Is It Shot Or Is It Dead?: The Western According To Virgil and Shakespeare

Vincent Tocce CINE 344 December 15, 1998

"I like fresh air, the wide open spaces, the mountains, the, obscenity and degeneration don't interest me." - John Ford

"The western as a genre doesn't interest me...I don't like John Ford, for instance, because he idealizes his characters and uses westerns to enforce some kind of moral code." - Jim Jarmusch

Jim or John? Apples or Oranges? Regardless of whom you prefer or what you're in the mood for, when you contrast Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with Jarmusch's Dead Man it is difficult to determine if the films are more alike than they are different or more different than they are alike. Perhaps the best conclusion might be that they are alike in their differences. For it is what each filmmaker imports to the genre that establishes their differences. Valance presents itself as a romantic, familial melodrama that draws upon Shakespeare while Dead Man is a nihilistic, individualized comedy that feels closer to Virgil. While each film paints a different picture of the west, both can be seen as revisionist westerns when considered within the context of the western genre and the time of their release. The more one devils into the parallels these two films offer, the more one realizes that these two films represent two sides of the same coin. That "coin" is the western genre.

Jarmusch on the western genre: “I like it because it’s a frame that becomes allegorical, and you can put a lot of things in that aren’t related to the period of the Westerns.” In Gunfighter Nation Richard Slotkin points out how at a time when westerns were considered "B" grade movies Ford’s Stagecoach took elements of the genre (such as plot clichés, setting, characterizations and motivation) and combined them with elements of the epic (moral complexity, formal elegance, narrative and verbal economy). With revisionistic intentions, Ford developed and expanded the latent capacities of the old western form as "a vehicle for cinematic expression." Both The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and Dead Man can be seen to operate in much the same way as Slotkin’s description of Stagecoach. Thus these films can be seen as being similar in that they both “revise” or bring new elements to the western, yet they are different because what they don’t bring the same things in.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, as with most of Ford's work, has its roots steeped in family drama. Like My Darling Clementine, its narrative is set in one location and revolves around the interaction between a finite set of characters. Much of the film takes place in the Ericson's kitchen which acts as a surrogate home for the main characters as well as the rest of the towns people who all eat there. The irony being that the immigrants are providing a surrogate home in a land (or - better yet - a country) that has become their surrogate home. Even the dreaded outcast Liberty Valance can be seen as part of the "family." He could easily be interpreted as the inconsiderate uncle that the "family" has come to tolerate. Ransom calls him a killer but we never actually see him kill. Furthermore, the film's two protagonists (Ransom Stoddard and Tom Doniphon) appear to be enacting a goodhearted sibling rivalry in their duel courtship of Hallie. Thus the film's main characters, as well as the towns people, can be seen as one large extended family.

The "family drama" is also an element that is present in much of the work of Shakespeare, which Valance - like most of Ford's work - bears more than just a passing resemblance to. Scott Simmon, in Concerning The Weary Legs of Wyatt Earp: The Classic Western According to Shakespeare, points out how Valance displays a "Shakespearean relish for the testing in battle." Ransom can be seen as an underdog in his duel with Liberty Valance much in the same way that Henry V and his English troops were considered underdogs in their battle with the French. Ransom gains respect as a leader in the old west after taking the credit for killing a feared outlaw much in the same way that Henry V gained an elevated status for leading the defeat of the French. Ford references his source of inspiration explicitly - as Simmon notes - when the drunken newspaper editor Dutton Peabody fractures Henry V in anticipation of the routing of Liberty Valance.

This isn't the first instance in which a Ford picture has quoted Shakespeare, nor is Henry V the only work of Shakespeare that Valance draws from. The nod to Shakespeare in Valance is reminiscent of the Hamlet sequence in My Darling Clementine which also works as a foreshadowing mechanism within its respective film. Hamlet can also be seen to share similar plot points with Valance in that they both employ themes that center around the pursuit of evidence and involve the questioning of a murderer's identity.

