Saturday, September 25, 2010

Great showdowns: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Two of my favorite showdowns are from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The first is a confrontation over a fallen steak in a restaurant in Shinbone, a small western frontier town, and it is unusual for a showdown because no guns are ever drawn and no shots are ever fired. It emphasizes, though, one of the film's main themes — the way of the gun vs. the coming of law to the Old West. The former is highlighted not only in the movie's title (it is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, after all, not The Man Who Prosecuted Liberty Valance), but also in the characters Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a vicious outlaw and hired gun for cattle barons looking to intimidate voters into defeating a proposal for statehood, and Tom Doniphon, a tough but respectable rancher who provides the only real challenge to Valance's skill with a gun. The Law is represented by Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), a lawyer from the East eager to bring a more civilized order to the frontier.

On his way to Shinbone, Stoddard's coach is robbed — and Stoddard himself is severely beaten — by Valance and his gang. Ransom is found and rescued by Doniphon, who leaves him in the care of Hallie (Vera Miles), a waitress at Pete's Place and, ostensibly, Tom's future wife. To pay for his room and board, Ransom washes dishes at the restaurant, and on one night he volunteers to help Hallie serve food, much to the consternation of the women in the kitchen, who feel wearing an apron and waiting tables are not duties befitting a man. Ransom insists, however, and carries Tom's dinner into the dining room just as Liberty Valance — who had entered the room just moments before and forced a party of cowhands out of their chairs — is making himself comfortable. Ransom, seeing Liberty at the nearby table, stops short. Valance jeers, but Ranse carries the plate towards Tom's table, only to be tripped by Valance as he walks past the outlaw. Both Ranse and the plate hit the floor hard, and as Tom's food scatters, Valance and his men laugh derisively.

Tom walks slowly into frame and stands behind of Ransom, who is still on the floor recovering from his fall. "That's my steak, Valance," says Tom, as Liberty jumps to his feet. After a pause, Valance, chuckling, tells Ransom, "Well you heard him, Dude. Pick it up." Ranse starts to get to his feet, defiantly refusing to do as told. But Tom cuts him off, leaving Ranse on his knees, and sidesteps him to face Liberty. "I said you, Valance. You pick it up." A tense standoff begins, as Liberty silently considers his chances against Tom in a close-range gunfight. As Valance and Doniphon remain locked in a stare-down, Ransom, with a look of adrenaline-fueled rage, loses his patience. He stands up, angrily shouting at the two. "What's the matter? Everybody in this country kill crazy?" He picks up the steak, slaps it onto the plate, then slams the plate onto Tom's table. "There! Now! It's picked up!" Valance and Doniphon don't flinch — their eyes are still locked, gun hands at the ready. After a moment, Liberty backs down, though still taunting Tom by dropping some coins on the floor. "Why don't you get yourself a fresh steak, on me?" he says, his eyes still locked on Tom's. He then turns, slowly walks toward the door, then suddenly spins on his heels while going for his guns. Tom quickly checks Liberty's draw — "Try it, Liberty! Just try it!" he says, and Valance freezes. Liberty's face changes bitterly, and instead of drawing, he takes out his anger by beating one of his henchmen as he pushes his way out the door.

This scene further emphasizes the courage Ranse demonstrates during the coach robbery, when he steps in front of Liberty Valance when the latter threatens a woman. It shows that Ranse, despite his preference for reason over violence and his apparent blindness to prevailing gender roles, is in his own way as brave as Tom. But it also serves as the moment when Ranse realizes how complicated a task it will be to bring lawfulness to the west — he is fully aware that it was Tom and his gun that scared Valance away, not fear of the law. It's a quintessential James Stewart moment, too, showcasing the actor's talent for playing men pushed to the edge, whose anger explodes into defiance in the face of possible ruin or death. (The following scene, where Ranse recovers from the incident, is another well-executed move from the George Bailey playbook.)

The second — and most significant — showdown from Liberty Valance is shown twice: once when it happens, and again in flashback (technically both instances are in flashback, as the events are told by Ransom decades after they occur). After the confrontation at Pete's Place, Ranse knows it's just a matter of time before Liberty comes back for revenge. In secret, he begins practicing with a gun, and gets one memorable lesson from Tom, who angers Ranse by shooting paint cans while Ranse is still near them, covering the lawyer in white paint.

