Some actors’ gestures are the equivalent of a great singer, dancer, or athlete achieving the heights of their profession. And the reason so many people respond to Ford’s films by writing about the actors’ gestures is because they are full of them. Wayne’s burning of his hand, his picking up Natalie Wood, or Fonda’s balancing on the chair are both performers’ gestures and high cinematic achievements.
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Sidney Pearson writes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “perhaps no other film by John Ford has elicited such diverse and often conflicting interpretations” (2007, 23). In 1971, two years before Ford’s death, David Bordwell, Robin Wood, and William S. Pechter published substantial essays on Liberty Valance. Since then, many others have discussed it as the film in which Ford examines his participation in the myth-making genre of the western.1 Several writers discuss the film’s use of exaggeration and artifice, including Lindsay Anderson, who writes: “Brecht called his plays Parables for Theatre. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a parable for cinema” (1981, 181).2 Some write about the way that Liberty Valance dramatises political issues, what Peter French (1997, 90) calls the moral problem of “dirty hands,” a phrase he adopts from Michael Walzer (1973) and Jean-Paul Sartre.3 Others discuss Liberty Valance as a John Wayne film; for example, Virginia Wright Wexman discusses Wayne, the western, and politics in relation to Liberty Valance, noting that Wayne had a “highly visible public presence as a spokesperson for American pride” (1993, 73).4
Many Farber praises Wayne’s subtle performance in Liberty Valance: “Wayne is the termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall, eye a flogging overactor” (Farber 1998, 136). David Thomson highlights Wayne’s naturalism: “Every gesture was authentic and a prized disclosure. He moved the way singers sing, with huge confidence and daring” (Thomson 1995: 797). Molly Haskell (1997) and Joan Didion (2017) offer similar appreciations of Wayne’s abilities as a performer, as does Sarris in his obituary for Wayne (1979). Deborah Thomas (1996) and Russell Meeuf (2013) offer many insights about Wayne as a star and a performer, as does John Belton, who writes: “Avoiding repetitive tricks and mannerisms, Wayne always finds a single gesture that expresses what he wants with simplicity, surety and clarity” (Belton 1972-3, 25).
Writing about gestures can be a significant part of film interpretation.5 In Acting in the Cinema, James Naremore (1988, 193-4) discusses several performers’ gestures including Marlon Brando’s business (Fig. 1) with Eva Marie Saint’s glove in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). Extending Naremore’s analysis of gestures, Christian Keathley discusses a lunchtime conversation (Fig. 2) between Paul Biegler (James Stewart) and Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), during which they gesture with a salt shaker. As Keathley observes, the scene’s drama grows from the question of whether Parnell will convince Biegler to take a case: “For the scene to be interesting and engaging this cannot happen simply, directly or conclusively. This dramatic conflict is in turn displaced onto the characters’ business with the salt shaker” (2011, 111). This idea that filmmakers displace drama onto gestures is central to the following discussion of Liberty Valance, during which I examine how a gesture by John Wayne expresses the dramatic conflict between his character Tom and James Stewart’s character, Stoddard.
Ford’s films offer many examples of expressive gestures, and a prominent vein of Ford criticism interprets them. Belton discusses the moment (Fig. 3) in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) when Captain Brittles (Wayne) kicks away a burning wagon wheel, causing the collapse of a stagecoach: “What gives the scene an added dimension is [Joanne] Dru’s presence in the shot and the obliqueness of Wayne’s gesture” (Belton 1972-3, 27). Belton also cites Brittles’s gesture of clasping the hilt of his sabre (Fig. 4), after his men give him a retirement present (a silver watch): “Wayne’s gesture is natural and unobtrusive, yet intensely moving in its expression of his loneliness” (1972-3, 28). For Belton, “Ford, through Wayne, collapses all the film’s sentiments into a single gesture” (1972-3, 27). Belton’s insightful comments on Wayne’s gestures are typical of Ford specialists; the notion that Ford “displaces,” “collapses,” or distills a film’s feeling into its gestures is helpful.
Many Ford critics put into words their responses to gestures in The Searchers. Sarris (1976, 172) and Darby (1996, 171) discuss Martha’s folding of Ethan’s coat (Fig. 5). Keathley (2006, 153-7) writes about Martin’s attempt to pull Ethan from his horse as he gallops off to find Debbie (Fig. 6). Jean-Luc Godard comments on Ethan’s abrupt decision not to kill Debbie, embodied in his gesture of picking her up (Fig. 7):
Re-watched Fallen Angel. Mystery and fascination of American cinema. How can I hate McNamara and adore Sergeant York, hate John Wayne supporting Goldwater and love him tenderly when he suddenly takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the penultimate reel of The Searchers? (Godard 1966, 47)
Godard’s question about Wayne’s gesture prompts additional responses from V. F. Perkins and Sarris. Describing film spectatorship as a complex experience in which we respond to the actor as well as the character, Perkins writes that Godard’s “question takes us much closer to the essential issues than the traditional model of the ‘film-dream’” (1972, 138-9). Sarris writes:
Godard once observed that as much as he despised the reactionary politics of John Wayne he could never help but be moved by the emotional sweep of the awesomely avuncular gesture with which Wayne gathers up Natalie Wood, after having given every indication that he wishes to kill her. (1976, 173)
For Pye (1996) and Pippin (2010), the apparent contradiction expressed by Wayne’s gesture prompts extensive reflection because, as Godard and others demonstrate, Ford condenses his complex treatment of Ethan into what Pippin describes as “the sudden, transformative gesture of Ethan picking up Debbie” (2010, 134).
