Friday, July 15, 2022

Rule of law

Kyle Smith is leaving National Review to become film critic for The Wall Street Journal. He has been at NR for five years and in his farewell post links to some of his work during that time. From an essay about one of my favorite John Ford films: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring James Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin:
.... When idealistic young lawyer Ransom Stoddard, played by James Stewart, arrives in town, he is determined to remove the menace posed by the brutal, murderous bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) by putting him in jail. The ace gunfighter Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, scoffs at him for being a city slicker who doesn’t understand how things work out here on the frontier, and advises him to get a gun. But the film actually takes Stoddard’s side and makes the case that accepting the rule of law rather than bowing to raw displays of power is how a town becomes modern. ....

The lawlessness of the Old West is, like the institution of slavery, a betrayal of the Founding ideals, and Stoddard stands for a new, laws-based America that lives up to the Declaration and the Constitution. A scene in the middle of the movie that does nothing to advance the plot serves this subtext. We have learned earlier that Stoddard wishes to teach the illiterate residents to read, but that isn’t what he’s doing here. Instead, he’s teaching the Founding. One of his students, Doniphon’s farmhand Pompey (Woody Strode), is a black man. Stoddard asks Pompey in class to tell what he has learned about “the basic law of the land.” Pompey confuses the Founding documents, but that’s understandable because of the consonance of the two: “It was writ by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia,” Pompey says. “He called it the Constitution.” With some prompting from Stoddard, who clarifies that Pompey is talking about the Declaration, Pompey recalls that it begins with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” ....

Pompey, the black farmhand, is a minor figure in the film and yet he is the fulcrum upon which it turns (he even supplies the rifle used to kill Liberty Valance). By helping to kill Liberty, he makes possible genuine liberty. Tom Doniphon fires what amounts to the last gunshot of the might-makes-right era in the Old West; that he is consumed by guilt and psychologically destroyed by his act marks a radical departure from previous Westerns, in which dispatching bad men was framed as a noble, manly duty. His way of settling disputes is no longer acceptable. ....
Kyle Smith, "The Founding vs. The Old West in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," National Review, Nov. 29, 2019.

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