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Frontier Mythographies: Savagery and Civilization in Frederick Jackson Turner and John Ford (2007)

Editor’s Note:

This is the first installment in a new series of articles from the archives of LFQ. I chose this article by Arthur Redding from 2007 for two primary reasons: first, I have repeatedly used the article in teaching my classes on the western and how that genre resonates within specific political and historical contexts; and second, I was curious about how Redding would look back on this work in light of our current moment where it seems like the rules of political engagement have been redrawn.

--Elsie Walker

Preface to “Frontier Mythographies: Savagery and Civilization in Frederick Jackson Turner and John Ford”

In the early 2000s, when I was writing about American culture during the Cold War (a project of which “Frontier Mythographies” formed a part), I was struck by the ways in which contemporary political and cultural discourses drew on the available repertoire of mythic American images, icons, and narratives, the myth of the frontier prominent among them. Whatever else they signified, the terror attacks of 9/11 had shattered easy complacencies about America’s dominance over what President George Bush Seniorhad termed the “New World Order” that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I saw it, attempts were being made (with equivocal success) to resurrect somewhat shopworn mythic narratives about America in order to make sense of contemporary life after 9/11 and to legitimate American actions in the world.

In the late 1940s and 50s, the golden age of Hollywood westerns, filmic narratives about the American frontier had buttressed a Cold War logic of heroic American expansionism. During the early sixties, however, many assumptions of Cold War culture began to dissolve. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance reflected those fractures, exposed the mythic (as opposed to historical and material) construction of American power, even as director John Ford aimed (paradoxically enough) to endorse a Kennedy-esque recalibration of frontier myth to render the story of western conquest humane, inclusive, and tolerant.

According to this Imaginary, Kennedy could still function as an ideal, masculine, and benevolent protector: as both East coast elite (Stoddard/Stewart) and frontier hero (Doniphon/Wayne)—a man capable of deploying extreme violence in defense of righteousness—but also a man with a heart, with compassion, with an intellect. At the same time, the film exposes his pretense to competence and power.. The mythic ideal of the good leader, the film acknowledges, cannot be sustained: “the man who shot Liberty Valance” is a construct, a myth, a phony, a media creation.

What remains of the mythic frontier narrative in 2019, I wonder, as I look back on the early 1960s, on the early part of the 21st century? And what remains of those Bush-era efforts to resuscitate myths of a virile America that was both benevolent and heroic?

In certain ways, Frederick Jackson Turner’s mythic mapping of America still holds firm: in 2016, we could still map voting patterns more or less along the lines Turner drew: blue states huddled along the coasts, red states on the far side of Turner’s frontiers. Westerners remain devoted to what they understand as liberty. (This pattern holds true at least for older white voters; changing demographics are rapidly changing the politics of states across the American South, Midwest, and West). Even so, libertarian-inflected American populism has chosen a mighty strange hero to carry its banner. One wonders what repertoire of mythicized American masculinity his persona draws upon. Beloved as he may be in the heartland, Donald Trump is hardly a cowboy hero. Unlike Bush, unlike Reagan, unlike Kennedy, he doesn’t even pretend to be.

And westerns may no longer have a whole lot to say. While it is true that excellent westerns continue to be made and such television serials as Deadwood (2004-06) have had their share of popularity, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) may well be the last western movie of any genuine political significance. Unforgiven can be read effectively as an elegy for the Cold War: the “good guy” effectively wins the day, but no good can be salvaged. All pretense to moral clarity, righteousness, or justice, has been abandoned by film’s end, as Will Munny (Eastwood) proclaims to Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) just before murdering him: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” No-one has made credible claims about the revival of the western since then. Even Eastwood, who in real life dissimulates nostalgia for an Eisenhower-era model of straitlaced Republicanism—he endorsed Mitt Romney, but has been blessedly mum about Trump—has largely abandoned the genre.

No doubt Trump has his mythic antecedents in American lore: the snake oil salesman, a huckster, a swindler, a braggart, a liar. Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, P.T. Barnum, perhaps, George C. Parker, a touch of Gatsby, a dose of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz (and a dollop of MGM’s). Mark Twain, were he writing today, would do Trump justice, so too would Ambrose Bierce. To his adoring fans, Trump comes off as an impish but loveable boaster and braggart, a plucky loser, who doesn’t quite know he is a loser: Harold Hill, in The Music Man, Thurber’s Walter Mitty. To his enemies, he is a villain: Melville’s diabolic Confidence Man, perhaps, but not Liberty Valance. Trump is hardly a cowboy hero, unless he might have held a minor role on the television comedy F-Troop. Jim Backus might have played him as part Mr. Magoo, part Thurston Howell.

The most prophetic film contemporaneous with Liberty Valance turns out to be John Frankenheimer’s paranoid political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962): the right-wing nutter ascending to the White House really is a KGB asset, unwittingly working on behalf of communist China! In that film, at least, Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) was able to save the day, preventing foreign agents from taking over the presidency. Even Hollywood, it seems, pales before the chaos that is American politics. Perhaps mobster films come closest to describing the universal corruption and inanity of Trumpism. And gangster movies are enjoying something of a resurgence today: Scott Cooper’s Black Mass (2015); Andrea Di Stefano’s The Informer (2019); Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019). But, in what film does the con man make it all the way to the Presidency? In what farcical world is vice so rewarded? In what universe, we might ask, does a schlub like Donald Trump get to be an alpha male?

