood crowd for his harsh, cynical treatment of actors on the set, and his hard drinking and womanizing.
One day a young man, clearing sets at night while working his way through law school at nearby USC, heard Ford yelling at him to re-sweep various parts of the floor. Ford, sitting in the dark edge of the set, had quietly turned the camera on to see how this young man looked on film. The young man was John Wayne, who dropped out of law school and teamed up with Ford to make dozens of American western movies over the next four decades, with Ford’s assessment of Wayne being “he looked good on a horse”. Ford idealized the American West, seeing it as symbolic of the development of America from its founding to the closing of the Frontier after the Civil War, the gradual process of settlement and development of the geographic and political form of the nation.
A successful and well-known director, after Pearl Harbor, Ford joined the War Department’s film corps as a Navy Captain, and for his first effort positioned himself at Midway Island in advance of the battle. As the Japanese planes attacked the small outpost, the Marines all ran to the only bunker on this remote sand bar, and then two were ordered to run back out and retrieve Ford, who was standing on the airstrip filming the attack, 50-calibre rounds spitting onto the concrete around him. This footage was shown to FDR at the White House and cleared for release in newsreel to theaters; segments can be seen in the 1970 movie “Midway”.
In 1962, near the end of his career, Ford made “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, a brilliant movie the New Yorker film critic calls “the greatest American political movie ever made”; John Ford’s life masterwork, with close parallels to the current political environment.
The film entertains with a simple western/romantic story, a parable for the greater, underlying story of American political ideals, enshrined in the nation’s founding documents, and tested against the tumultuous social, political and economic realities associated with development and political incorporation of the American West. Set in a small, fictional frontier town, “Shinbone”, the town is bullied by a local outlaw (Liberty Valance/Lee Marvin); the protagonist is a young naive lawyer new to the west (Range Stoddard/James Stewart), who is quietly supported by a tough local rancher (Tom Doniphon/John Wayne). The background is a territory seeking statehood; cattle ranchers conducting a range war against sheep farmers; railroads coming through selecting Federal land grants for routes; outlaws uncontrolled by the law – the last of the Wild West. Locals include a restaurant run by a pretty young woman (Hallie/Vera Miles), romantic interest of both Stoddard and Doniphon; a nervous, intimidated sherriff; and a drunken, but courageous and idealistic local newspaper editor.
Stoddard, upon arrival from the East, is attacked, robbed and badly beaten by Valance, nursed to health by Hallie, and soon develops a romantic rivalry with Doniphon, who also loves Hallie. Stoddard is advised to buy a gun, and refuses, insisting on his belief in the power of the word and the law to civilize the town. Stoddard opens a law office, and starts an informal school to teach locals to read and write. Valance, seeking to keep control of the town through violence and intimidation, and to disrupt efforts to achieve territorial status for the benefit of the “free range” cattlemen, continually disrupts Stoddard’s efforts, disrupting the school, wrecking the newspaper office and shared law office, and beating the newspaper editor, who dared to expose Valance’s evil deeds, to death.
Enraged, Stoddard confronts Valance, and challenges him to a gunfight, having finally acquired an old gun and practiced with it, with little improvement. Valance, an accomplished gunfighter, drunk, first shoots Stoddard’s hat off, then wings his right arm, and, laughing, taunts Stoddard to pick up his gun, which Stoddard does, aiming shakily at Valance. Doniphon, watching from a dark alley, shoots Valance dead, while Stoddard simultaneously misses his own shot. Doniphon allows Stoddard, and the entire town, to believe Stoddard shot and killed Valance, ridding the town of its nemesis.
Now famous, Stoddard, feeling the guilt of a killer, in violation of his own strong belief in the law as the proper means of civilization, avoids accepting the nomination to represent the town at the territorial convention for statehood. Doniphon, exasperated, takes Stoddard aside and tells him the truth, that he, Doniphon, actually killed Liberty Valance, and encourages Stoddard to accept the position. as the most qualified – and civilized – candidate. Stoddard does, representing the passage of governance of the American West from its wild, outlaw roots; to enforcement of societal standards by violent means; and the transition to the democratic political process as the means to resolution of conflicting social and economic demands.
Stoddard marries Hallie and then goes on to a long, distinguished political career as governor of the new state, then Senator, ambassador to England, and sought after VP candidate. Many years later, Doniphon dies, and Stoddard and Hallie return to Shinbone, now a bustling, prosperous town with a railroad stop, for the funeral. The local newspaper man interviews Stoddard, the famous son of Shinbone, and Stoddard tells the true story of the man, Doniphon, who actually shot Liberty Valance. As the interview ends, the newspaper man stands up, tears up his notes, and throws them into the wood stove. Stoddard, looking surprised, says “Aren’t you going to print the story?”. The editor responds with one of the famous lines of all movie history:
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact – print the legend”.