Peter Bogdanovich’s Directed by John Ford (1971) concludes with a clip from The Searchers. Wayne introduces it on camera: “One of Harry Carey’s stances was grabbing his elbow and looking off. And he always seemed like such a lonely character to me.” Bogdanovich’s film then compares a clip of Harry Carey holding his elbow in Ford’s Straight Shooting (1917) and Wayne performing the same gesture at the end of The Searchers, after which he turns in the doorway and walks into the desert (Fig. 8). Sarris expresses gratitude for the comparison but criticises Bogdanovich’s principles:
The fact that the gesture has now been identified as a directorial figure of style does not in itself establish its aesthetic credentials. Thus, again from the viewpoint of the devil’s advocate, Bogdanovich may be said to have indulged in the besetting vice of too many auteurists (myself often included): elucidation without evaluation. Of the Carey-Wayne visual-echo effect, it may be so, but so what? (Sarris 1976, 20)6
However, Bogdanovich’s comparison is a further indication, five years after Godard’s response, that gesture is central to Ford’s work.
Darryl F. Zanuck knew this, and he disagreed with Ford about the lack of a gesture, among other things, in My Darling Clementine. In July 1946, Zanuck watched Ford’s preview version of My Darling Clementine, after which he took over the editing of the final version, released that autumn.7 Zanuck ordered scenes to be rewritten, pruned scenes, hired Lloyd Bacon to reshoot scenes, added more music, and altered the ending. Archivist Robert Gitt discusses these changes and reads out Zanuck’s memo to producer Samuel Engel, dated 4 September 1946. Zanuck reminds Engel of the preview audience’s reaction:
You will recall that the last scene was perfect up to where Fonda reaches out to shake hands with Cathy Downs. It was such an obvious build-up for a kiss or for some demonstration of affection that the audience felt first amused and then completely cheated.… I do feel that it will be honest, legitimate and reasonable if Henry looks at the girl, smiles, leans over and kisses her on the cheek. It is a good-bye kiss and nothing more. He does like her. The audience knows he likes her. Now is no time for us to get smart.8
Ford’s ending frustrates Zanuck because it lacks a gesture, yet Gitt’s comparison of Zanuck’s ending with Ford’s establishes that Zanuck’s addition of the gesture (Earp’s kiss on Clementine’s cheek, presented in a new close-up [Fig. 9]) makes the intended meaning more obvious and less credible; Ford’s version is truer to both the period’s and Earp’s reticence (Fig. 10).
Perkins (1990) emphasises the importance of performances and setting in Clementine’s last scene. He points out that Fonda’s performance hints that Wyatt Earp still does not understand Clementine; his self-absorption and blind spots remain the same. Perkins also emphasises that the goodbye scene is set on the edge of Tombstone, thus revealing how close the town is to the wilderness. Ford’s choice of a medium shot (as opposed to Zanuck’s close-up) keeps the undeveloped setting in view; as Perkins notes, the film shows the rough wooden fence, “stretch[ing] out inconclusively into Monument Valley” (1990, 64), the fence being the “last vestige of the town’s impact on the terrain” (1990, 64), associated with Clementine not Wyatt (Fig. 11). Zanuck’s dislike of Ford’s ending stems from a disagreement about the balance between realism and expressive directness. Gestures communicate characters’ thoughts and feelings, make visible the invisible, but, as Zanuck and Ford’s disagreement indicates, neither filmmakers nor audiences always agree about how realistic or expressive a gesture should be.
Deborah Thomas (2001) discusses several other gestures in My Darling Clementine. Commenting on the film’s mirrors and reflections, Thomas describes how Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) throws a glass at his reflection in his framed medical certificate (Fig. 12); Doc’s throwing gesture provides “visual confirmation of our growing sense of him as a shattered man beyond Clementine’s power to heal” (2001, 18). Underlining the significance of the setting, Thomas writes: Doc “is looking into an imagined past space which opens up to him behind the frame of the diploma whose glass he has smashed, rather than at a reflection of real physical space in the here and now” (2001, 18). The room’s lace curtain reminds us of the “kind of clean and healthy dream from which he is excluded” (Thomas 2001, 18). Thomas contrasts Doc’s throwing gesture as he looks at his reflection with Wyatt’s gestures as he does the same, first in the barber’s mirror and then in the shop window. When he looks at his reflections, Thomas writes, the surroundings incorporate Wyatt “firmly in the world around him” (2001, 19). As he checks his appearance in the window (Fig. 13), the reflection offers a “perfect image of the reconciliation of East and West, town and landscape, artificial improvement and untouched natural beauty, with Wyatt at its centre as the focal point and emblem of its harmonies” (Thomas 2001, 19). Having checked his reflection, Wyatt sits down and leans back, alternating his legs as he balances in the chair (Fig. 14). In Directed by John Ford, Fonda describes the filming of this gesture:
As we got ready to do it, Ford said “Turn your chair a little bit.” So, I did. And he said: “Lean back in it.” And there was a veranda post there. And he said: “Put your foot up on it.” So, I put my foot up. “Put the other foot up there.” So, I put the other foot up there, leaning back. He said: “Change the position.” So, I did like this. And it became a little choreographed dance of pushing away, changing the position of my feet. And it became a little moment that was not indicated until then. But everybody remembers and comments about it. And again, it’s so typical. You don’t know when he’s thought of that, whether it was at the moment or whether it was driving the hour, hour and half to the location in the morning. He never gives you a clue, until that moment.