The answer is simple: in the Marvel Universe. Ever heard of Peter Parker?

As contemporary allegories of power and justice, Hollywood superhero films are to post-Cold War America what Hollywood westerns were to Cold War America. The Hollywood western was ascendant from the formative years of the Cold War between, say, 1948 (the year the two most classic instances of the form were produced: Ford’s Fort Apache and Howard Hawkes’ Red River) through to 1962 (Liberty Valance), when, as I argue, the ideological buttresses of Cold War liberalism began to founder. We can read the popular trajectory of the superhero film along the same lines. Since 1989 (the year Tim Burton’s Batman appeared and the year the Berlin wall came down), we have witnessed the ascent of genre; and the years between 9/11/01 and 2019 mark the apex of their popularity. Not only are superhero movies cinema (pace Scorsese!), they may well be the most telling cinema of our times, in terms of how they dramatically expose our political unconscious.  They are moral fables and fantasies where an almost unlimited imperial power is only haphazardly yoked to an ethics of universal righteousness: time and again, in these movies, has the superhero to measure her or his moral fitness to wield the superpowers with which she or he has been endowed. And so too America. Like the Cold War western, too, superhero films cover a broad spectrum of ideological positions, from the cynical left libertarianism of Zack Snyder’s The Watchmen (2009) to the anarcho-nihilism of Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010) to the Afrofuturism of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018).

We can push the analogy even further: what The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was to Kennedy’s America, so Todd Phillips’s 2019 Joker is to Trump’s America. On the one hand, the film functions an unqualified endorsement of Trump’s politics of white ressentiment. Read across the grain, however, Joker exposes and laments the ideological barrenness and vacuity of Trumpism.

In an age of “fake news,” I can’t let the depiction of the fourth estate in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance go unremarked. Note that Ford’s movie presents a heroic vision of the press as speaker of truth to power, in the form of Shinbone Star publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), who is terrorized for his commitment to unveil public corruption. Yet, later, in the hands of editor Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), we witness the Star as propagandist, as spinner of ideological yarns, as toady to the impostures of the powerful.  Can the press be both? Much as Trump claims to despise MSNBC, he would not hold office but for the airtime he was given by the liberal press. Trump is as purely a creature fabricated by the popular media as is the legendary man who shot Liberty Valance.

--Arthur Redding

“This is the West, sir,” declares the newspaperman Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), editor of the Shinbone Star, toward the conclusion of John Ford’s classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) (see Figure 1). “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In this iconic and iconographic scenario Scott tears up his notes and decides not to print the “true story” of Liberty Valance, thus accentuating the media’s complicity in defining and perpetuating the myth of the American frontier. As Catherine Ingrassia notes, “the film demonstrates the unreliability of categories like ‘news,’ ‘history,’ and even ‘identity’ while affirming the power of language to construct a reality based on deception” (5). Legend becomes fact. On the frontier, myth or legend usurps the place and power of history; we might even say that the frontier exists fundamentally as myth.

Frontier Mythographies: Savagery and Civilization in Frederick Jackson Turner and John Ford (2007), Arthur Redding, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1

And it is a myth that is at the very core of American self-understanding, as such different thinkers as Henry Nash Smith, Patricia Nelson Limerick, and Richard Slotkin insist. For Smith, whose 1950 Virgin Land virtually defined the “myth and symbol school” of American Studies that was to dominate Cold War representations of American identity, competing thematic understandings of the frontier—as the key to international trade, as character forming crucible of the American character, and as “garden of the world”—dominated nineteenth-century efforts to build and defend the nation. Such struggles, mythologized in works of literature, film, and history, continue to provide the defining materials within an evolving repertoire of American self-conceptions. Limerick writes:

As a mental artifact, the frontier has demonstrated an astonishing stickiness and persistence. […] Packed full of nonsense and goofiness, jammed with nationalist self-congratulation and toxic ethnocentrism, the image of the frontier is nonetheless universally recognized and laden with positive associations. […] Somewhere in the midst of this weird hodgepodge of frontier and pioneer imagery lie important lessons about the American identity, sense of history, and direction for the future. (94)

Limerick, a historian of the American west, wants to repeal the mythic stature of the frontier and replace it with a clearer sense of what actually happened—and still happens—in the American west. But the legend is already in print; the west was written as myth; that is, any deployment of the language of the frontier resurrects an entire mythic apparatus of American genesis, character, and values. Even today, Limerick writes, “the scholarly understanding formed in the late nineteenth century still governs most of the public rhetorical uses of the word ‘frontier’” (94). The scholar she indicts as primary mythmaker is Frederick Jackson Turner.