Of course the real beauty of the Shakespeare/Ford comparison is not found in the explicit references but more so in how the two can be compared on a more general level. For it is an entertainer's charm (in Ford's case, mise en scene), more so than his ideologies, that audiences are attracted to. Simmon makes an excellent point when he says that "what is so central to Ford's method is the ways that the film argues out explicitly Shakespearean dilemmas without expressing them through dialogue."

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is attractive entertainment because it, like Shakespeare, features a healthy mix of tragedy and farce. Simmon also mentions: "No doubt Hamlet and My Darling Clementine are alike family revenge tragedies, even Oedipal ones - as Wyatt too comes round, the long way, to killing an evil father-figure." We can also add The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to that list - with Liberty Valance playing the role of Ransom's "evil father-figure."

If The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an Oedipal, Shakespearean family drama set in the west then conversely Dead Man can be seen as an Orphic journey of the individual through the west, reminiscent of Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid. The western town of Machine that Jarmusch paints represents a west of degradation, contamination, and death. As William Blake enters the town limits he is met with images of animal bones, coffins, violent sex acts, and ominous figures. This is similar to Virgil’s description of the underworld in his Aeneid: “There by the very gateway, at the gaping entrance of Orcus, lurked Griefs and torturing Worries: beside them lay waxen Diseases, with hopeless Old Age, with Terror, with Poverty driving to crime.” Thus Jarmusch has replaced the classic western’s utopian “garden” with a west that serves as an updated Hades.

Another parallel that can be drawn between the Aeneid and Dead Man is how both stories feature characters that are accompanied by guides as they maneuver through their respective underworlds. Virgil’s protagonist, Aeneas, is joined by Sibyl of Cumae in his descent through the land of the dead. This is similar to Dead Man, in which William Blake’s Indian companion, Nobody, acts as his spiritual guide through the hostile, ruthless western landscape.

Dead Man can also be seen to draw upon Virgil’s Georgics. This borrowing is first evident in the films opening sequence (which also strongly references the opening sequence in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories) in which William Blake is sitting on the west bound train. In the scene Blake is shown reading a leaflet about Italian Bees. This can be seen as a allusion to the bees in the Georgics. Virgil’s bees are free of sexual needs and erotic passions. In Dead Man we see examples of how Blake, in his passive and indifferent ways, displays characteristics similar to the bees of the Georgics. When Blake encounters the beautiful Thel he displays only a mild interest in her. When he helps her up off the ground he pulls out his handkerchief, not to offer it to her, but to wipe his own hands. The Georgics also includes a simile about an unfeeling plowman which is eloquently personified in Nobody’s comment to Blake as he wakes him one morning: “rise now and drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead.”

Also in the opening sequence, Crispin Glover’s Fireman (a character that rivals the soot covered fireman in Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality) uncovers a clue that might explain Blake’s lack of passion and sensitivity. Blake reveals to the Fireman that he was once engaged but it didn’t work out. This lost love (coupled with the deaths of his parents) could be the cause of his embarking on a journey out west, much like the famous journey of Orpheus to the land of the dead following the death of his love Eurydice.

While the elements of Orphic and Oedipal narrative that Dead Man and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance bring to the western create major differences between the two films both still have obvious elements in common. Both feature characters, wearing suits, who arrive on trains from the east (Blake the accountant and Stoddard the attorney). Both of these characters are forced to adopt the violent codes of the west. Both films have token black characters (Johnny "The Kid" Pickett and Pompey). Both films use roses (paper rose and cactus rose) as metaphors for the loss of innocence and wilderness. Both films were shot in black and white at a time when westerns were typically shot in color. Both films have their own “Crispins” (Glover and the abbreviated Henry V quote’s reference to Crispin’s day) and “Lee Marvins” (the twin sheriffs Lee and Marvin were named in reference to Jarmusch’s fondness for the actor who of course played Liberty Valance). Both films feature villains in black with cords on their hats.

These common elements serve to give each a grounding within the western genre and in Dead Man’s case it is used to call attention to the fact that it is a film that was intended to move away from classical westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Both films do a fine job of incorporating their distinctive themes and non-western elements as a means of furthering the genre. The ultimate difference between the two is that one shows the west through the eyes of a community while the other is seen through the eyes of the individual.