As Fonda remarks, everybody remembers his balancing on the chair; for Alexander Horwarth: “This sublime moment contains the whole film; it is in a state of equilibrium.”9 The preacher has just invited Wyatt and his brothers to dance at the church social, so Wyatt’s gestures suggest that dancing is on his mind, something that is confirmed when he accompanies Clementine to the dance. Thomas interprets Fonda’s movements:
This is a world in which Wyatt can stretch and be comfortable. However, if Wyatt is the linchpin in a world of ease and reconciliation, it is also a world of surfaces and appearances, the reflection in the window flattening nature and society into a single plane. (2001, 20)
Wyatt’s gestures express his feelings of relaxation, but, as Thomas observes, when Wyatt looks at his reflection and adjusts his hat, he is uncritical. She highlights the contrast the film makes with Doc’s gesture of throwing his glass; excluded from the real spaces of the physical world, Doc nevertheless has a deeper insight into the “darker realities beneath its appearances” (Thomas 2001, 20). As she notes (2001, 20), the film presents Wyatt as a positive figure, while showing his limitations.
Thomas’s analysis reveals how the performers’ gestures offer the means to understand the complexity of perspectives Ford’s films develop on their characters. Godard and others find that articulating their reactions to Wayne’s gesture of lifting Debbie enables them to interpret The Searchers’ central drama, which is Ethan’s battle with himself. Thomas’s interpretation of Wyatt’s and Doc’s gestures unlocks the film’s complex viewpoint on its fictional world and its characters. For Sarris, Wyatt’s gestures of relaxation are crucial to My Darling Clementine:
What are most memorable, however, are not the confrontations and the gunfights.… Ford’s Westerns never depended excessively on the machismo match-ups of quick draws, but rather on the normally neglected intervals between the gun-shots when men received haircuts, courted their sweethearts, and even partook of fragments of frontier culture. (Sarris 1976, 119)
Sarris identifies Ford’s achievement with what he calls “pauses and contemplations” (1996, 46); Ford “could always spare a shot or two for a mood that belonged to him and not to the plot” (Sarris 1996, 46). Gilberto Perez likewise describes Ford’s films as “relaxed, digressive, episodic, prone to dwelling on character and situation in disregard of action” (1998, 239). Miguel Marias (2005) argues that “digressions are basic in his way of understanding the movies.” Like Sarris, Marias argues that we remember gestures, rather than shootouts, from Ford’s films.
Ford’s achievement as a director is exemplified by the subtle, expressive gestures that evoke unspoken feelings. In Ford’s films, Marias writes, “every gesture, brief and insignificant as it may be, always belongs with the character and has for him a meaning in the moment in which the film crosses his destiny” (Marias 2005). Writing about the ethics of gestures in Ford’s westerns, Minden discusses the moment when Ethan returns from the canyon where he discovered the body of Debbie’s sister, Lucy. Ethan sits down and starts digging into the earth with his knife. For Minden, “The gesture has no instrumental or effective narrative function, although it recalls both sexual violence and the digging that has just served off-screen to bury the violated body” (Minden 2017, 43). R. J. Ellis (2010) devotes his whole essay to this “sand-stabbing” gesture. Both writers indicate the weight Ford’s films give to gestures. Shigehiko Hasumi (2005) provides an extensive taxonomy of gestures in Ford’s films, highlighting, for example, Ford’s repeated use of throwing gestures in several films, including Liberty Valance. Hasumi also points to the gestures associated with smoke and fire in Liberty Valance, which ends with James Stewart on the train not lighting his pipe and not throwing his match away (Fig. 15): “Nothing is more specific to Ford than this suspended gesture of a character, an extinguished match in his hand” (Hasumi 2005).10
As well as systematizing gestures, Ford also repeats postures and framings.11 Place (1974, 218), and Luhr and Lehman (1977, 49) discuss the reversal of horizontal and vertical postures by the three men in Liberty Valance: Tom, Stoddard, and Valance, with Tom upright and Stoddard lying down at the start and, at the end, Stoddard standing over Tom’s coffin (Fig. 16). As Luhr and Lehman remark, “each of the central male characters in the film lies prostrate in a buckboard at one time in the narrative, the pattern indicates the changing fortunes of those men” (1977, 71). They note that another variation of the horizontal/vertical pattern is Tom lying on the staircase (Fig. 17) at the territorial convention (1977, 61). Darby (1996, 152) also discusses this pattern and cites Tom’s position on the stairs and Stoddard’s repeated association with the couch in the kitchen (1996, 170). He also writes about “the overt verbal and visual linkages between Valance and Doniphon” (1996, 153), such as their horizontal positions on a buckboard.12
As Hasumi indicates, Liberty Valance repeats several gestures. As with the horizontal/vertical pattern, the repetition of gestures suggests unspoken continuities between characters. Thus, gestural patterns link Valance and Tom. Darby (1996, 154) cites the shooting of liquid containers above Stoddard, Tom the paint cans, and Valance a water container, and he notes the parallel between Tom dropping the marshal’s hat on the kitchen floor (Fig. 18) and Valance knocking the gambler’s hat off (Fig. 19) just before he goes to meet Stoddard outside (1996, 173). As Darby remarks, both men’s gestures assert their dominance. Darby (1996, 174) also cites the parallel of Valance’s gesture of throwing money onto the restaurant floor and at Doc Willoughby in the saloon, with Tom’s gesture of throwing money at the band as he leaves the saloon. Another prominent gesture is Stoddard’s gesture of erasing from the blackboard the claim that “education is the basis of law and order.”13 David Coursen notes the film’s linking by gesture of the modern-day editor and Liberty Valance, both of whom crumple up paper:
Scott picks up the notebook containing the story, tears out the pages, crumples them up and throws them into a stove. In so doing, he unwittingly echoes one of the key gestures of the film. Previously, Liberty Valance twice uses the same gesture. After a stagecoach hold-up he tears the pages from a law book, throws them to the ground and savagely beats young lawyer Stoddard as a lesson about the West.… Later, Valance takes a copy of the Star, teaching its editor about truth and protesting at an editorial by crumpling the pages, stuffing them into Peabody’s mouth, and beating the editor and destroying the newspaper office. Thus when the modern editor of the same paper uses this particular set of gestures, the action reverberates with a feeling of betrayed idealism (Coursen 1978, 238).14