Frederick Jackson Turner’s notorious and troubling 1893 paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” set out the fundamental structural tensions underlying these myths of American genesis. His famous “frontier thesis,” which makes the extravagant and sweeping claim that the frontier, given “its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain[s] American development” (55), places the frontier at the heart of the American self-imagination. The frontier, which he defines variously as “the existence of an area of free land” (55) and “the meeting point of savagery and civilization” (56), furnishes the environmental conditions under which “Americans” come into being. In his methodological synopsis, Turner insists that the historian’s task is to reveal the underlying “vital forces […] behind constitutional forms and modifications,” that determine the “evolution” of social, economic, political, religious, and cultural institutions from simple into “complex organs” (56). In keeping with the great nineteenth-century endeavor of transforming history into a “science,” Turner reveals himself as a rigorously Darwinian thinker; he applies the same systematic approach to explain the evolution of new social and historical species—the American—as Darwin applied to natural history: natural selection and the struggle for survival, survival of the fittest under conditions of scarcity, adaptation, and the development from primitive to complex organisms. The agonistic, dynamic model of complex evolution traces out the genesis of the American as a new organism, a new historical species, in a very real sense:

The wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing even more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are today one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country. In this progress from savage conditions lie topics for the evolutionist. (62-63)

The uniqueness of American development, according to Turner, lies in the manner in which society and social beings were perpetually compelled to re-adapt themselves to ever-changing environmental conditions; pioneers were forced to either “adapt or perish” (53). This openness to adaptation, for Turner, “this fluidity of American life” is what distinguishes “a new product that is American” (57).

Dominant among the features of this new “American” was a cherished system of American values, which still figures largely in political and cultural discussions of American life. Two of these values are tolerance and individualism, which, according to Turner’s framework, must be understood as evolving from the conditions of frontier settlement rather than merely being transplants of Enlightenment ideas originally developed in Europe. According to one distinct strain of Jeffersonian thinking, for example, a functioning republican democracy demands vast quantities of space, a notion that in part underwrote the western expedition of Lewis and Clark. In 1803, Jefferson’s administration insisted upon making the Louisiana Purchase, which he considered not simply an investment in land and natural resources, but equally a broad experiment in the national character-building necessary to produce a healthy and functioning citizenry. The virtuous citizen must, like the virtuous nation itself, be independent, self-reliant; Jefferson’s ideal yeoman farmer was envisioned as the male head of a household who could produce enough food to feed his own family and household, effectively training him in the frugal but strenuous exercise of responsibly administering one’s own freedom. Such landowners would be wise and effective statesmen and legislators, it followed. But individual land ownership—and the desire to own one’s own home is even today at the core of the “American dream”—also formed the moral basis for enhancing what we today would call an acceptance of diversity. “The larger our association,” explains Jefferson in his second inaugural address as he defends his expansionist policies, “the less will it be shaken by local passions” (318). Freedom of speech and of thought, freedom of the press, and certainly freedom of religion, depended on people living far enough apart so that their differences would not lead to bloodshed. Anyone is free to think and practice pretty much anything they like, as long as they do it “over there,” out of my sight and, preferably, out of earshot. As long as each group had its own turf, and as long as there was enough space between the different neighborhoods, freedom of religion, for example, could be accommodated (the process repeats itself in the history of American urbanization, as different religious and ethnic groups mark their own geographical neighborhoods and their own cultural and labor territories as well). A nation could tolerate even mutually hostile viewpoints if there was a frontier, if there was free land, according to Jeffersonian thinking. Jefferson—whom Smith terms “the intellectual father of the American advance to the Pacific” (15), and whose political lineage he traces in such subsequent advocates of western mobility as Thomas Hart Benton, Asa Whitney, William Gilpin, and even Walt Whitman—and Turner were early advocates of what would come to be known as the “safety valve” theory of American development.1

According to the “safety valve” argument, the existence of the frontier allowed the United States to cultivate a functioning democracy by avoiding full-scale violent conflicts between competing social and economic forces. As long as there was open territory into which antagonists might expand, final conflict between contending forces might be avoided: “so long as free land exists, the opportunity for competency exists” (Turner 73). In America, for example, labor and capital confronted each other in a long series of struggles. However, the revolutions that shook Europe all through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century never took place in the US. The idea was that the expanding labor force, composed increasingly of European immigrants by the end of the nineteenth century, did not have to confront capital in an enclosed territory. Tensions and working conditions were as dismal in the company towns of New England as in Manchester, of course; but immigrants unhappy with their lot could simply pack up and move west, transforming themselves into homesteaders and farmers. Their right to avail themselves of land in the territories was secured by the Homestead Act of 1862; the life and conditions of Slavic and German plains settlers are perhaps best described in the novels of Willa Cather. My Ántonia, for example, envisions a progressive and functioning “multi-cultural” society overseen by the benevolent patronage of tolerant aristocrats (embodied primarily in the character of Jim Burden), where the economic and political power of the elite east-coast trusts is reinvigorated by the spiritual and cultural resources of Midwest immigrant populism. (And despite Turner’s contention that the frontier closed in 1890, the government, in collusion with the railroads, kept bringing displaced Europeans to the plains well into the twentieth century.)

