Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

liberty valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a classic western film that promotes democracy and masculinity. A major aspect of the film revolves around the idea of the East overtaking the West. Ranse Stoddard is a lawyer from the East who is coming to the West to explore the land and gain the wealth President Eisenhower promised him. Ranse is the epitome of the “city slicker” who believes that guns won’t solve problems. Tom Donovan, the classic cowboy quickly patronizes Ranse by calling him “Pilgrim” and by telling him that law will not get him far in this town. In the beginning, Ranse is completely out of place and doesn’t know a single thing about how the West operates, but eventually starts to learn and becomes the hero, the man who shot Liberty Valance, or so we believe.

A main topic of this film is the idea that Ranse attempts to civilize the West, but is can’t because the ideology of guns, violence, and masculinity are too strong. One example of this is when Ranse is teaching his students about democracy and the Declaration of Independence and Tom Donovan barges into the room. Tom tells Ranse that his idea is noble but “Votes won’t stand up to guns.” Ranse dismisses the class and tells the main female character in the film, Hallie, that Tom is right. At this point Ranse starts to think that no matter how hard he tries; the Western ideology will never change.

Another contradiction in this film is that within the competition between democracy and the East and masculinity and the Wild West, the East loses. This competition runs throughout the whole movie and is depicted between the two opposing characters, Tom and Ranse. We believe that Ranse and the East won by spreading democracy to the little town, winning the woman, and becoming a Senator, but these “wins” are challenged. The film concludes with Ranse telling Hallie he wants to return to Shinbone and Hallie overjoyed that she will finally return to her home and therefore finding that he liked the East better than the West. Ranse did not win the conflict between him and Liberty Valance with words, but rather a gun and violence. In this point of the film, the West took over Ranse’s Eastern mentality. We also find out that Ranse was not the hero in the conflict, but that Tom actually protected him and shot Valance. So not only did Ranse succumb to violence in order to settle an issue, but he was also not the man who shot Valance, Tom the cowboy had to take care of it for him. The contradictions in this film are also brought into other films and reality. The idea that the East can civilize the West is always a main theme, but sometimes the West is just too rowdy to handle.




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In preparation for today’s discussion, I watched John Ford’s Stagecoach.  At first, I was thinking about the essay by Frederick Jackson Turner that we read for class, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”   In it, you might remember, he argues that the frontier promotes democracy.  “The West,” Turner writes,” transformed the democracy of Jefferson into the national republicanism of Monroe and the democracy of Andrew Jackson.”  We can see this in the film.  The characters in the Stagecoach represent a distillation of society, but only the ones from the West embody the spirit of democracy.  The Southerners and the Easterner shun the fallen woman and treat the Mexicans with distain.  But the Westerns — they of course treat everyone with respect.  (Again note how democracy gets created in the West through action,not words or documents.)

ImageBut the film ends on at once a typical and curious note — the good guy kills the bad guy and rides off into the sunset with the girl. Okay, we know that story. Interestingly, though, they are heading, “South of the Border.”  Watching them ride off, a friend of the good guy says of them, “Now, they are saved from the blessing of civilization.”  Hmm . . . So what’s the message.  Civilization needs the hero, but the hero can’t live in the civilized world.  That is for others.  Why not? Why can’t he exist there?  

This is a key theme of the Western, the need of a bit of uncivilized behavior to produce civilization.  Did you see this in your film?  But in the end, isn’t this something of a problem?


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I also chose to watch The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, because it was available to watch instantly on Netflix!

In the film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a common theme is the necessity to spread democracy to the West. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the idea of spreading democracy to new frontiers was an important notion in the United States. In the film, the Western town was a lawless place, where criminals, such as Liberty Valance could commit crimes without consequence. However, when Ransom Stoddard arrives from the East, he tries to bring democracy to the small town. After a few days in the town, Stoddard starts teaching a class about the American government. One of the students describes America as a republic where the people are the boss and tell the government officials what to do. Stoddard also asks a student to recite the Declaration of Independence, which is the foundation of American democracy. By spreading the values of democracy to the town of Shinbone, Stoddard tries to instill the importance of voting and becoming involved in the government, which are both very democratic ideas.

In a later scene, there is a mass meeting in which two people are nominated to become Senators for the territory. Stoddard, the man who knows about the proper way to vote, takes control of the meeting. At the meeting, two men are elected based on their values to represent Shinbone in the territorial convention. Then, the men present at the meeting vote to confirm the nomination of the delegates. Liberty Valance loses the nomination because he is dishonest and untrustworthy. This scene suggests that in order to partake in democracy, once must be virtuous and not a violent outlaw. Not only is this scene significant because it shows the spreading of democracy to the territories, but it represents the idea of the West becoming “American.” Once the territory gains statehood, they are a part of America. In the beginning and at the end of the film, we can see that democracy worked for the territory, because it became more civilized and prosperous. By fighting against the brutishness of the West as represented by Liberty Valence, Shinbone was able to succeed lawfully and democratically.

Rachel Harold

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Mr. Smith goes to 2013

I just happened to be channel surfing, and none other than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington happened to be on TCM.  If a movie from 1939 is still being shown in 2013, I’d say it has some sort of legacy.

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Review of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Check out this not so favorable review from 1939 of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington from the venerable, The New Republic.    

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Screen shot 2013-02-19 at 11.34.10 AM

Looking at Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech,” I noticed this sole female figure in the painting. I wasn’t previously all that familiar with Rockwell’s work, but I’ve heard about the idea of the “Norman Rockwell family” that pretty much became the idealistic household of the mid-20th century. This meant the usual vision of a husband and wife, two kids, maybe a dog, often sitting down for dinner (made and served by the wife) or possibly sitting around the fireplace. Now, while I’m not suggesting that including just one, white, half-seen female is a great feat, I feel as though it’s a sign of progress on Rockwell’s part. The fact that he included the woman, however, does mean something. The painting was first unveiled in the early 1940s, a time when the women’s suffrage movement was building larger than it had ever been. Rosie the Riveter had become a new symbol of female empowerment. By including the half-seen woman in the image, Rockwell was saying that no, women didn’t have the social standing or power of the main subject of the painting, but their time was soon to come.

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Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, An Version

Here is another version of the image. How is this different from the one we looked at for class? How is Rockwell in this image and the other creating a narrative about democracy?

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