An American Tragedy

I taught for a while in Paris and, after knocking off work, would walk down the rue des Ecoles, past the College de France, past the statue of Joachim du Bellay, to the Cinema Henri Langois the best repertory cinema I know—to see a Western. I took my seat in the dark theater among the most sophisticated cinephiles in the world. (“Ah, regarde. C’est Andee Divine!”) Every night at 10:00, I saw a different film, a Howard Hawks or a Sam Peckinpah perhaps. But the best was always a John Ford movie, and the greatest of these was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

Liberty Valance was Ford’s answer to Stagecoach, which he had directed 23 years earlier. Stagecoach was a comedy, a peculiarly American kind of comedy. Traditionally, comedy celebrates the transformation and regeneration of society, and the form of comedy is integration: A couple separated by artificial barriers is brought together for a happy ending when these are removed. Enemies are reconciled, the lovers are married, and everyone goes off to a feast. The tension between constraint and regeneration is necessary, for we cannot do without either. The impediment use fully restrains chaotic impulses; yet a society without a principle of rebirth has lost the power of transmission to future generations.

That is what comedy ordinarily means. American comedies are different. Once again, the lovers are separated by artificial barriers, which in Stagecoach take the form of social norms. John Wayne as Ringo Kid is a jail-breaker who observes, “I guess you can’t break out of jail and into society in the same week.” Claire Trevor as Dallas is a prostitute, described as a victim of “a foul disease called social prejudice” by Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone. At the end of the movie, Ringo and Dallas overcome the barriers that separate them and ride off together into that most fundamental of American symbols, the frontier. But the integration is incomplete, since the lovers separate themselves from society in an American comedy. Society is not made whole. The ladies’ “law-and-order league” does not forgive Dallas. “Well, they’re saved from the blessings of civilization,” says Doc Boone, who serves as the film’s Greek chorus.

In a secular Protestant society, the frontier is a metaphor for the action of grace, for the fresh start that comes from leaving all behind. Leavings are ordinarily grim affairs, but for many of us, there comes a time when the pain of staying put exceeds that of moving on. And so it was with Ringo and Dallas. Still, the rejection of society in American comedies (think of the final scene in The Graduate) leaves a bitter aftertaste.

That was not the tradition into which Ford was born. He was an Irish Catholic, born John Feeney to parents whose fresh start had taken them from the west of Ireland to Portland, Maine. An Irish sensibility was never absent from Ford’s work, and several of his best films, such as The Quiet Man (1935) and The Informer (1935), were set in Ireland. From his saloon-keeper father, Ford had firsthand experience of the Irish-American pols whose passing he mourned in The Last Hurrah (1958). And in most of his Westerns, there is a comic, stage-Irish regimental sergeant-major. “If there is a single thing that explains both of us,” Ford told Eugene O’Neill, “it’s that we’re Irish.”

Behind the Irish comic mask is a dark, tragic core. When John F. Kennedy was shot, Patrick Moynihan asked, “What’s the point of being Irish unless you know that the world is going to break your heart?” The tragic perspective is Jansenist, since it transcends the category of justice. Under the norms of justice, the transgressor receives his just deserts, but the tragic hero’s fall is quite unwarranted. Racine’s Phedre is often called the greatest modern tragedy, and what makes it tragic is its Jansenism, its belief that salvation is more than a matter of justice, that we do not buy our way into heaven. Racine had broken with his Jansenist teachers and sought with his greatest play to make amends. Phedre’s sin, Racine wrote, was “more a punishment of the gods than an exercise of her will.”

It would be difficult to imagine a view of life that more strongly contrasts with the buoyant optimism of America. In a country without second acts, where fresh start follows fresh start, there is little room for tragedy. Instead, there are politics and the social criticism of a Clifford Odets or Tony Kushner. These can never be tragic. “More pliant divorce laws could not alter the fate of Agamemnon,” George Steiner said. “Social psychiatry is no answer to Oedipus.” Instead, tragedy requires an audience that knows that even when every demand for justice is met, life will still break your heart. Like Aeneas, we mourn for what never can be changed: tears in the nature of things, hearts touched by human transience.

Stagecoach made John Wayne a star. Twenty-three years later, John Ford asked him to star in Liberty Valance. “It’ll be another Stagecoach,” Ford told him, and the same props can be found in both movies—the poker game with the dead man’s hand (eights and aces) and the same stagecoach. John Carradine, the chivalrous gambler in Stagecoach, reappears in Liberty Valance as the histrionic “Major Cassius Starburckle—soldier, jurist, and statesman.” Andy Devine appears in both films—with a daughter in Liberty Valance who bears the name of his wife in Stagecoach.