The frontier promotes individualism; if arms and munitions were the means to self-sufficiency (and the frontier was a violent place), open land and space nonetheless ensured that differences can be tolerated with a minimum of bloodshed, according to this logic. At the same time, however, Turner points to the “nationalizing tendency of the West” (71). “The legislation which most developed the powers of the national government […] was conditioned on the frontier” (68). The need to regulate commerce and administer land in the newly opened territories necessitated the construction of a strong federal government, whose power would ultimately be secured by Lincoln’s administration when the North won the Civil War. It was the federal government that legislated internal improvements in the west and distributions of the lands, while it also secured the power of the railroad; it was the federal government that regulated interstate and inter-territorial commerce; it was the federal government that ultimately appropriated the right to adjudicate between competing social groups and to police the West. Once the federal army had become, under Lincoln, a constitutional fait accompli, once the nation-state had secured for itself what the sociologist Anthony Giddens terms a “monopoly on violence,” troops were sent to the Plains and the Northwest to settle the “Indian” question in a series of wars that effectively ended with the massacre of the Teton Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890.

And it is in 1890, argues Turner, that the frontier was closed. The nation was effectively finished, and the new species, an American, had evolved. “And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history” (77). While most commentators underline Turner’s optimism about the continuing vitality of frontier virtues, Turner in fact closes his essay with a series of prophetic and rather pessimistic speculations about the shape of the future. Tolerance and individualism, he points out, are perpetually in conflict. What he warns of, precisely, are the dangers that will follow once the safety valve has been sealed up. For the two great achievements of the frontier, the construction of a libertarian American individual and the production of centralized Federal power, are directly opposed to one another. The western individual fears and distrusts federal authority; in turn the national government, for the sake of social harmony, seeks to limit unregulated individualism. Once the frontier is closed, Turner implies, Americans must find ways to live with our differences in an enclosed space. Too much liberty cannot be tolerated.

And Turner is explicit about the dangers. “The most important effect of the frontier,” writes Turner, “has been in the promotion of democracy. […] As has been indicated the frontier is productive of individualism” (72) or what his older contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would so famously term “self-reliance.” But these same values that ensured survival under frontier conditions could now constitute a menace. “Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control and particularly to any direct control. The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression” (72). And thus “the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its danger as well as its benefits” (73). Turner lists several examples of the dangers of unregulated individualism in the nineteenth century. For the purposes of my argument, however, I want to demonstrate how Turner’s systematic theories dominate the mythic tensions of the American self-imagination all through the twentieth century.

Turner, as revisionist historians have pointed out repeatedly, is a dismal historian. His primary failure, perhaps, is that his method is far too schematic and reductive, and, though Turner was no bigot, his ideas consequently harbor the systemic racism endemic to the nineteenth century. He views the frontier as merely the dramatic struggle between “savagery and civilization,” that is, between indigenous or primitive Native Americans and a superior Anglo-American culture. But the historical record is infinitely more complex, and there were various other folks about, as contemporary western historian Sarah Deutsch points out. Neither do the civilized or the savage constitute distinctly homogenized social groups. In any social struggle, and particularly in the American west, historical

shifts not only occurred in relations between majority and minority groups but affected relations among minority groups. Spanish Americans and Mexicans also constructed definitions of “otherness.” All of the groups called the intimate connections among race, sex and gender systems into play in this process of reshaping cultural and social boundaries. They embedded this constellation of issues in a particularly western heritage of conquest and territoriality. (Deutsch 111)

What Turner offers is not a history of the west, but a damned good story of its settlement. For all his aspirations to scientism, Turner is primarily a spinner of yarns, compressing the complex of historical factions and struggles into a tight dramatic narrative of a struggle between protagonist and antagonist, between savagery and civilization. The teleological thrust of narrative, of course, ensures there will be a winner and a loser, that there is a moral dimension to the tale, that values can be assigned to various characters, and so forth. Americans are produced, we might say, not simply through historical experiences but more powerfully through the stories that we tell about them; cultural myths and stories enable us to locate our destiny and fabricate our collective and individual identities from the chaos and complexity of lived history. Who we are is less a product of our raw experience than the narrative structure that delimits and describes our experience; and so where Turner fails as a historian, he succeeds brilliantly as a mythmaker. And so, while “experience” itself is never innocent of a narrative structure, the compelling political question involves the variety of ways in which nation narrates itself and the ways in which those historical and mythic narratives are enlisted in contemporary struggles.

The American political and social imagination is still underwritten by the mythicized frontier in exactly the terms Turner lays out. The struggle between federalism and libertarianism virtually defines our national elections, for example. When a presidential candidate wants to “get big government off our backs,” he dresses up like a cowboy, as did Ronald Reagan, who twice ran successfully on an anti-federalist platform. In the west, “tax-and-spend” liberals are demonized as east-coast Washington insiders and ignorant bureaucrats, as tax-collectors, and, ultimately, as effeminate. Libertarian values are strong in the heartland; we think of ourselves as self-reliant, fiercely independent, and competent. We like guns and we like settling things for ourselves. Membership in the National Rifle Association is high; lawyers and legislators are frowned upon. Consider the two most recent presidential elections: the south and most of the Plains states were won by George W. Bush, posing as a rugged entrepreneur and oilman, as a westerner, a “good old boy.” His opponents Al Gore, who set himself up as an efficient legislator, and John Kerry, by contrast, won in New England, the Atlantic seaboard, and California. Turner’s mythic vision of federal power versus individualism describes these tensions.2

