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Cowboy ClassicsThe Roots of the American Western in the Epic Tradition$
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Kirsten Day

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781474402460

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474402460.001.0001

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John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Chapter:
(p.169) 5 John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Source:
Cowboy Classics
Author(s):

Kirsten Day

Publisher:
Edinburgh University Press
DOI:10.3366/edinburgh/9781474402460.003.0007

Standing at the end of a long line of John Ford Westerns and at the twilight of the genre’s Golden Age, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a self-reflective work, as much about the Western genre as a product of it. Thus, while this film, like other Westerns examined in this book, demonstrates important connections to Homer’s epics, it finds its most pervasive parallels with the post-Homeric tradition. As in Virgil’s Aeneid, John Wayne’s Tom Doniphan sacrifices his personal desires in the interest of national progress, exhibiting a Western version of Aeneas’ pietas, while Liberty Valance fills the role of Turnus, demonstrating Achillean traits, but in a negative light. Yet the film also has a close kinship with Greek tragedy: in particular, through its preoccupation with generational tensions along with issues of knowledge and identity intertwined with themes of murder, marriage, and reputation, it recalls Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, with James Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard functioning as a decidedly un-epic Oedipus figure forced to confront his own failures. Like both Virgil and Sophocles before him, Ford offers a complex commentary on nation-building, simultaneously sentimental and critical, holding America’s glorious civic identity up for scrutiny and encouraging self-knowledge over blind mythologizing.

Keywords:   John Ford, John Wayne, James Stewart, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Homeric epic, Virgil, Aeneid, Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, Greek tragedy

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