Bordwell (1971, 20) interprets Tom’s gesture of giving Stoddard the mallet as symbolising the handing over of authority. Before he gives Stoddard the mallet, several things indicate Tom’s synchronisation with his environment: his familiarity with the bartender (“Give me that bung starter Jack,” said to actor Jack Pennick, who also plays the bartender in Stagecoach), his re-purposing of the mallet, closing of the bar, calling the meeting to order, and the casual, confident way that he throws the mallet onto the table. Their postures are also significant: Tom sits on the bar on the right with the crowd behind and next to him (Fig. 20); Stoddard stands bent beneath the stairs, squeezed down (Fig. 21). When he steps out from behind the desk to make a nomination, he bangs his head on the stairs, evoking a sense of him being both clumsy and cramped, in contrast to both Tom and the professional politician Stoddard becomes.15 When Valance enters, he bangs his whip on the table, just as Tom bangs the mallet on the table. As Wexman notes, there are symbolic meanings attached to Valance’s gestures with the whip: “The sexual overtones in Valance’s out-of-control sadism suggest a darker area of unrepressed libidinous activity” (1993, 118). Stoddard, the gauche inexperienced Easterner, is unable to deal with the violent, sexualised threat that Valance represents.
When Valance beats Stoddard, he declares: “I’ll teach you law, western law.” The film’s first discussion of law and order comes when it introduces John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon. The discussion takes place in the first scene in the kitchen of the Ericssons’ restaurant. The key passage begins when Hallie tends to Stoddard’s wounds and says that he was beaten for “trying to defend a woman.” This is Wayne’s first scene and the film is about to reveal who Tom Doniphon was and why Stoddard and Hallie have returned. The film is also going to reveal how Hallie ended up with Stoddard instead of Tom. Hallie says that Stoddard was beaten for “trying to defend a woman.” Tom responds, “Well Pompey, looks like we’ve got ourselves a ladies’ man.” Wayne smiles and folds his arms as he looks down at Stoddard (Fig. 22). In retrospect, one can read his gesture and facial expression as overconfident because the “ladies’ man” part of Stoddard will seduce Hallie away from Tom. (When Tom enters the kitchen in a later scene, bringing her a cactus rose, he finds Stoddard standing behind Hallie with his hands on her shoulders and comments: “Well, pilgrim, I see you’re still protecting the ladies”; the final time he enters the kitchen, after shooting Valance, Tom finds Stoddard and Hallie in each other’s arms). Nora and Peter Ericsson rush into the kitchen (Fig. 23). They represent a domesticated married couple. The film indicates that they are happy, but it also shows how the wife bosses around the husband, whose nightcap gives him a comical appearance; when Peter returns with the sheriff, Nora tells him to put his trousers on. The film is affectionate about this domesticated male, proud of his American citizenship, but unable to resist Liberty Valance; Peter needs the law and order that Stoddard promises. Tom takes the cloth from Hallie and says, “I’ll take care of him.” Tom tells Hallie this as he shoos her away to get some bandages. His comment foreshadows his later role as protector of Stoddard and the law.
Next, Tom orders Pompey to find Doc Willoughby and bring him back, if he is sober. Nora and Peter bend down to examine Stoddard on the bed, and the film presents a quintessential image of Stoddard’s vulnerability and Tom’s strength (Fig. 24). The characters form a triangle, with Hallie to the left of Tom presenting one angle. On Tom’s right are Peter, Nora, and Stoddard, forming the other side of the triangle. At the top is John Wayne’s Tom, his height emphasised by his old-fashioned cowboy hat. He towers over everyone else, including Peter, whose bent posture further emphasises his diminished stature compared with Tom. Stoddard is shown as the weakest and most vulnerable at this point. Stoddard’s position lying on the bed in the kitchen is part of the pattern of horizontal and vertical postures, which contrasts the men’s positions. At the start of the flashback, Stoddard is shown sitting or lying down, with either Tom or Liberty Valance standing above him, as when Valance beats him up on the road or when Valance trips Stoddard in the Ericssons’ restaurant.16
Peter says, “By golly, I’m going to get the marshal”; Tom grunts “huh!” Stoddard then tries to sit up on the side of the bed. Tom sits down next to him (Fig. 25) and says: “Take her easy there, pilgrim.” Tom calls Stoddard “pilgrim” throughout the film, and it is one of the ways that Ford associates Stoddard with the Pilgrim Fathers; as Sarris writes, “the sobriquet not only sticks but resonates with religious fervour” (1976, 160). Bringing law and education, Stoddard comes west to make the new world a better place, to mould it to his ideals, rather than to search for gold, land, or cattle. Yet this scene hints that something puritanical comes with Stoddard’s law books. For example, the film compares Stoddard’s and Tom’s reactions to the aquavit, which Nora adds to Stoddard’s coffee. Tom says that “it ain’t mannerly out west to let a fella drink by himself” (Fig. 26). He’s about to drink from the bottle, but Hallie swipes it from him (Fig. 27). Tom’s uncorking it and putting it to his lips reveal his taste for alcohol, even at five o’clock in the morning, unlike Stoddard, who rejects the coffee with brandy in it, saying “no, no, no, I don’t care for it.”17 Drinking plays a significant role elsewhere in Liberty Valance; for example, the film shows that both the educated men out west, the doctor and the newspaper editor, are drunks. (Peabody first demonstrates his education when he tells Hallie how to lay the table, his instruction anticipating Stoddard’s.) It is noteworthy, therefore, that Tom drinks while Stoddard does not. Hallie’s swiping of the bottle from him communicates much about their relationship. He is surprised but not angry with Hallie. “It’s alright if I smoke ain’t it?” says Tom, and he bends down to light his cigarette from the oil lamp (Fig. 28). Luhr and Lehman describe Tom making this remark “sarcastically” (1977, 65), but Wayne’s tone expresses affection and humour, as if he is charmed by Hallie’s removal of the brandy bottle, interpreting it as a gesture of care rather than a rebuke. Hallie’s taking the bottle from Tom expresses their familiarity with each other, hence his turning to the cigarette instead, which he lights from the heat emitted by the paraffin lamp.
