“When in doubt…make a Western”
“The Western is a universal frame within which
it's possible to comment on today.”
“Cinema through spectacle, through the entertainment of spectacle, tells the story of many actual problems in life. Because whoever doesn’t want to read between the lines can just enjoy the entertainment and the show and go home happy.”
Sam Peckinpah was a ‘mad’ genius. This could work for him or against him. He had the foresight to use the western genre to look to the future by focusing on our past and then pushing the envelope. He looked at westerns as a warning of what could come by revisiting the past and giving his predictions of what we have to look for to if we don’t watch out.
Sam’s best quote about his warnings was made by him when referencing The Wild Bunch: “You want to be complacent lemmings? Here's what's going to happen if you do, so you'd better rebel before it's too late." Too bad we didn't listen.
In John Ford's classic western film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart plays the ‘Honorable’ Senator Ransom Stoddard returning with his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles) to the town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). As we learn through the flashback story Doniphon is the man responsible for Stoddard being the success he is through a secret that was shared by the two men; a secret that the senator can no longer, in all good conscience, keep to himself. At the finish of his story Stoddard tells the reporter the truth about who shot Valance. Knowing it will create a problem, not just for the senator in his bid for governorship of the unspecified state but to those who need their heroes, the reporter, Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) decides to tear up the story and throw it in the nearby potbelly stove proclaiming, "This is the west sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." He really isn't doing it for Stoddard but for all the people who believe in him. Back then, as today,we need heroes to look up to no matter what the cost. Which story will sell more newspapers is completely irrelevant to the myth building Maxwell Scott; being somewhat jaded, it could also help the newspaper editor if he ever needs a favor from a Governor Stoddard
A legend can have greater meaning to those of us looking for heroes thus outweighing the facts. Tom Doniphon is dead so who is the truth going to help?
Certainly not the Senator who is still very much alive and married to the woman that both he and Doniphon loved. It’s not going to help Tom Doniphon, even though it could help create a heroic legend for the man who actually shot Liberty Valance thus destroying Stoddard’s reputation; so what really should win out … The truth or the legend?
Charlie LeSueur is AZ's Official Western Film Historian, Encore Fellow @ Spirit of the West; Scottsdale's Museum of the West.