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Justice in Westerns

The idea that justice in Westerns can only be achieved through violence is one that is supported by all of the Westerns that we’ve watched in class.

This doesn’t mean that George Stevens, John Ford, and Clint Eastwood support the use of violence as justice. Rather, it’s a critique of the justice system of the Old West. The justice systems in the movies are portrayed as either nonexistent, cowardly, naïve, or useless.


The first movie we’ll talk about is George Stevens’ Shane. The parts of the movie that relate to my point are the following: a mysterious man named Shane (played by Alan Ladd) strolls into a town ran by the ruthless Ryker family. He takes on the Rykers and raises the moral of the town along the way. That is, until the Rykers hire Jack Wilson (played by a young Jack Palance). Wilson is an absolute psychopath who seems to have a history with Shane and kills one of the residents of the town. The movie ends with Shane killing Wilson and the Rykers, getting injured in the process. There’s a chance that Shane will die after the movie ends.

The closest Shane has to a lawman is Shane himself. He’s the only character who pursues justice. This shows that having any semblance of law in the Old West wasn’t always a guarantee, unlike nowadays, where any small town will have a police force.

The ending shootout is portrayed as a necessary evil. Taking the Rykers and Wilson into justice would have been the best thing to do. Doing this, however, was completely impossible due to Shane being the closest thing to a lawman. With this in mind, killing the Rykers and Wilson was the right thing to do. Shane getting wounded, possibly mortally, shows how dangerous and impossible the one man police force seen in many Westerns is.


The next movie we’ll discuss is John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the movie, Rance Stoddard (played by James Stewart) comes to the town of Shinbone to practice law. Almost immediately, his stagecoach is robbed by Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin) and his gang, and he’s beaten brutally. At about the middle point of the movie, Valance is killed, but not by Rance: it’s Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne) who actually kills Valance. Tom wants Rance to take credit for killing Valance because Rance can use it to become a delegate, which he does. He then becomes a governor, then a two-term senator and eventually the frontrunner to become a vice president.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has a very cynical view of the law. The only lawman in the movie is the cowardly Link Appleyard (played by Andy Devine). When asked about taking Valance into custody, Appleyard stammers nervously. He’s powerless to stop Liberty and his gang from doing whatever they please. If it weren’t for the critique of Western law, it would seem that Appleyard’s only reason for existing is comic relief.

Rance’s idea of taking Liberty into custody is ridiculed by several characters, like Tom for being naïve about Liberty. It’s only after Dutton Peabody (played by Edmond O’Brien) is beaten half to death, that Rance realizes that Liberty must die. He tries, but he is quickly overwhelmed. If it weren’t for Tom, Rance would have been killed by Liberty. If it weren’t for the basic Western hero, the idealistic lawman would have been killed by Liberty.

After Rance becomes important, Shinbone improves for the better. The town has more than one lawman and the town seems a lot safer. The film clearly shows that this way of life is the superior way. The basic Western hero agrees.

The best example of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s view on Old West law is Tom’s role in Liberty Valance’s death. He knows that Rance has to become a delegate for Shinbone to improve. And he knows that if Rance were the one to kill Liberty Valance, it would help his chances. Tom ends up dying a nobody because of this. The basic Western hero trades his place in the world for a better world.


The final movie that we’ll discuss is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and, man, is it dark. In it, a prostitute named Delilah Fitzgerald (played by Anna Levine) gets her face slashed by a cowboy named Quick Mike (played by David Mucci). After he’s given leniency by the sheriff Little Bill Daggett, (played by Gene Hackman, who won an Oscar for this) the prostitutes offer a $1,000 hit on him and another cowboy, Davey Bunting (played by Rob Campbell), who, technically, didn’t do anything wrong. The offer is taken up by William Munny (played by Eastwood), Ned Logan (played by Morgan Freeman), and The Schofield Kid (played by Jaimz Woolvett). Munny was once a brutal killer, sparing no targets with his kills. He was only redeemed by his wife, who is dead when the movie starts. The two cowboys are killed, but Ned is taken into custody and tortured. He eventually dies from his injuries, which transforms Munny back to his former self. He ends up killing Daggett, four of his men, and the saloon owner.

As cynical as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was, Unforgiven makes it look like Paint Your Wagon. While several characters in Liberty Valance made it out unscathed, nobody leaves Unforgiven intact. All of the “pure” characters in the movie are either dead (Ned, Davey, Munny’s wife), scarred for life (Delilah), or warped (W.W. Beauchamp, played by Saul Rubinek).

The character of Little Bill Daggett is an interesting character. With a few tweaks to the character (i.e. torturing Ned, beating up Munny in the saloon, brutalizing English Bob (played by Richard Harris), etc.) the character could be a hero of a different Western. The moments where he’s in his poorly self-built house seem like those scenes from action movies where the hero gets lighter moments in between the action scenes.

And if Daggett is going to be the hero of that hypothetical Western, then Munny would be the villain. Watching the movie, I got a sub-Jack Wilson/Liberty Valance feel from the character. He’s not as bad as those characters, but the feeling is still there. Then the ending shootout happens and he goes somewhere between his previous characterization and Jack Wilson/Liberty Valance territory. While the end is very cool, if one thinks about it, Munny just killed off a good portion of the town’s lawmen. It’d be very easy for a Liberty Valance or a Ryker family to take over Big Whiskey with them. This shows how easy Old West law could implode.

The story of the prostitutes taking the law into their own hands is a deconstruction of the wronged person(s) take the law into their own hands plot that was popular with Westerns. The film shows what would happen if the person that was hired to enforce their justice was more savage than the person they want out. When the final shootout occurs, the prostitutes have a look on their faces that indicates that they’ve realized what they’ve wrought on Big Whiskey. This shows that this way of thinking could damage the stability of towns in the Old West.

In conclusion, the Westerns that we’ve watched in class show how violence is the only answer for justice in the Old West. This was done not because the directors of the Westerns support this method of justice, but to critique Old West law. The law back then was nonexistent, cowardly, naïve, and/or useless.

(NOTE: as it should be clear, I wrote this for a film class in college.)