Tom’s lighting of his cigarette at the lamp, puffing out smoke as he does so, is connected to a recurrent pattern of Tom’s association with cigarettes, matches, and smoke. As Darby writes: “Ford clearly manipulates these objects and actions to foreshadow how the westerner will destroy his ranch and any hope for a future with a “home’ in it” (1996, 169). The pattern of gestures with smoking and matches extends to the lighting of cigarettes or pipes and the discarding of matches; one expressive example is Tom’s lighting of his cigarette in the alley after he has seen Hallie and Stoddard together in the kitchen.18 Wayne’s gestures with the cigarette are one of the ways the film indicates Tom’s sense of security, just as Fonda’s balancing evokes Earp’s sense of ease in My Darling Clementine. The way Wayne moves, stands, and interacts with props, set, and actors expresses authority. For example, when he walks over to Stoddard’s bed, he places his left foot on the bed, leans his left arm on his leg, and puts his right hand on his hip, his movements exuding poise and self-assurance (Fig. 29). The way he removes his hat and hangs it on the bellows on the wall expresses his ease. When Tom handles the gun, showing it to Stoddard, his gestures suggest physical competence, deftness, and agility. Wayne’s gestures indicate his character’s confidence about his interaction with this world, including his relationship to Hallie. He is confident about his strength and his love for Hallie. Yet because of the framing story, we know that Hallie and Stoddard will end up together, looking at Tom’s corpse in the undertakers.
Stoddard’s speech and movements in the present-day framing sequences differ from his speech and movements in the flashback sequences. Stoddard is unsympathetic in the framing sequences, shifting from grief to anecdote. Stewart evokes Stoddard’s age, but his performance also suggests that Stoddard has lost his spark, that he is now a slick politician full of platitudes. Pye points to the contrast between the way Anthony Mann uses Stewart’s physique in his westerns and the way Ford uses him in Liberty Valance: “Here he is gangling, somewhat uncoordinated, limp” (Pye 1996, 122). Self-righteousness and obsessiveness are recurrent traits in Stewart’s postwar characters, but in Liberty Valance Stoddard’s vibrant enthusiasm tempers traces of these traits. Stoddard claims the moral high ground over the community to which he comes. His belief in his own moral rightness makes him a perfect politician, but it also makes him less attractive than Tom, though the film refrains from showing Stoddard as self-interested.
Stewart’s gestures and posture evoke the young Stoddard’s vulnerability in the kitchen scene. A close shot of Stoddard on the bed finds him saying: “I’ve got something to do.” Just before he says this, Stoddard closes his hand, rubs his forehead, and holds his closed fist to his mouth, before tapping out the syllables in the air with his fist (Fig. 30). Viewers familiar with Stewart’s performances will recognise this closed fist gesture; as James Naremore (1990, 64-65, 254) notes, Stewart often raises his closed fist to his mouth when his characters suffer stress. Naremore cites examples in W. S. Van Dyke’s After the Thin Man (1936) (Fig. 31), Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) (Fig. 32), Henry Koster’s No Highway in the Sky (1951) (Fig. 33), and Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) (Fig. 34) and Vertigo (1958) (Fig. 35). The camera frames Stoddard in a way that emphasises his weakness, sitting on the couch and enclosed in the corner of the rough walls. When Tom tells Stoddard the name of his attacker, Stoddard says, “I don’t want to kill him; I want to put him in jail.” Tom replies: Well, I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.” Wayne taps his holster. Stoddard then accuses Tom: “You’re saying exactly what Liberty Valance said. What kind of community have I come to?” A brief shot/reverse-shot sequence presents this discussion about the difference between western gun law and eastern book law. This sequence shows Wayne handling the gun with ease and expertise (Fig. 36). He pulls it out, spins it, and pushes it forward on its side (Fig. 37). Ford then cuts to Stewart, who gazes at the gun, which is included in the left-hand corner of the frame. When Tom returns the gun to its holster, he taps it (Fig. 38).
Stoddard’s arrival with his law books disrupts the balance of forces in Shinbone. The film demonstrates the need for the development of a civilised society, with binding and enforceable laws; Tom is powerful, but he cannot protect everyone, as Valance’s attack on Peabody exemplifies. Here, when Stoddard becomes more agitated by his speech about law and arresting Valance, Stewart adds intensity to his speech, delivering his lines with a voice that is tremulous and emotional. He may be vulnerable, but he is impassioned when he speaks up for justice, accusing Tom of being just like Valance. Despite his weakness, he stands up to deliver his speech (Fig. 39): “Well, I’m a lawyer. Ransom Stoddard, attorney at law, and the law is the only.…” He doesn’t finish his sentence because he faints and starts to collapse. Tom grabs him to stop him from falling over, but he grips him by the collar with one hand, the kind of grip that leaves the other hand free to hit or slap (Fig. 40). Nora jumps and pulls her apron to her mouth, almost as if she jumps because of the rough way that Tom grabs Stoddard, as if she imagines that Tom might be about to slap the lawyer. It’s a small gesture on Nora’s part, but it implies knowledge of Tom’s capacity for violence.
