Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Calling Tom Donophin

David Brooks of the New York Times has recently asked what we can learn from the Western movies of yore. By coincidence, I have been pondering the same question.

Mr. Brooks points to John Ford’s My Darling Clementine as a celebration of family and community over the “rugged individualism” he believes conservatives preach. How Dan Quayle’s “family values” constituency became selfish anarchists is not explained. Evidently, though, the community activist is now good, the classic Western “lone wolf” is bad.

My thoughts have led me down a different path, and to different conclusions. Two films have been much on my mind, High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. In High Noon, marshal Will Kane must face down four hardened killers by himself, for the townspeople have turned their backs on him. They would prefer he simply leave, in the hope that would placate the approaching thugs. I have often wondered whether George W Bush ever thought that he was in a similar situation. There are differences, however. The movie thugs are easily identified and their murderous intent is unmistakable. Mr. Bush was in a much more difficult and ambiguous situation, a situation Mr. Obama inherited. As a consequence, his recent world tours have made me squirm. In his version of the film, Will Kane would not have been asked to leave – he would have been run out of a town on a rail, the better to please the thugs. Which, of course, would have left the town at the mercy of the thugs.

By coincidence, another Western classic explores the question of life in such a town. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the small town of Shinbone is terrorized by the vicious Liberty Valence, who appears to fear no one other than Tom Donophin, a local rancher. Enter Ransom Stoddard, a young lawyer and idealist, who believes in the law and logic and reason. Ultimately Stoddard realizes that neither words nor law nor reason will deter the evil Valence unless there is force behind them. Reluctantly he straps on a pistol, although he barely knows how to use it, and faces Valence. To the surprise of all, Valence is left dead in the dust. (For CSI fans, the ME’s examination of the corpse is, by itself, worth the price of a rental.) Shinbone is saved, Stoddard is a hero. He gets the girl and begins a long and distinguished political career.

Except Stoddard didn’t shoot Valence.

As we learn in the course of the film, Donophin was lurking in the shadows and fired the fatal shot, timed to coincide with Stoddard’s own. The man of reason and law is saved by the man of controlled violence. It seems they sought the same woman, and she preferred Stoddard. Donophin was willing to kill for her. (Ever the good lawyer, Stoddard notes that Donophin’s action was justified by the doctrine of self defense. Donophin rejects this consolation – he had shot a man without warning. As he sees it: “It was cold blooded murder….but I can live with that.) But we should not slight Stoddard, who was also willing to kill, and to risk being killed, for his beliefs and his beloved and his community.

Together, these films offer a valuable lesson. Evil is not always defeated by reason and logic, for evil is in itself unreasonable and illogical. Force must sometimes be met with force, for the alternatives – servitude or death – are unacceptable. Unless one prefers living on one’s knees to dying on one’s feet.

Needless to say, our ever apologizing president calls to mind the idealistic Stoddard, but with no sign of Stoddard’s grit. Unfortunately Tom Donophin is not lurking in the shadows to save us.

A Note: I know of no evidence that Valence was intended to be a response or rebuttal to High Noon, a film John Wayne reportedly loathed. Rather, the Wayne response is said to be Rio Bravo, which is a classic in its own right.

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