The showdown happens at night, on Shinbone's darkened main street. Ranse discovers that Valance and his men have badly beaten the editor of the town newspaper and destroyed the newspaper office where Ranse was establishing his law practice. While he knows that he is no match for Liberty in a gun fight, he resolves to face him anyway and sends word to Liberty to meet him in the street. Ranse, still wearing his apron, retrieves his gun, pulls down what is left of the sign he had hung outside his office, then starts down the street toward Liberty.

Valance controls the situation from the start, telling a determined but obviously frightened Ranse to come forward out of the shadow. Ranse obeys, only to be toyed with as Liberty shoots a jug hanging close to Ransom's head, splashing him with water (echoing Tom's humiliating paint can trick). Ranse gathers himself, then steps forward, only to be shot in his gun arm and watch his gun fly into the street. Liberty leans against a post laughing as Ranse, blood pouring from his arm, moves slowly toward his gun. "You got two hands, Hash Slinger. Pick it up," taunts Liberty. As Ranse slowly reaches for the gun, Liberty shoots the ground nearby and continues to laugh. Ranse takes the gun in his left hand, then slowly steps up onto the sidewalk to face Valance. Liberty stops laughing and changes his expression so that we know he is done with games. He steps away from the post, points his gun at Ranse, and pulls back the hammer. "All right, dude. This time, right between the eyes," he says, taking aim. Ranse quickly raises his gun and fires. Liberty is thrown back against the post, then staggers onto the street and falls over, dead.

As a crowd bursts from the saloon and surrounds Valance's body, Ranse, holding his bleeding arm, walks slowly back to the restaurant, where Hallie follows him to the kitchen to tend his wound. As she does so, she tearfully confesses her fear that Ranse would have been killed and kisses him on the forehead, just as Tom walks in. It becomes apparent to Tom that Hallie will marry Ranse and not him, and his bitterness over this realization manifests as anger in the following scenes when he roughs up Valance's men in the saloon, gets drunk, then returns to his home to burn down the addition he had built in anticipation of living with Hallie.

The significance of Tom's anger is not fully revealed until the territorial convention, where Ranse — bolstered by his reputation as the man who shot Liberty Valance — is nominated to represent the territory in Congress. Uneasy with the controversy surrounding his new fame, Ranse leaves the convention hall. Outside he is confronted by a grizzled and bitter Tom, and explains to him that he wishes to go back east instead of build a career based upon his killing of Valance. "You talk too much," Tom tells him. "Besides," he continues, "you didn't kill Liberty Valance." In flashback, Tom explains to the astonished Ranse how he had hidden in the shadows across the street, and shot Liberty Valance just as Ranse fired his own gun. When Ranse asks Tom why he did it, Tom replies, "Hallie's happy. She wanted you alive." Ranse then re-enters the convention hall to accept his nomination.

In secretly killing Liberty Valance, Tom knowingly sacrifices his future happiness with Hallie for Hallie's future happiness with Ranse. But his sacrifice is for more than just Hallie — by shooting Liberty Valance, Tom not only saves Ranse's life, but gives Ranse the reputation needed to get him elected to Congress, which in turn gains statehood for the land "south of the Picketwire" and ushers in the secure law, order, and prosperity Ranse had hoped for all along. More significantly, Tom's action establishes the film's main thematic paradox, that law prevails only by exploiting the violence it intends to replace.

See also: What's in a name: Liberty Valance and Ransom Stoddard

Friday, September 10, 2010

Double feature: Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and Avatar

During the original release of Avatar, when everyone with a blog was either touting or condemning it ("Dances With Smurfs!" Ouch.), I thought up my own annoyingly Twitter-appropriate review: "Everything you have heard about Avatar — good or bad — is true." I liked Avatar and read or heard no criticism that I couldn't take for granted, nor which effectively undid what was good about the film.

I probably first watched Rambo: First Blood Part 2 on cable a few years after its 1985 release, though I can't remember — it was not a movie I was terribly interested in. I do remember watching it in college, however, as part of a class on "captivity narratives," and gaining a slightly better understanding of the Rambo phenomenon of the 1980's and beyond. I re-watched it a few days ago, enjoyed it despite some glaringly silly bits, and found myself thinking that my one-line review of Avatar also applied to it. And while the pairing of the two films hadn't occurred to me before, many likenesses came to mind. Both films transcended their status as box office hits to become "cultural phenomena," due in part to their polarizing effect on film goers (or maybe the polarization was a result of the phenomenon...I'm not sure it really matters). Each movie can be seen as superficial entertainment, or as a film with a social message, or both. Or, perhaps more critically, as superficial entertainment disguised as social message. (In an interview clip on the Rambo DVD, director George Cosmatos explains that he never thought of the film as political, but rather as just an action movie. James Cameron has been somewhat less coy about Avatar.) In any case, it is these messages — or "message wrappers," if you prefer — that really connect the two films.

Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (which for simplicity in this post will be referred to only as Rambo, not to be mistaken for the fourth installment of the First Blood series) presents a re-writing of the Vietnam war. Made in the mid-1980's amidst the reexamination of America's treatment of Vietnam veterans, the film offers not only a way to redeem the American public for its poor reception of returning soldiers, but a way to win the war itself. Rambo's mission is to find American POW's still in captivity in the jungles of Vietnam. His success in rescuing several such soldiers not only presents filmgoers with an American victory in Vietnam, but shows forgotten and mistreated vets being brought back into the fold.

Key to the film's rectification of history is the transfer of all responsibility for the war onto a single, un-American source. While America's culpability for the treatment of its veterans is embodied by Murdock, the bureaucrat in charge of the ersatz rescue operation, and while Rambo kills a fair share of Vietnamese enemies, the real power behind the POW camp is the Soviet Union, in 1985 still a hot adversary to the United States in the Cold War. In this way, present and past animosities are united and blame is simplified onto a single, sneering, Soviet bad guy, sparing the audience any need to consider a more complex reality.

Avatar, in turn, offers vicarious and fantastical redemption for White expansion into the American West. Much has already been written about the similarities between this movie and others, especially Dances With Wolves (I am guilty of contributing my own two cents), though suffice it to say that Avatar's Jake Sully, much like Dances With Wolves' John Dunbar and A Man Called Horse's John Morgan, offers white audiences a historical re-do: he acts out a racial guilt-purging fantasy that displaces wrongdoing onto a specific subset of white colonizers (led by corporate cog Parker Selfridge, a stand-in for Murdock), which bears not only the blame for past racial sin but for modern evils as well: corporate greed, environmental neglect, and the questionable and excessive use of military force. When Jake is accepted into the native Na'vi tribe — when he is in fact accepted as their "chosen one" and defends the tribe against the invaders from Earth — he gains the forgiveness and redemption we desire.

Other similarities strengthen the connection between the two films. Rambo and Jake are both injured Marines — Jake's injuries are physical and visible, while Rambo's pain is emotional and mental — recruited to help in missions that will give them a "second chance." For Rambo, the mission is an opportunity to be released from prison and to finally get to "win" a war. For Jake, a tour on Pandora is a chance to leave the bleakness of an environmentally ravaged Earth and possibly have his injured legs repaired. Both heroes are sent to fulfill the orders of a military or corporate "machine" (both of which are headquartered in military-style bases carved out of and fenced off from the surrounding jungle), but each redefines his mission according to his conscience, putting him at odds with his own society. Rambo, like the Na'vi, is more at one with the natural environment than are his adversaries. He hides from enemies by covering himself in mud or by lurking underwater. He uses nature as a weapon, making traps and weapons out of tree roots and vines. Both the Na'vi and Rambo use simple weapons like bows and arrows and knives against the high-tech weaponry of their enemies (there is at least one instance of rack focus between shooter and arrowhead in each film!). Rambo repeatedly shows his disdain for technology by cutting loose his gear, shooting up a control room, and declaring "I've always believed that the mind is the best weapon." (Rambo is adept, however, at flying military helicopters, which are emphasized in both films as an important way of travelling between the two worlds straddled by the heroes). And it is probably not insignificant that Avatar writer/director James Cameron also co-wrote the screenplay to Rambo.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Double feature: Red River and There Will Be Blood

There's a scene in Red River (1948) where John Wayne, as frontier settler Tom Dunson, arrives at a seemingly arbitrarily chosen tract of land and claims it as his own. When agents for a man named Don Diego, who lives 400 miles away, south of the Rio Grande, arrive to dispute this claim, Dunson shoots and kills one of them and sends the other back to Mexico with the news. After burying the dead man, Dunson surveys the land that is, by his thinking, rightfully his:

My land. We're here, and we're gonna stay here. Give me ten years and I'll have that brand on the gates of the greatest ranch in Texas. The big house will be down by the river, and the corrals and the barns behind it. It'll be a good place to live in. Ten years and I'll have the Red River D on more cattle than you've looked at anywhere. I'll have that brand on enough beef to feed the whole country. Good beef for hungry people. Beef to make them strong, make 'em grow. It takes work, and it takes sweat, and it takes time. Lots of time. It takes years.*

That scene, and the one immediately following, which jumps 15 years into the future to show that Dunson does indeed succeed in raising that many cattle, establishes Dunson as a driven man who has a plan and the will to see it through, regardless of — in fact, aided by — legal and moral uncertainties. He is a man with the requisite ego to act on Manifest Destiny.