So, too, can the mythicized language of a struggle between savagery and civilization describe the mythic dimensions of our economic and social life. The rugged individualism of the frontier serves as a metaphor for unregulated entrepreneurial capitalism. On the frontier, individual speculation can threaten the social good, and Turner describes the wildcat banking scandals of the nineteenth century in terms that prophecy the Saving and Loans scandals of the nineteen eighties. During those oil-boom years, unregulated Savings and Loans institutions (not banks, which are under federal supervision) in Texas and Louisiana (obviously) loaned money to shady venture capitalists for all sorts of crooked schemes; when the market went bust billions were simply lost. The Federal government stepped in and protected the institutions (deregulation is usually an alibi for corporate welfare, but our current president’s brother, Neil Bush, did serve time). Consider another example. Timothy McVeigh was libertarian, and hated the national government. He blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building on 19 April 1995—where else but in Oklahoma City? The event that had most spurred McVeigh’s wrath was the 1993 standoff between the Clinton Administration and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. David Koresh did something as American as apple pie: just like the puritans, just like the Mormons, he founded his own religion and moved west, where he supposed that no-one would bother him. And he protected his right to do so with guns: he was initially targeted by the federal government for illegal possession of firearms. On April 19, when the federal forces moved in after a long standoff, a fire was started and the Branch Davidian compound burned to the ground. As Americans, we live out our mythic dramas in terms supplied by Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis: “the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers” (73).

In his encyclopedic cultural analysis of frontier mythologies, Richard Slotkin defines myths as “those stories drawn from a society’s history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society’s ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness—with all the complexities and contradictions that consciousness may contain” (5). Further, he argues:

the Myth of the Frontier is our oldest and most characteristic myth, expressed in a body of literature, folklore, ritual, historiography, and polemics produced over a period of three centuries. According to this myth-historiography, the conquest of the wilderness and the subjugation or displacement of the native Americans who originally inhabited it have been the means to our achievement of a national identity, a democratic polity, an ever-expanding economy, and a phenomenally dynamic and “progressive” civilization. (10)

Perhaps the purest proponent of frontier mythologies is the film director John Ford, whose various westerns in different ways dramatize the emergence of America from the struggles between savagery and civilization. His 1939 Stagecoach defines both the iconography of the west (Ford filmed this and many subsequent westerns in Monument Valley, Utah) and the quintessential western character: Stagecoach introduces the John Wayne persona, a figure whose relentless and larger-than-life individualism—the embodiment of the frontiersman—is starkly defined (see Figure 2). Never after will Wayne play anything else apart from “John Wayne.” According to Slotkin, Wayne is the cinematic version of the classic frontiersman, the “man who knows Indians.” Borrowing from James Fennimore Cooper, Slotkin defines the archetype:

As the “man who knows Indians,” the frontier hero stands between the opposed worlds of savagery and civilization, acting sometimes as mediator or interpreter between races and cultures but more often as civilizations most effective instrument against savagery—a man who knows how to think and fight like an Indian, to turn their own methods against them. (16)

Frontier Mythographies: Savagery and Civilization in Frederick Jackson Turner and John Ford (2007), Arthur Redding, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2

On the frontier, one must be somewhat savage in order to secure and defend civilization. Wayne is the successor to a long lineage of this figure (Leatherstocking or Hawkeye, in Cooper’s romances, Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, Huckleberry Finn, among others). In Turner’s terms, the frontiersman is both savage and civilized; he exists at the cusp of settlement. He has learned enough from Native American Indians to survive in the wilderness, and yet he puts his considerable skills to use in the service of civilization. What is key, however, is that the civilization he fights for will have no place for him; he is himself too primitive, too savage, to fit comfortably in the new social order. In cultural terms, as Smith has suggested in his genealogy of types, it is the tension between the civilized, genteel hero, who conforms to the conventions of the genteel romance and who represents civilization, and the potentially subversive character of the anarchic frontiersman, that underpins the history of the western genre. Once the frontier is closed, as Turner acknowledges, self-reliance becomes dangerous, and the frontiersman risks “pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds” (73). Leatherstocking, Crockett, and Finn continually light out for the territories, seek new frontiers, new adventures. There is no place for them in a newly civilized society.

And so too will Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, be sacrificed in Ford’s film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. This movie represents a Kennedy-esque tweaking of the mythic frontier heritage, and best dramatizes the tensions between an imagined communal consensus, overseen, administered, and protected by a benign federal power, and a menacing western libertarianism that must be subdued if the community is to survive.3 At a primary level, this film, like almost every western ever produced in Hollywood, imagines a compromise between individualism and communalism (the violent sacrifice of the savage is usually the way in which the compromise is effected). Yet, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ironically confesses to the very limits of this vision of harmony. The mythic apparatus more or less collapses in on itself; and the film confesses that the myth is simply that: a lie that is trying to pass itself off as genuine history. “This is the West, sir,” Post announces, and “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Until that point, the press, as embodied in the figure of Dutton Peabody (Edmund O’Brien), had served as the purveyor of truth; here the third estate confesses itself to be in the service of mythic propaganda (see Figure 3). And not only does the film self-consciously confess that Jackson’s frontier historiography amounts to legend rather than “truth,” it exposes the very limits of the legend. That is, Ford’s 1962 work acknowledges that the frontier struggle between savagery and civilization no longer provides mythic sustenance for the America of the 1960s.

