Valance Individualism

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John Ford’s acclaimed film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is well-known among cinema buffs and historians to have emerged out of a brutal, often contentious process. Tension between the lead actors, as well as tension between the actors and the director, spawned some of the best behind the scenes stories of on-set rivalry and outright pettiness that still circulate in an industry that is primarily built on controversy and rumor. The film itself must be regarded as a masterpiece. This assessment is due in part to the brilliant performances by the cast and also in part to an elegant, carefully crafted script. That said; one of the main reasons that the film distinguishes itself above many of ford’s other brilliant films is due to the vision that infuses the film from its opening scene through the final credits. This vision is one that imagines the cultural transition of America from an unsettled land to a modern state. What is lost in the transition is the spirit of the true outlaw, which stands as a symbol of individualism. Individualism is a crucial observation because it sheds light on the theme of the film, which is that of the American identity. What Ford articulates in the film is a vision of the American character that is rooted in the heritage of the Old West and in the doctrines of freedom and liberty that underlie the founding of America as a nation. In many ways, the film traces a cynical evolution from the earliest days of the frontier, symbolizing self-reliance and individuality, and the modern era of media and social conformity. The reason that the film is as effective as a work of drama is that it connects the flow of history to such over-arching concerns as the role of society in shaping the fate and lif... ... middle of paper ... ... it. As a hero, Doniphon represents the common man’s ability to respond to a social threat, by administering much needed justice. Stoddard represents social conformity that is taken to such an extent that the person is no longer honest and is, also, through dishonesty and incompetence, a threat to the cohesion and integrity of society. All of these factors present the film as a microcosm of American culture, with the uncelebrated Doniphon as Ford’s expression of where liberty actually resides. We, as Americans, must walk a thin line between social conformity and blandness, between a frontier vigilantism and justice, and between barbarism and civilization. Yes, these are big themes, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a big film with big stars and a big director. In this case, all of that fire not only lives up to expectations, but exceeds them in many ways.

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