In John Ford's epic westerns, heroes are hard to pick out. John Wayne often played a violent, hatred-spewing figure who was necessary to restore order. "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" is a complex story of how Wayne murdered an arch villain so that Jimmy Stewart could be lionized and lead America to greater glory. The same thing has happened to Barack Obama.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, May 15, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

The Man Who Shot Osama bin Laden

President Barack Obama has met and congratulated the man who shot an unarmed Osama bin Laden in the head and chest with a high-power automatic weapon, a killing Americans celebrate as honorable and necessary.

This blogpost isn't about the man who actually shot bin Laden.

Although he didn't personally shoot America's great enemy, Obama himself has most benefitted from the killing -- it immediately boosted his popularity and almost guarantees his re-election in 2012. The assassination of bin Laden convinced people that Obama is tough -- at the same time it symbolically opposes him to a Muslin terrorist whose name eerily resembles his own.

And Obama has been notably glomming onto the glory of the event.

Which is close to the plot of the great 1962 John Ford movie, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence ."

In the film, Jimmy Stewart, as a U.S. Senator (Ransom Stoddard), returns to the town (Shinbone) he achieved fame in before the territory became a state.  The town was dominated by a murderous villain, the worst imaginable -- played to a "T" by Lee Marvin -- that is, Liberty Valence.

After working to bring civilization to the town (Stoddard is a lawyer), eventually -- since legal, legitimate methods had failed -- Stoddard is forced to confront and kill Valence in a duel, thus proving his manhood, becoming a local hero, and leading him to the powerful and honorable position he now occupies.

Only that story is a lie -- somewhat like the original story of how bin Laden was killed.  The man who shot Liberty Valence was actually Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne) -- whose funeral Stoddard has returned to Shinbone to attend.  And Doniphon stalked and killed Valence under cover of darkness.

What is Ford's message?  Although it's impossible to summarize a great artist's work in words, the theme Ford repeatedly returned to is that there are some acts, and men who perform them, that are outside of civilized America's boundaries but that are nonetheless necessary. 

The classic Ford film acter who fills this role is John Wayne, as best represented by the icomparable American classic, "The Searchers ."  In that film, Wayne, as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran (he fought for the Confederacy) returns to save his family from Indian raiders on his home in Texas.

Ethan hates Indians -- so much so, that he has to fight with himself to be able to accept the return of his niece (played by the young Natalie Wood) after she has been kidnapped by -- and lived with -- Indians.  Along the way, Wayne kills Native Americans and others mercilessly.  For those of you who think Wayne only played heroes, Ford does not portray Ethan as a likable character.

But he was a necessary one.

In "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence," Doniphon had to kill Valence in order for Shinbone -- and the entire West -- to be a tolerable -- a worthwhile -- place to live for ordinary, decent citizens -- people unlike either Valence or Doniphon.  And Stoddard had to be put forward as a responsible leader so that the territory could progress and prosper.

But, underlying America, Ford's complex, disturbing message is (and Ford was a true, blue American-firster), are deceipt and violence.