Sunday, April 26, 2020

the man who shot but thought it didn't count

Relaxation time was spent watching a couple of classic James Stewart movies, both of which I'd seen before: It's a Wonderful Life and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But this time I was paying closer attention than before and noticed some of those plot problems that have become a favorite spotting point of mine in old classic movies.

In It's a Wonderful Life they were pretty minor:
1. The biggest one was that, once Clarence plunges George into the alternate universe in which he doesn't exist, George spends too much time baffled by his non-existence to really seem to be learning the lesson that this is what his non-existence leads to.
2. During the big flashback, there's a mention of the Depression having been in the past, although if you calculate the timeline this seems to be taking place about 1935.
3. At the end, when all George's friends, however poor, are contributing to paying his debt, the biggest cheer comes with a wire from his wealthy businessman friend Sam Wainwright, who offers him a line of credit for over 3 times the total amount. If I were one of the poor contributors, this would make me feel kind of superfluous. I'd be relieved for George, but I wouldn't feel like cheering.

The problem with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes near the end.
First, context. The punchline of this movie is a big gulp of irony. We're told that Rance (Stewart) has built his entire successful political career out of being the man who shot Liberty Valance, but it turns out he wasn't the man who shot Liberty Valance, Tom (John Wayne) was - a man so without honor in his own country that the newspapermen in his own town have never heard of him even on the occasion of his death. (Seems a little improbable.)
But - and here's the problem - except for that line on the train at the very end, we never see Rance being fĂȘted for that part. When Rance's ally Peabody nominates him for convention delegate, he doesn't say anything about Rance's supposed feat. It's the slick politician supporting the opposing candidate who does so, and his position is to criticize Rance for tossing aside the rule of law to shoot a man in a gunfight. There's no honor here.
And there had been none at the gunfight either. When Liberty falls, everyone gathers around his body while Rance, unaccompanied and unnoticed by anybody, staggers across the street.
In response to the politician criticizing him, Rance decides he's worthless and leaves the election meeting. It's then that Tom tells him that, no, he shot Liberty Valance from a hiding place. And that makes it OK? Rance goes back to the meeting and wins the seat. But even if he didn't fire the fatal shot (this should come to mind from a famous piece of Firefly dialogue - SIMON: I never shot anyone before. BOOK: I was there, son. I'm fair sure you haven't shot anyone yet.), he tried to. He took up Liberty's challenge and risked his life. So either credit or demerit for courage, if not for action, should be his.
Lastly, we've been told and shown throughout that Tom is the one man not afraid of Liberty. But since Liberty controls the town in a reign of terror - everything from strong-arm stagecoach robbery to stealing punters' dinners from under their noses - why hasn't anyone been after Tom to do something about this before?

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