On September 30, Variety reported that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has joined the ever-expanding list of classic films Hollywood intends to remake. The 1962 John Ford-directed Western stars Jimmy Stewart as idealistic frontier lawyer Ransom Stoddard and John Wayne as gruff but moral gunslinger Tom Doniphon. Set in a state of nature where the strong, such as eponymous outlaw Liberty Valance, dominate the weak, Liberty Valance portrays a seemingly straightforward struggle between Stoddard’s desire to bring law to this chaotic frontier setting and Valance’s desire to keep it the lawless place where he and his men rule by force.
If Hollywood wanted to remake Liberty Valance as a Western, it would be nearly impossible to match the caliber of the original cast and crew. Perhaps that’s why the remake will take place in “a relatively contemporary period, such as 1980s Western Pennsylvania amid the retrenchment of the steel and auto industries,” according to Variety. This change of setting suggests the producers might misunderstand the power of the original film. It’s also redundant, because we have already witnessed a successful remake of Liberty Valance: Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight.
How is The Dark Knight like Liberty Valance? In part because the superhero has become our modern heroic archetype (as Jonathan V. Last has explained), and in part because specific elements of The Dark Knight mirror Liberty Valance’s moral universe. Liberty Valance shows the struggle against Valance’s anarchic evil by the forces of law and reason, embodied in Stoddard, and a good man who nonetheless exists apart from civilization, in Doniphon. The Dark Knight portrays a similar struggle against the Joker’s anarchic evil by the forces of law and reason, represented by Gotham’s Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and its District Attorney Harvey Dent, and a good man who exists apart from civilization, in Batman.
Each film’s positive extralegal force ultimately defeats evil yet submits to the rule of law. The films’ respective settings provide their only essential difference. In the pre-civilizational world of Liberty Valance, Stoddard’s apparent killing of Valance (though it was actually Doniphon) earns him enough respect to bring civilization to the film’s territorial setting via statehood. The message? Escaping the violence of the state of nature sometimes requires exercising violence.
In The Dark Knight, the force of evil (the Joker) uses a corrupted agent of the rule of law (Harvey Dent) in his attempts to destroy the world. Yet Batman, who kills Dent, also takes the fall for the murders Dent committed while under the Joker’s influence. This maintains Dent’s perceived purity, safeguarding the order he represented against corruption and a loss of faith by its people.
In both films, the good man apart from civilization sacrifices his own stature on its behalf: Doniphon, to establish a civilized order in which the strong yield to the rule of law; and Batman, to preserve an already-established civilized order. The choices are philosophically identical, prudential expressions of the same principle – that sometimes the use of force is necessary to sustain the values of a civilization.
These sacrifices share an additional consequence: the enshrinement of a myth as the foundation of a civilized order. The reporter whose enquiries launch the narrative of Liberty Valance abandons his investigation when he learns that Stoddard did not actually kill Valance, sensing the futility — even the danger — of exposing the myth on which the order depends. Hence his famous reply: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Likewise, as Commissioner Gordon lets Batman assume blame for Dent’s death and the murders he committed, he explains to his confused son that Batman is
. . . the hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero . . . he’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector . . . a dark knight.
Batman becomes whatever the order he exists to protect requires: hero, or pariah. Dent, on the other hand, as Gotham’s District Attorney, represents the order itself, one that requires popular veneration to sustain. Thus, he must in death become its martyr, even if in truth he was corrupt. Both the reporter and Gordon recognize that, though civilized orders depend on reason, they cannot survive on reason alone.
That reason is necessary yet not sufficient either to establish or to maintain civilization is the consistent moral of Liberty Valance and The Dark Knight. Do we really need another version of this story? Alas, contemporary Hollywood lives by its own credo: When the movie becomes legend, produce a remake.