But time has passed. The frontier, which had beckoned to Ringo, is about to close in Liberty Valance, which was shot entirely in Hollywood, away from the mountains of Monument Valley where Stagecoach had been filmed. The residents of Shinbone are about to choose delegates to a territorial convention where they will vote on statehood. The farmers support statehood, which would close the frontier by creating private property rights in the ranchers’ open range north of the Picketwire River that borders Shinbone. The ranchers oppose them and hire gunslinger Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) to force the farmers to elect anti-statehood delegates.

Into this maelstrom comes Jimmy Stewart as Ransom Stoddard, a freshly minted lawyer. Valance holds up the stage and beats Stoddard to within an inch of his life. Left at the side of the road, Stoddard is found by Tom Donophon (John Wayne) and carried to Shinbone and safety. Donophon is everything that Stoddard is not: rugged, self-reliant, and handy with a gun. By contrast, Stoddard is hysterical and ineffectual. After his recovery, he is put to work as a dishwasher and schoolteacher. Although he owes his life to Donophon, Stoddard tells him that he’s no different from Liberty Valance: Both rely on guns. But Donophon is very different from Valance. Donophon is a rancher, but he lives south of the Picketwire and is allied to the townsfolk of Shinbone, whom he serves as protector. He is also in love with Hallie (Vera Miles), a waitress in the restaurant where Stoddard works.

The film is centered on Stoddard’s courtship of Hallie and betrayal of Donophon. When Donophon, in a rare show of affection, brings Hallie a cactus rose, Stoddard asks her whether she has ever seen a real rose. Stoddard also teaches Hallie how to read and, unlike Donophon, is given to hugging her. Donophon is the very type of the American hero: hard on the outside, soft on the inside. Stoddard is the American antihero: soft on the outside, hard on the inside. In the competition for Hallie, Donophon doesn’t stand a chance.

Liberty Valance is a tragedy, perhaps the greatest American tragedy. What makes it a tragedy is that Donophon brings on his own fall—by killing Valance and saving Stoddard’s life. From this, everything will follow, under a grim law of necessity: Hallie will marry Stoddard, who will go on to bring statehood to the territory and close the frontier, destroying the only life Donophon knows. Donophon sees all this but cannot prevent it because he is incapable of baseness. Necessity is the special feature of tragedy, where human choices have already been made and we wait for God’s choice.

One further act of nobility is required of Donophon. He had let Stoddard think that he killed Valance, but when Stoddard is incapable of accepting the moral responsibility for this, Donophon confesses the truth. Donophon can shoulder the responsibility that Stoddard cannot bear.

The film begins with a flash-forward to Donophon’s funeral, many years later, which Stoddard (now a senator) and Hallie attend, arriving by train rather than stagecoach. Donophon has been entirely forgotten and is given a pauper’s coffin. But Hallie returns to Donophon’s deserted ranch to bring him a cactus rose, as he once brought one to her. She leaves the rose on the coffin, where it will die, but not before Stoddard notices it. On the train back to Washington, Stoddard asks Hallie who placed the rose on the coffin, and she tells him. Stoddard realizes that his wife has always been in love with another man. Just then the train conductor stops by to tell Stoddard that they’ll get him back to Washington in two days: “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.”

There are strong echoes of James Joyce’s The Dead in the film: A self-contented husband realizes, after many years of marriage, that his wife had secretly loved another man far better than him. But more than anything, Liberty Valance is an American Phedre. Donophon is Theseus, protector of cities, hero, adventurer; Hallie is Phedre, mysterious, desirable, the prize to be captured; and Stoddard is Hippolytus, the younger man who betrays Theseus with Phedre. In the Hippolytus legend and in Racine’s play, Hippolytus owes his life to Theseus, as his son; in Liberty Valance Stoddard owes his life to Donophon, the man who rescued him. The stigma of incest is removed in Ford’s film but not the act of betrayal.

In Racine’s play, both Phedre and Hippolytus perish, Phedre by her own hand and Hippolytus by a vengeful god. In Liberty Valance the sins are more human, and so is the punishment. Hallie and Stoddard survive and marry but live a hollow, inauthentic life, a death-in-life. Hallie will bring civilization to the frontier. She will turn the desert into a garden, through an irrigation project that she first mentions to Stoddard. But she will leave her heart behind in Shinbone. Stoddard will be a governor and senator. But he knows he is a fraud—Claire Trevor as Dallas and John Wayne as Ringo Kid in Stagecoach Photofest the “man who shot Liberty Valance”—and he knows that his wife loves another. Their private lives are as barren as their public lives are fertile. The desert will bloom, but they are childless.

At the very end, Ford offers Hallie and Stoddard a wintry benediction. They have made something, after all. “Look at it,” says Hallie, through the railway window. “It was once a wilderness—now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?” Would you mind, Stoddard asks, if I give up politics and start a small law practice in Shinbone? “If you knew how often I’ve dreamed of it?’ Hallie answers. “My roots are here. My heart is here.” So they will return, old and gray, to a civilized West, a West without Liberty Valance but also without Tom Donophon.

