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How the West (side) was won: A brief history in two films

By Michele Price

       A volunteer at West Middle School and the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site, Michele Price is a practicing attorney who has been a Colorado Springs resident since 1983. She is also a self-professed "passionate cinephile" who saw a philosophical parallel between the pioneering spirit of the Old West and the Colorado Springs Westside while attending a classic-film festival earlier this year.

       Whether one is a Westside pioneer by location, or simply by spirit, there is something that defines those of us who identify with the West: we are independent, adventurous and even, on occasion, prone to resist progress when it involves cultural change. This persona did not attach simply by virtue of geography, either. Indeed, the westerner comes by this reputation via history, often as recounted in legend and lore. Recently, the opportunity to see a series of classic films highlighted the glory that was and is living “out West,” both affirming our legacy and reminding
The stars of "My Darling Clementine" were Linda Darnell with (top) Victor Mature and Henry Fonda.
Courtesy of Pinterest.com
the world presently that we pioneers are, and always will be, courageous and hardy souls, irrespective of the era in which we live.
       Last spring, Turner Classic Movies held its sixth annual film festival in Hollywood, California, convening thousands of classic-film fans from around the world. In these few days, over 100 movies, discussions and events celebrated this year's theme of “History According to Hollywood.” With offerings from courtroom dramas like 1960's “Inherit The Wind” to 1933's “42nd Street,” the opportunity to appreciate spectacles on the big screen - as these were meant to be shown - provided a rich and rewarding experience.

       John Ford known for his Westerns
       One emphasis within the festival programming, however, was particularly relevant to us as Westsiders: a selection of films by master director John Ford that depicted both versions of actual history, as well as “his” story about the rough-and-ready western frontier. Although mostly identified with Westerns as a genre, John Ford was a prolific film-maker whose stories often took on mythic proportions. He depicted a beloved president in 1939's “Young Mr. Lincoln” and the tragedies of poverty in “The Grapes of Wrath” from 1940. But the stark beauty of Monument Valley frequently set the tone for much of the filmography by which he is measured today, including what many consider to be the greatest Western ever made, “The Searchers” (1956), as well as “Stagecoach” (1939), “Fort Apache” (1948) and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949).
       This year's TCM festival featured several Ford masterpieces, including “My Darling Clementine” (1946) and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). The opportunity to see these classics on a massive theater screen, in beautifully restored formats, gave them depth and meaning that cannot be matched by viewing on the currently typical and all-too-prevalent small devices.

       'Clementine' story included OK Corral shootout
       The “sons of guns,” as they called themselves - Peter Fonda, son of “My Darling Clementine's” star Henry Fonda, and Keith Carradine, son of actor John Carradine, who was part of the stock ensemble for Ford's Westerns - introduced the film. Based upon the infamous “shootout at the OK Corral,” the film took some liberties with the actual events, casting Fonda as the laconic sheriff Wyatt Earp and the ruggedly handsome Victor Mature in the role of the fallen-from-grace, tubercular Dr. John “Doc” Holliday. The vastness of Monument Valley's iconic monoliths and the sharp black-and- white cinematography depicted both the grandeur and loneliness of the frontier. Fonda's Earp said little and acted cautiously, presenting an archetypal western figure. Doc was both his foil and his ally against the lawlessness of ruthless gangs, a tortured man who was trying, without success, to escape both societal confines and himself.
       What was striking about the film, however, was not the standard saloon scenes, the arrival of the past love-interest Clementine, nor
"Who Shot Liberty Valance" featured Lee Marvin (left) as the villain in the title role, opposed by the characters played by John Wayne (center) and Jimmy Stewart.
Courtesy of Dr. Macro (doctormacro.com)
the use of guns to settle nearly all disputes. Instead, the message was about life in the West - both then and now - and what drove people to seek and embrace it. The townspeople raising a church, the newcomer founding a school and the strong arm of the law enforcing some semblance of civility for the greater good - all were harbingers of things to come. Today, the film stands both as a testament to what “was” as well as what “is,” namely, that an independence of spirit fueled the western expansion and continues to infuse this landscape today.

       'Valance' explored 'right vs. might'
       The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance cast Jimmy Stewart as young lawyer Ransom Stoddard arriving in the West, John Wayne as the local farmer cum gunslinger Tom Doniphon - both actors actually in their 50's - and Lee Marvin in the role of Liberty Valance, as savage a town bully as imaginable. Foregoing the vast landscapes of many of his earlier Westerns, Ford shot the film in black and white on a soundstage, allowing the strength of acting and story to carry the film. Although the town of Shinbone is in unnamed western territory, one line from Doniphon (who here also often employs the now-legendary moniker “pilgrim” when addressing the lawyer) references Colorado: “Liberty Valance is the toughest man south of the Picketwire [as the Purgatoire River was generally called] - next to me.”
       Often said to be “the last great Western,” the film is also rather political in theme and comments on western progress. The changes - from the gun being the great equalizer to structure and law transforming people and places - create the story's arc. Unlike Sheriff Earp, schooled by the hard-knocks-of-life, Stoddard is not just formally well- educated but sees his new location and the politics of the time as an opportunity to expand and effectively propel western initiative and drive. In fact, Ford's interpretation of this slice of Western history is often viewed as the showdown - no pun intended - between what a man must do to survive and the necessary changes wrought by civilized living. When the inevitable shootout comes, in no small part fueled by the affront of the attorney's shingle hung out as a challenge of “right against might,” Stewart's character believes he is the one who kills Liberty Valance. This act not only makes him the legend but propels him into a life of civic glory and stature. But the reality was something different. One seminal line, spoken by a newspaper editor - “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” - sums up the intersection of act and story and how moments like these in history formed the foundation for contemporary western values and ideals.
       Whether one personally views these particular films, others by Ford or depictions by different directors and actors that frame the western experience as one of fact tempered by legend, the story part of “his” story is compelling. To see, from the “golden age” of Hollywood, up on the true “silver screen,” tales about us, our West, our heritage and our legacy, offered more than a visual treat. It left a resonating reminder that what we are today is in no small part because of what they - these pioneering people - were yesterday.

(Posted 9/17/15; Opinion: General)

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