Hallie’s verbal and physical responses, meanwhile, take Stoddard’s side; she rushes to sit next to Stoddard and help him, saying, “A little law and order around Shinbone wouldn’t hurt anyone” (Fig. 41). In his speech and his gestures, Wayne shows that Tom notices her responses. He says, “alright, Hallie” in a gruff tone, as if smarting from a reprimand. He turns to reach for the coffeepot as he speaks (Fig. 42). When Tom grasps the pot’s handle, it burns his hand (Fig. 43). Nora steps in with a cloth and picks it up for him, pouring him a coffee (Fig. 44). Tom’s gestures are realistic, but they are also expressions of his unspoken feelings, which connect to the film’s formal patterns. Tom looks annoyed and shakes his hand. The gesture gives an immediate feeling of Tom’s isolation, of his being out of sorts, turned away from Hallie and Stoddard, as he is later in the film. Wayne’s performance of Tom burning his hand on the pot is a physical performance, autonomous from the dialogue being delivered about law and order in Shinbone yet reinforcing it. The gesture develops the story, which is not just about taming the West, but also about how Tom loses Hallie to Stoddard. In burning his hand, Tom gives expression to unseen thoughts, all in response to Hallie’s comments about and behavior toward Stoddard. His gesture is dramatically relevant and symbolically weighted. He burns his hand on the coffeepot because he moves in haste, disturbed by Hallie’s comments.
Luhr and Lehman mention Wayne’s burning of his hand during their discussion of the film’s contrast between masculine and feminine attributes, such as Stoddard being presented in an apron washing dishes: “In action, gesture and spatial configuration, the shot [of Tom lighting his cigarette] establishes the masculine/feminine distinction. Later, when Tom goes to pick up a pot of coffee, he burns his hand and backs instinctively away from the stove” (1977, 65).19 Coursen interprets Tom’s gestures as follows:
Despite Tom’s best efforts, riding a wagon into town to come courting, giving Hallie a cactus rose, he is ultimately beyond domestication, his gestures, like his hat, somehow too large for the indoors. In addition, he seems always most out of place in the focal point of the film’s family life, the restaurant kitchen, where he is forever receding into the back of the frame, or burning his hand on a coffeepot, or raising a bottle to his lips only to have Hallie grab it before he gets a drink. (Coursen 1978, 240)
Roche and Hösle also mention the burning gesture when they offer reasons for Tom’s reserve toward Hallie: “The strong hero does not easily exhibit sensitive emotions. This is symbolically conveyed in Tom’s not being at home in the kitchen: Tom burns his finger on the coffee, and Hallie takes the bottle out of his hands” (Roche and Hösle 1993, 143).
In a general way, these interpretations are correct. The domestic/civilised motif is used, but to focus only on this interpretation is to miss the ambivalence in Wayne’s performances. As Deborah Thomas points out, Wayne is not a conventional tough masculine star; he has domesticated softer qualities also, and she notes how often his characters have “ambiguously paternal/maternal qualities” (1996, 78). Perhaps Tom burns his hand because he is unused to kitchens and cooking. Stoddard, unlike Tom, is a domesticated male, already competing for Hallie, though the two men are unaware of it. The burning gesture could imply Tom’s lack of ease in the kitchen. It may indicate that he is neither domesticated nor civilised. But this interpretation fails to account for Tom’s new feelings of unease and discomfort, generated by Stoddard’s arrival and Hallie’s comments. It is not that we are meant to think that Tom has never poured himself a cup of coffee before, either in his home or around a campfire, something that men in westerns often do; for example, Wayne’s pouring of coffee for his superior officer in Ford’s Rio Grande (1950) is a sustained motif. Until Hallie says “A little law and order around Shinbone wouldn’t hurt anyone,” Tom is at ease in the kitchen, navigating the room with an elegance that reveals his familiarity with the space. Tom’s burning of his hand expresses haste and impatience; he is distracted by what he is hearing, both from Hallie and Stoddard.
When Tom says “alright, Hallie,” Wayne’s voice indicates that he is both annoyed and hurt by her reaction to Stoddard. Tom’s burnt hand emphasises those hurt feelings. It reveals an interruption of his previously confident interaction with the world and its objects. Until that point, Tom has wandered about the kitchen with the confident nonchalance of a regular visitor, hanging his hat on the bellows, putting his foot on the bed, showing his gun, helping himself to brandy, or trying to, lighting his cigarette from the heat emitted from the top of a paraffin lamp. That last gesture in particular encapsulates his sense of security and confidence. He pushes his head sideways toward the paraffin lamp and lights his cigarette without burning himself. His skill at this suggests it is something he has done often, in his own home and elsewhere. In contrast, the gesture of burning his hand suggests that some part of Tom perceives the threat that Stoddard represents, both to his way of life and his relationship with Hallie. The burning of his hand makes him appear harried and uncomfortable in the situation, as if he is starting to lose his authority.