Frontier Mythographies: Savagery and Civilization in Frederick Jackson Turner and John Ford (2007), Arthur Redding, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3

The film is beautifully structured around the theme of doubles, each symbolically aligned with either “savagery” or “civilization.” The story takes place somewhere in the American southwest when, in Turner’s terms, the “ranchers’ frontier” is being definitively replaced by “the farmers’ frontier.” The political backdrop is the struggle between the lawless cattle barons who wish the region to remain a territory (the wild west, which they rule by force) and the newly arrived population of smaller farmers (many Mexican or immigrant), who wish to fence in and cultivate the land and who seek to enter the federal Republic as a state. The cattle barons, in an irony that Dick Cheney might appreciate, represent corporate power, in an unholy alliance with lawless “savagery”; they are associated with guns, wilderness, brute power, the desert. Their hired goon is the aptly named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a character who is savagery personified (see Figure 4).

Frontier Mythographies: Savagery and Civilization in Frederick Jackson Turner and John Ford (2007), Arthur Redding, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4

Valance, as his name implies, represents in Turner’s language the menace of unregulated liberty. In the town of Shinbone on the other side of the Pickaxe river the forces of civilization are arrayed: the town, the law, technological progress in the form of the railroad, representative democracy, a free press, racial tolerance, and so forth, all championed by the greenhorn from the east, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart). The stagecoach in which he arrives is held up by Liberty Valance. A gentleman, Stoddard comes to assist one of the women Valance is terrorizing, and he is viciously beaten and left for dead in the desert. His law books, representing both an orderly society and literacy, are the central targets of Valance’s savagery: “I’ll teach you the law of the west,” Valance screams sadistically.

Stoddard is rescued by Tom Doniphon (Wayne), who finds him lying prone in the desert and carries him to town. Doniphon is both savage and civilized, ruthless and gentlemanly. He can read, for example, but not very well. He owns cattle, but his ranch is small. He lives in the desert, but sympathizes with the townsfolk. He can handle a gun, but puts his gun in the service of the law. He brings a wild desert rose to his lover, Hallie (Vera Miles). “Ever seen a real rose, Hallie?” asks Stoddard (see Figure 5). Stoddard represents law and order. He wishes to arrest the outlaw Valance, not to kill him. He hangs his shingle out as a lawyer, but ends up a schoolteacher, giving lessons on the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution. Under Doniphon’s tutelage, Stoddard’s task is to “civilize” the savage territory.

Frontier Mythographies: Savagery and Civilization in Frederick Jackson Turner and John Ford (2007), Arthur Redding, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5

Yet the rights to civilization must be secured through violence; even the new west must be won. As in many westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a drama of masculinity. If eastern civilization is too effeminate, then the west is too driven by testosterone. A compromise must be achieved, a social balance. Law and order can only be secured, according to the myth, when one is capable of violence. Civilization depends upon a small homeopathic injection of savagery. To civilize the west, then Ransom must take a page from Doniphon’s book and become a little bit savage himself. In other words, he must learn to “be a man.” The gender dynamics of the film are remarkable. Ransom Stoddard spends most of the film trying to stand erect. He is flaccid, passive, castrated at the beginning of the film and is challenged to reclaim his manhood. He must prove his right to paternal power in the new west. Early in the film he appears more or less in drag (an apron) and does women’s work (dishwashing and waiting tables). He is harassed, in a flirtatious, sexually aggressive manner, by Liberty Valance, and Tom Doniphon must come to save and defend his honor. Ultimately, Stoddard must learn to shoot, and be ready to kill Liberty Valance. Tom takes him to the desert, and instructs him in savagery. Not only does the lawyer learn to shoot, but he learns to cheat (see Figure 6). When Doniphon plays a trick on him, he tells Stoddard: “I don’t like cheating either, but that’s what you’ll have to do to beat Liberty Valance.” And Stoddard sucker-punches Doniphon.

Frontier Mythographies: Savagery and Civilization in Frederick Jackson Turner and John Ford (2007), Arthur Redding, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6

With this act of violence, Stoddard has symbolically crossed the line into savagery. Because of this, he merits civilization. He has demonstrated his own capacity for violence and his own “lawlessness.” He has proven himself a man and thus secured his right to patriarchal privilege. With this act of violence, Ransom Stoddard becomes the new man in town; indeed he will earn the epithet “the man who shot Liberty Valance.” From here on in, the roles of Stewart and Wayne are reversed. Ransom Stoddard learns to stand on his own two feet, and Tom Doniphon is increasingly supine: Doniphon drinks and staggers, he falls over, he burns down the house he is building for his fiancée, and finally he dies. As Ransom Stoddard stands up, Tom Doniphon lies down. And Doniphon concedes power to Stoddard willingly and deliberately. The town hopes to elect Doniphon a delegate to the territorial assembly to decide the question of statehood; he persuades them instead to send Stoddard. He gives up his wooing of Hallie so that she might marry Stoddard, who has taught her to read, who civilizes her and takes her east to Washington DC when he becomes senator (see Figure 7). Doniphon’s ultimate act ceding patriarchal power to Stoddard is this: he compels Stoddard to take credit for killing Liberty Valance.