Traditional political labels such as liberal and conservative often mislead, and it is at times more helpful to distinguish between optimists and pessimists. The John Ford of Stagecoach is a conditional optimist: All will be well, provided there is a frontier to escape to. But in Liberty Valance, the frontier is gone, and Ford is now a pessimist. The frontier virtue of Tom Donophon flourished while there was yet a frontier but withers when it closes.

Like Joseph Schumpeter and Daniel Bell, Ford had become a declinist who thought that America had lost the ability to produce the virtues on which it was founded and with which it tamed the frontier. In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Schumpeter worried that a soft, democratic America lacked the resolve to defeat a totalitarian enemy. Similarly, in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Bell argued that free markets are parasitic on the personal virtues of thrift and honesty that free markets tend to subvert. Both theories appeal to the pessimism of many modern American intellectuals. And both have been falsified by history.

Can the same be said of Ford’s declinist frontier thesis? In post–September 11 America, we do not seem to be suffering from a shortage of the frontier virtues of courage and manliness. The passengers of Flight 93, the plane that crashed in a farm in Pennsylvania, were ordinary Americans who did just what Tom Donophon would have done. We were worried about the kids. Turns out we needn’t have bothered. The kids are all right. They learned about virtue from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Saturday-morning cartoons.

Nevertheless, the tragic perspective is never wholly absent in a religious society such as the United States. The gospels describe our heavenly home as a place of joy, not sound policy prescriptions. Dante’s heaven was a realm of “joy which transcends every sweetness.” The religious perspective, Miguel de Unamuno noted, may be tragic, since tragedy affirms joy through its absence. There is no tragedy without a sense of joys withheld, no Fall without an Eden. A religion informed by a tragic sense of life, like Unamuno’s Catholicism, must therefore be joyful and founded on “the frenzied love of life, the love that would have life to be unending,” a love that is tragically betrayed on earth and satisfied only through religion. Lovers of life who pursue joy down every dark and crooked alley, only to be broken in their quest, must come at last to the hope of a joy beyond this life—either that or abandon the quest and settle for the small-souled man’s Laodecian religion of progress.

When it was released, the critics were unkind to Liberty Valance. Just another John Ford Western, they said. It is easy to dismiss such carping, along with the current feminist and multicultural objections to Ford, as simplistic and Philistine, but behind these criticisms is a profound truth, dimly recognized. For the Pauline Kaels and Richard Schickels, Ford’s level gaze was wholly alien, reflecting a sensibility in which tragedy ennobles suffering, and in which Stoddard’s worldly career is seen as relatively trivial. Ford himself was a man of liberal views. His actresses were remarkably strong women, and Hallie makes every major decision in Liberty Valance. Similarly, Woody Strode, Ford’s great friend, is given a heroic role in the film as an ex-slave. Yet Ford’s cast of mind is ultimately premodern and religious, and the modern secular critic who instinctively curls his lip at Liberty Valance is wiser than he knows.

Still, one might have hoped that the critic would have recognized Ford’s artistry. The hallmarks of a Ford Western are lyricism and economy, and the best Ford films, like Liberty Valance, portray the pathos of life with evocative images rooted deep in our tradition. With a simple hatbox, Ford could communicate more levels of meaning than one finds in an entire contemporary blockbuster.

At the beginning of Liberty Valance, before we first glimpse Hallie and Stoddard, their sole piece of luggage, an elegant hatbox, emerges from the train, brought by Hallie from the East and borne like a trophy by the unctuous conductor. The box is carefully handed to Andy Devine, who has come to fetch them, and handed by him to Hallie once she mounts the carriage. Devine is to take them to Donophon’s coffin, but Stoddard is delayed by a reporter and asks Devine to give Hallie a ride around town. Clutching the box, Hallie suggests that the cactus roses are in bloom. After a guilty sidelong glance, Devine takes her to the burnt-out remains of Donophon’s ranch house, which Donophon had set ablaze when he saw that she would marry Stoddard. She sends Devine to cut down a rose, and as he does, she places the box on the seat, her fingers on the lid. Later, by the coffin, Hallie takes the box from Devine, and when Stoddard leaves the room to talk to a newspaper man, just before the camera turns to him, we see her remove the cord and begin to lift the lid. At the end of the film, after Stoddard has told the story of Liberty Valance, he returns to view the coffin and finds the cactus rose set on top of it. We are to infer that Hallie threw away her hat, the symbol of her attachment to the East and to Stoddard, at Donophon’s ranch and replaced it with the rose she brought him. Like a tabernacle, the box bore her heart’s desire to Donophon’s wake.

Orson Welles was once asked which directors he most admired. “I always go back to the old masters,” he answered. “By which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”


  • F. H. Buckley

    F. H. Buckley is the Foundation Professor of law at George Mason School of Law and the author of "The Morality of Laughter" (University of Michigan, 2003).

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