As if summoned by Hallie’s comment about a “little law and order,” the town’s ineffective sheriff, Link Appleyard, turns up (Fig. 45). Tom says: “Well, here comes Mr. law and order himself.” In the flashback, Andy Devine plays Link as a comic figure, almost infantile, and the film encourages us to laugh at his childish self-interest and large appetite. But with this good-natured depiction of the round comic figure of the sheriff comes a serious point about his ineffectual application of the law (Fig. 46). As soon as Link sees Stoddard, he tries to leave, but Tom shoves Link and stops him from leaving. Wayne’s shoving gesture expresses Tom’s authority. He is good-natured, but the gesture shows that he feels free to push people around, including the sheriff. Ford and Wayne emphasise it by repeating the gesture, with Tom again shoving Link with his elbow (Fig. 47).
Stoddard supplies Link with the word “jurisdiction,” and as Link flails around, Tom looks carefully at Link and Stoddard, his eyes suggesting some concern about Stoddard’s expertise (Fig. 48). This is particularly visible in the wide shot of the three men facing Stoddard: Tom on the left with his coffee and cigarette; Peter in his pajamas and dressing gown in the middle; Link on the right-hand side, excited about not having any jurisdiction outside of town. Tom, however, looks serious as he scrutinises Stoddard. That serious facial expression is important. The film is establishing its major theme of civilising the West; director and actors are rooting this theme in the gestures and expressions of the characters. Link may be a comic figure, but Tom knows that something important is being discussed here. Tom can push the sheriff around, but Wayne’s performance indicates that Tom is also aware that Stoddard’s legal expertise may threaten his way of life.
In addition, when Hallie shouts at Link she too pushes him, while Tom looks at her (Fig. 49). In the past, Hallie symbolises the wilderness, freedom, and natural beauty of the West. J. A. Place notes that costumes and appearance express symbolic meaning.
Halie’s repression is like that of the West – Ranse’s influence “tames” her, makes her respectable and educated, but takes the fire, freedom and passion out of her. In flashbacks, she is loud-voiced, expansive, and fervent; but in present scenes she has become soft-spoken and contained. Hallie’s appearance is also repressed by this time, as are her speech and behaviour. She is dressed in darker shades than previously, her hair up under a hat instead of free in pigtails. (Place 1974, 220)20
As Place writes, in the framing story, Vera Miles’s performance of Hallie hints at some deep unhappiness, not just old age. At the end of the film, Miles’s expression on the train suggests that Hallie is bitter and resigned to her situation. Stoddard educates Hallie and makes her and the West respectable, but the film implies that marriage to Stoddard represses Hallie’s freedom, just as the arrival of the railroad leads to the end of the freedoms found out west. Tom represents the good side of pre-incorporation of the state; Valance represents the bad side of unbridled freedom. The film’s ambivalence about the civilising process stems from the possibility that Ford may prefer the period when people hoped for civilisation rather than civilisation itself.
Tom tells Hallie, “You know, you look mighty pretty when you get mad” (Fig. 50). This is a tender exchange, and Ford films the pair with close shots in a shot/reverse-shot couplet (Fig. 51). Her reaction to Tom is eloquent; she looks up at him, as if caught off-guard by his compliment. Tom then leaves. He removes his hat from the bellows. Stoddard asks for his name, and Ford gives Tom a shot of his own as he tells Stoddard his name (Fig. 52). It’s not a close-up but a medium shot of Tom looking down at Stoddard and telling him his name. He is centred in the frame, without any distractions in costume or appearance, steady and controlled. The image contributes to the suggestion of authority and power. The camera is slightly angled upward, as if from Stoddard’s position on the bed, and Ford has framed the image to include the supporting beams of the ceiling and wall. A corner of the window and part of the doorway are also visible. In other words, Tom is framed with forceful architectural lines, not the clutter of the kitchen implements that hang around the kitchen. Nor is he enclosed in the corner of the room as Stoddard is. The scene’s last shot returns to the setup that shows the table and oven (Fig. 53). As he leaves, Tom removes Link’s hat and drops it on the floor. Hallie kicks it in impatience, before dropping a plate of food in front of Link (Fig. 54). Tom and Hallie’s business with Link’s hat is like a gag from two comics; their harmonious coordination gives a jolt of pleasure, the timing and enacting of their gestures suggesting that their partnership at this stage remains strong.
Wayne’s powerful yet fluid movements throughout this scene are the equivalent to those of a skilled dancer; his graceful, relaxed movements are attractive and, as Thomson (1995, 797) writes, authentic. He exudes naturalness and poise, moving with an athlete’s or a dancer’s grace, despite his size. There’s also something good-humoured and modest in Wayne’s presence. Part of the satisfaction of watching him derives from the choreography and execution of gestures, and part of it comes from the fulfilment one gets from understanding the gestures’ significance. Like much of the film, the scene is built around an alternation between control and loss of control in Wayne’s gestures and postures. But this is complex, as Perkins notes, glossing Godard; we respond to the actor and his skilful control of his gestures as much as we respond to the character, whose burning of his hand expresses a loss of control that anticipates his burning of his house. Understanding gestures like these is akin to perceiving the emotional intent in a song or piece of music. The pleasures come because one feels that one understands a scene’s meaning, despite the meaning itself being a transient emotion. This is the sense in which Ethan’s gesture of picking up Debbie or Wyatt Earp’s balancing on the post feel not just right, but right in a way that resembles a singer achieving the best possible sound for a performance of a difficult piece of music. Some actors’ gestures are the equivalent of a great singer, dancer, or athlete achieving the heights of their profession. And the reason so many people respond to Ford’s films by writing about the actors’ gestures is because they are full of them. Wayne’s burning of his hand, his picking up Natalie Wood, or Fonda’s balancing on the chair are both performers’ gestures and high cinematic achievements.