Frontier Mythographies: Savagery and Civilization in Frederick Jackson Turner and John Ford (2007), Arthur Redding, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 7

Valance beats and tortures the newspaperman, Dutton Peabody. Incensed, Ransom Stoddard picks up a gun and calls Valance out in the street for a showdown. Valance, drunk, teases Stoddard, toying with him. As Valance finally gets a bead on Stoddard, Stoddard lifts his own weapon and fires wildly. Valance falls and dies, apparently killed by Stoddard’s lucky shot. And so Ransom Stoddard becomes the town hero, “the man who shot Liberty Valance,” and rides his fame from political triumph to political triumph, eventually becoming one of the most powerful men in the country. He returns from Washington years later to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon, who has died penniless and obscure. What actually happened, as the audience is shown in a flashback sequence, is that Tom Doniphon had saved his life. As Stoddard and Valance faced off, Doniphon, hidden in a back alley, had killed Valance with his rifle (see Figure 8). Doniphon is the man who shot Liberty Valance, but he ensures that no-one knows. This is the story Stoddard tells Maxwell Scott years later; this is the story Scott refuses to print. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Frontier Mythographies: Savagery and Civilization in Frederick Jackson Turner and John Ford (2007), Arthur Redding, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 8

As I have mentioned, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance rewrites the myth from Kennedy’s perspective. Kennedy, who spoke famously of a “New Frontier” when he accepted the Democratic nomination in 1960, positioned himself as both military hero and statesman, both frontiersman and tax-collector. Like Ransom Stoddard, he could and would use violence to protect himself and society, but his primary commitments were not to himself but rather to community and nation. What the film points to is an ideological ideal in which excessive liberty can be purged and we can find ways to live in harmony. Dutton Peabody gives a nomination speech for Stoddard that is cribbed almost verbatim from the pages of Turner, even as it consciously echoes Kennedy’s rhetoric. African Americans are welcomed into the social compact in the film (in the character of Pompey (Woody Strode) as are immigrants and Mexican Americans (see Figure 9). The myth of the frontier argues that an effective community can only be sustained provided it maintains contact with frontier virtues (violence and self-reliance). This, in fact, is the very purpose of the Hollywood western during the Cold War years: to reconnect Americans mythically to the virtues of the frontier. One only has the right to community if one is willing to defend it, and, for Americans, our capacity to successfully defend ourselves has been tempered and proven in the frontier experience. In westerns, we return there, at least imaginatively, to rediscover our strengths and renew ourselves for the global struggle against international communism.

Frontier Mythographies: Savagery and Civilization in Frederick Jackson Turner and John Ford (2007), Arthur Redding, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 9

And yet, the film also insists, we never “had” the frontier experience, only its legend. Our experience is simply a legend, a lie. Ransom Stoddard had the courage to face the bad guy, but he did not have the skills to defeat him. Hollywood works its ideological magic by conflating virtue with individual power: the good guy always wins. It is not that “might makes right”; nor is it, simply, a question of right eventually making might, although this phenomenon is always appealed to. In Ford’s film, the people are encouraged to come together collectively to defeat the evil cattle barons, but they never do so. The hero has to face the bad guy alone. In Hollywood’s version of the frontier myth, rather, might and right become embodied in the person of the frontiersman. In most westerns, the hero has the courage to take on the bad guy and the capacity to defeat him because he has been forced, under frontier conditions, to evolve both virtue and skill: he has had to adapt or die, as Turner points out. And the frontier promotes both virtue and skill with guns in the figure of John Wayne. But in this film Wayne is sacrificed; his story is never told. All of western literature poses the same question: how might the community honorably bury its dead? Doniphon is buried dishonorably and unrecognized, however. The hero is someone willing to “die with his boots on”; significantly, in Liberty Valance, the undertaker has stolen Doniphon’s boots. The stand-in hero, Stoddard, is exposed as a little more than a good-hearted fraud. The idea that good will has prevailed is admitted to be merely a legend, a lie.

What the ending of the film exposes, ultimately, is a kind of ideological exhaustion: not only can the old myths no longer sustain us, we would be foolish to suppose that they ever could. The myth of the frontier is simply a hoax. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was made at the beginning of the 1960s, a decade that would see all myths of American virtue crumble. By 1963, Kennedy himself would fall victim to a kind of frontier violence in Dallas, Texas; the “Cowboys versus Indians” screenplay would look laughable in a Vietnam landscape; and My Lai would turn the encounter between savagery and civilization backwards, forwards, sideways, and down. The problem, as Slotkin sees it, is not simply that myth has supplanted history, but that the prevailing myth no longer works as myth. Speaking of the Reagan administration’s efforts to resuscitate a bankrupt Cold War version of frontier mythologies, Slotkin writes:

Myth is the language in which a society remembers its history, and the reification of nostalgia in the mass culture and politics of the 1980s is a falsification of memory. If a new mythology is to fulfill its cultural function, it will have to recognize and incorporate a new set of memories that more accurately reflect the material changes that have transformed American society over the last forty years. The historical adventure of our national development will have to be reconceived to incorporate our experience of defeat and disappointment, our acquired sense of limitation, as well as the fabulous hopefulness that has perennially transformed and energized our culture. (655)