The opening scenes of There Will Be Blood (2007) show Daniel Plainview to be equally driven. We see him working a claim on a silver mine, alone, enduring an accident which leaves him with an apparently broken leg and possible internal injuries, before he arrives in the nearest town (presumably after crawling through the dessert to get there) to cash in. While Dunson associates (genuinely or not) his claim with the future success of the country, Plainview's goals appear to be more solitary. The work of both men, however, advances the infrastructure and, mostly, the economy of the developing nation.

Both of these films are Westerns — Red River more obviously so, set amid the trappings of traditional Westerns like cattle drives, American Indians, and quick-draw shoot-outs, but There Will Be Blood also, for much of it is set in the last period of the Old West amid not the territorial but the economic expansion of the country. Both lead characters are bold, brave, determined to stake a claim on the frontier and defend it above all else, bullying, not always likable, at times detestable, at times amoral, at times immoral. In short, most likely the kind of people who really did settle the American West. Both films show these men attempting to realize a difficult plan in pursuit of wealth, and becoming increasingly isolated as their bludgeoning personalities make it increasingly difficult for them to work with others.

The men are also similar in that they each adopt (officially or not) boys who have been orphaned by the same enterprise the men pursue. These boys act as the men's sons, and serve as counterweights to their adopted fathers' unscrupulous wills. Dunson takes in Matt, a boy orphaned when his wagon train is attacked by Comanche Indians. Plainview adopts H.W. after the infant's father is killed while working on Plainview's oil rig. Each boy is an aid to their new father: Matt by using his easy rapport with the cowhands to smooth over tensions caused by Tom's increasingly belligerent behavior, H.W. by giving Daniel the appearance of a man with family values, which helps during negotiations with families and small towns for land and drilling rights. Tensions develop between father and son when the sons eventually act on their own initiatives. Matt alienates Tom when he wrests control of the cattle drive from a near-homicidal Dunson, and Daniel viciously disowns H.W. when H.W. reveals plans to start his own oil company in Mexico. Without the support of their sons, both men fall into greater anger and bitterness.

The two men also have a conflicted relationship with religion. Tom appears to be a Christian, with "I'll read over him" (in reference to reading scripture at a funeral service) becoming his refrain. His devoutness is called into question, however, by the fact that some of the men he reads over are men he has himself killed. Daniel is more obviously at odds with religion. After paying lip service to landowners concerned about his religious beliefs, and after being humiliated by Eli, an ambitious preacher on whose father's land Plainview builds his fortune-making rig, Daniel's "victory" over Eli (and, symbolically, the Church) at film's end seems to cap not only his freedom and career, but his unspoken life's ambition.

I'm finished.

* Though I am not suggesting 2001: A Space Odyssey as part of a potential triple feature, this speech of Dunson's nonetheless reminds me of the prehistoric segment of that film. After being visited by the monolith, the primates discover that bones can be used as weapons. There is dramatic emphasis on how one group uses bones to kill members of another group, allowing the former to expand and dominate. Prior to this, however, emphasis is placed on the killing of an animal for food; shortly after the kill the group is shown eating meat, presumably for the first time, and eating lots of meat — a piece of raw flesh dangling from practically every primate hand. The infusion of that much protein into their diet — and this is something I picked up elsewhere, not directly from 2001 — allowed carnivorous primate brains to grow larger, giving them an evolutionary advantage and allowing them to expand and eventually evolve into the dominant species. Dunson's mention of beef, hungry people (by which he doubtless means White settlers), and time — "lots of time" — brings to mind this evolutionary process. While it doesn't qualify as an evolutionary advantage, certainly their great numbers, and not their weapons alone, enabled White settlers to overwhelm the native civilization (at least according to "Hollywood history" — see mentions of the relentlessness of the white onslaught in Dances With Wolves and Little Big Man, e.g.). Such numbers needed infrastructural support, and the raising of cattle contributed not only to that infrastructure, but to the need to annex more and more land on which to raise more and more cattle.