Liberty Valance ends with a mood of resignation and mournfulness, but the kitchen scene starts this process. That scene is rich with expressive elements, in dialogue, gestures, décor, props, framings, everything that is at a filmmaker’s disposal. Themes and ideas, both immediate narrative concerns and more abstract issues, are expressed by many different elements in the scene. When Wayne burns his hand on the coffeepot, the gesture carries a biography, but it is also symbolic; like many of the gestures in Ford’s films, it blends the insinuating and the explicit. Tom’s burning of his hand is an obvious symbolic gesture, yet works in a similar way to Wyatt’s stretching or checking his hat in the window. Wyatt’s gestures express his sense of security and ease within the world; Tom’s burnt hand expresses his discomfort. Zanuck’s reaction to My Darling Clementine suggests that he found frustrating Ford’s use of apparently unnecessary gestures, pauses, and digressions, but for film lovers these elements of Ford’s films remain an ongoing source of pleasure.
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All images are screenshots from DVDs of the films referenced.
- These include John Baxter (1971), J. A. Place (1974), Andrew Sarris (1976), David Coursen (1978), Tag Gallagher (1986), Nancy Warfield (1995), William Darby (1996), Douglas Pye (1996), and Joseph McBride (2004). Edward Gallafent (1996, 241) discusses Liberty Valance as an “end of the West” film; others include David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave (David Miller, 1962), John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), Martin Ritt’s Hud (1963), and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962). [↩]
- On the film’s use of exaggeration, see Wood (1971, 8), Pechter (1971, 226), Baxter (1971, 164-65), McBride and Wilmington (1974, 178), Sarris (1976, 178), Lee Clark Mitchell (1996, 24), Peter French (1997, 135), Barry Langford (2003, 30), McBride (2004, 629), Pearson (2007, 24). [↩]
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Dirty Hands, in No Exit and Three Other Plays, translated by Lionel Abel (New York, n.d.), 224; quoted in Walzer (1973, 161). On the film’s politics, see also Stanley Cavell (1979), Mark W. Roche, and Vittorio Hösle (1993), Cheyney Ryan (1996), French (1997), Stanley Corkin (2004), Timothy O’Neill (2004), Sidney Pearson (2007), Gertrud Koch (2008), Hauke Brunkhorst (2008), Daryl W. Palmer (2009), David W. Livingstone (2009), Robert Pippin (2010), Joshua Dienstag (2012), and Michael Minden (2017). [↩]
- See also Eyles (1979, 182-6), Levy (1988, 60-1), and Meeuf (2013, 178-186). [↩]
- See, for example, V. F. Perkins’s essays (1990a, 1992 and 2013) on Max Ophuls’s Caught (1949), Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), and King Vidor’s Stella Dallas (1937). [↩]
- Sarris’s disagreement with Bogdanovich anticipates Perkins’s distinction (1990) between an auteurism that looks for repetitions across films and a director-centred criticism that evaluates the organisation and eloquence of one film. [↩]
- Documentary included on My Darling Clementine DVD, released by Fox. [↩]
- Gitt reads the memo from Behlmer (1993, 106-7). [↩]
- Alexander Horwath, “My Darling Clementine,” Österreighisches Filmmuseum 2016, available online: https://www.filmmuseum.at/jart/prj3/filmmuseum/main.jart?j-j-url=/kinoprogramm/produktion&veranstaltungen_id=1110&ss1=y Translated and quoted by Minden (2017, 43). [↩]
- Roche and Hösle describe this as a “non-verbal gesture to the earlier period” (1993, 141). [↩]
- As Luhr and Lehman write: “Doorways, the openings in Indian tepees, and cave mouths supply the most prominent formal pattern in The Searchers” (1977, 100). Luhr and Lehman (1977, 66) and Darby (1996, 169) also discuss Liberty Valance’s association of doorways with Tom, for example at the times he leaves Hallie or at the territorial convention, while Livingstone discusses the symbolic meaning expressed by Hallie’s exit through one of the classroom’s two doors: “Stoddard leaves through the side door toward the newspaper office (symbolically identifying himself with freedom of the press and the desire for statehood required to advance the republican form of government). Doniphon, with Pompey in tow, heads back in the direction from which he came (symbolizing his return to the West, where Pompey’s natural rights are unsecured)” (Livingstone 2009, 222). Hallie follows Stoddard through the side door, via the newspaper office. [↩]
- Roche and Hösle (1993, 137) also note this link. [↩]
- Also noted by Darby (1996, 171). [↩]
- Pippin also mentions this: “In effect, the contemporary editor is doing voluntarily what had to be forced on Peabody” (2010, 96). [↩]
- Darby calls Stoddard’s position under the stairs “an unusual bit of staging” (1996, 152). [↩]
- Bordwell writes of the restaurant scene: “The composition marks the nadir of Stoddard’s development and height of Doniphon’s authority” (1971, 20). [↩]
- Wexman (1993, 238, n.50) notes that in Dorothy M. Johnson’s original short story the character on which Tom is based has a drinking problem. [↩]
- Darby (1996, 152) notes that Tom strikes a match to light his cigarette before speaking to Stoddard at the territorial convention, while Pippin (2010, 83-4) notes the smoke that Tom puffs out before telling Stoddard that he shot Valance. [↩]
- Wexman notes that Stoddard is willing to perform “women’s work” (1993, 118). Pippin notes that “in view of the town, he [Stoddard] is feminized, wearing an apron and waiting on tables” (2010, 75), and he notes that the film equates in a complex way “a more civilized order, the rule of law, and the domestic virtues with femininity” (2010, 169, n.20). [↩]
- Adapting Place’s comments, French (1997, 137) also makes this point. [↩]