Sadly, we have seen little sign of this. In the face of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, American public discourse has been saturated with the same tired myth of savagery versus civilization. The war in Afghanistan was packaged as a frontier drama: the savages were the Taliban and al-Qaeda; the Americans and their allies were civilized. We had to be a little savage, of course, to defeat the savages in guerilla warfare; in Afghanistan, we even had our half-wild Tom Doniphon character: the Northern Alliance. But such mythic language will seem shopworn and tired in the global struggle against Islamic and third-world discontent, a struggle that will have to be carried out in the real world rather than on the silver screen, genuinely, rather than mythically. Myth is available to all parties in these struggles, of course, and will everywhere be enlisted in the cause. As Douglas McReynolds has noted, “the Old western myth is still viable. […] What we see is not a new myth or a debunked one, but changing perspectives [and] increased self-consciousness in movie-making” (47).4 But, however much such filmic celebrations of stoicism as Blackhawk Down (2001) or the very recent Jarhead (2005) protest to the contrary, Baghdad will never be Dodge City. What remains to be seen is whether it will be Shinbone, where a fraudulent and murderous victory over “evil” is served up in an accommodating press as the legend of American triumph.

1  See chapter eleven of Robert V. Hine and John Mack Fragher, The American West: A New Interpretive History, for an elegant synopsis of the safety valve approach to the west.

2  Obviously race is the other dominant factor in national elections as Republicans rather callously mobilize white fears of blacks for easy votes; even so, the connections between a cultural logic of racial dread and libertarian fantasies of individualism and self-reliance are easy enough to trace. The genius of Reaganism, for example, was his good-natured insistence that “welfare cheats” are manipulating and abusing the national bureaucracy of the welfare state; the “savagery” against which the individualist NRA member must contend is everywhere figured as the “criminal” (read black) element.

3  Both Stanley Corkin and Alan Nadel have offered readings of Liberty Valance that explicitly reference the Kennedy administration and the Cuban missile crisis. For Nadel, Ford’s film is an explicit example of “imperialist nostalgia,” which laments that masculine heroism and a clear national moral purpose have been consigned to the past. Bob Beatty and Mike Yawn document Ford’s cynicism about reviving such heroism (although they find the roots of Ford’s pessimism rather in his personal life than in politics). Mark Roche consequently sees the film as ambivalently documenting the historical transition from Vico’s age of “heroes” (Wayne/Doniphon) to an age of men (Stewart/Stoddard). Nadel’s political interrogation is perhaps the most subtle, emphasizing the film’s implicit if ambiguous endorsement of the values represented by Stoddard, who personifies Kennedy’s rather fraudulent and even postmodern politics. Stoddard, Nadel argues, is a figure of continuity between a “golden age” of the frontier and the present rather than rupture. “That continuity is based not on the triumph of law over brute force but rather by the co-optation of legal means by physical, of direct action by covert, of self-defense by murder, of speech by action. It is also the co-optation of event by legend, that is, by writing” (196-97). Finally, in an important essay on Dorothy Johnson and John Ford, Walter Metz has demonstrated how auteur theory, itself resonant with Cold War ideologies of masculine heroism, has served to erase the author of the short story on which Liberty Valence was based, adding yet another layer of irony to the film’s insistence on how mythic realities are textually constructed.

4  McReynolds is writing in 1998, prior to the September 11 attacks, about such works as the TV miniseries Lonesome Dove (1989), City Slickers (1991), Unforgiven (1992) and others. While the genres of action-adventure thriller and the war film are flourishing, there have been curiously few “westerns” produced since the attacks.

Works Cited

Beatty, Bob, and Mike Yawn. “John Ford’s Vision of the Closing West: From Optimism to Cynicism.” Film & History 26.1 (1996): 6-19.

Corkin, Stanley. Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2004.

Deutsch, Sarah. “Landscape of Enclaves: Race Relations in the West, 1865-1990.” Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past. Ed. William Cronon, et al. New York: Norton, 1992. 110-31.

Giddens, Anthony. The Nation-State and Violence: A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism vol. 2. 3 vols. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

Hine, Robert V., and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

Ingrassia, Catherine. “‘I’m Not Kicking, I’m Talking’: Discursive Economies in the Western.” Film Criticism 20.3 (Spring 1996): 4-14.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Second Inaugural Address, 1805.” The Portable Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Viking Penguin, 1975. 316-21.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. “The Adventures of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century.” The Great Plains: Writing Across the Disciplines. Ed. Brad Gambill, et al. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 2001. 78-99.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Dir, John Ford. Perf. John Wayne and James Stewart. Paramount, 1962.

McReynolds, Douglas J. “Alive and Well: Western Myth in Western Movies.” Literature/Film Quarterly 26:1 (1998): 46-52.

Metz, Walter. “Have You Written a Ford, Lately? Gender, Genre, and the Film Adaptations of Dorothy Johnson’s Western Literature.” Literature/Film Quarterly 31:3 (2003). 209-20.

Nadel, Alan. Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Roche, Mark W., and Vittorio Hosle. “Vico’s Age of Heroes and the Age of Men in John Ford’s Film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Clio 23 (Winter 1994): 131-48.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1998.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. 1950. New York: Random, 1970.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History, 1893.” Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner. Ed. John Mack Faragher. New York: Holt, 1994. 31-60.