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My Take January 2000

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John Denvir, who teaches constitutional law at USF Law School, is editor of Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts, available at local bookstores or through amazon.com.






Stoddard is personally living a lie, underscoring our profession’s reputation for deceit.











Lawyers are the appointed agents of change in American society; they perform this necessary social function because they have the imagination to see a possible future and the skill and tenacity to make that vision a reality.


The Lawyer Gets The Girl–- And Creates the Future

 by John Denvir

Let’s face it– lawyers don’t get much good press, especially in movies. I don’t mean just "negative" portrayals of lawyers like Al Pacino as a lawyer Satan in "The Devil’s Advocate" or the whiny lawyer in "Jurassic Park" who becomes (to the audience’s delight) dinosaur snack food. Even supposedly "positive" images of lawyers in film turn out to be hollow. For instance, Atticus Finch ( Gregoryl Peck) in "to Kill a Mockingbird" is a great dad, but the fact of the matter is that his innocent client is convicted. Atticus is a noble loser, but still a loser. And when a lawyer does successfully defend a client, like Polly Biegler (James Stewart) in "Anatomy of a Murder," it turns out that the client is guilty as sin.

I think the concept of the "trickster" can help solve this "image" problem for lawyers, showing our profession in a new and more favorable light. I take the concept of "trickster" from Lewis Hyde’s important book Trickster Makes This World. Hyde is not talking about lawyers. His interest is in mythic characters like Hermes of Greek mythology and Coyote of Native American stories, but he also believes that the "trickster" role is one necessary to all societies which hope to adapt to change. That’s where I think lawyers come in. Hyde mentions three characteristics of the "trickster" which I think might help us understand the social of role of lawyers First, Tricksters are always found at the "borders" of culture; outsiders who grease the transition from one form of culture to another. They are creatures of change rather than stasis. Secondly, tricksters are "polytropic;" this means that they are capable of taking on a multitude of roles, not blessed or cursed with one strong core persona. Finally, tricksters deal in lies, but lies which reveal a larger truth. (note: to read more about "tricksters", check out John Denvir's article "Tricksters")

I would like to use John Ford’s classic Western, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", toliberty.JPG (37665 bytes) show how the "trickster" motif might change our view of lawyers. Let’s first review the plot without reference to the "trickster." Then we’ll see how our perception of the lawyer changes when we see him as a trickster. The story revolves around the experiences of tenderfoot lawyer Ransom Stoddard ( James Stewart) who goes West to set up a practice in the town of Shinbone. The stage he is riding is held up by bad man Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) who whips Stoddard, leaving him close to death. Stoddard is found by small rancher Tom Doniphon ( John Wayne) who brings him to town to be cared for by Doniphon’s sweetheart Hallie (Vera Miles) and her family. Stoddard’s arrival has two important effects. One, he starts to unwittingly undermine Doniphon’s relationship to Hallie by introducing her to the charms of civilization. For instance, when Doniphon gives her a cactus rose, Stoddard innocently asks, " Have you ever seen a real rose, Hallie?" Secondly, he starts to educate the town on the principles of democracy, a hot topic since there is about to be a territorial convention about whether to seek statehood. Stoddard’s pro-democracy activities bring him into conflict again with Liberty Valance, a hired gun for the big ranchers who oppose statehood. Valance challenges Stoddard to a gunfight everyone knows will end in Stoddard’s death, but miraculously Ranse kills the gunslinger. His fame as "the man who shot Liberty Valance" results in a successful political career with Hallie as his wife.

The only problem is that there was no "miracle." Stoddard didn’t "outdraw" Valance; a hidden Tom Doniphon bushwhacked him at the plea of Hallie to save Stoddard’s life.

This turn of events does not reflect well either on Stoddard the lawyer or law in general. Stoddard is personally living a lie, underscoring our profession’s reputation for deceit. Also, law is shown, despite its pretensions to be the embodiment of reason, to be dependent in the final analysis on violence since it was Doniphon’s gun, not Stoddard’s law books which brought "law and order" to Shinbone.

How can the "trickster" image reformulate this view of law land lawyers. Certainly Ranse Stoddard possesses some "Trickster" traits. For instance, he is clearly the "outsider" who becomes the agent of change in Shinbone. You might say that Shinbone society is in a state of stasis which is comprised of a standoff between the forces of "lawless violence" represented by Liberty Valance and the forces of "righteous violence" represented by Tom Doniphon. The movie well illustrates this face-off in the scene where Ranse Stoddard, working in a restaurant, tries to serve a steak to Tom Doniphon. Liberty trips him, sending the steak to the floor. Doniphon tells Valance "That was my steak, Liberty." Valance replies to Stoddard, "You heard him, Dude, pick it up." Doniphon’s rejoinder is " No, Liberty, you pick it up." The screen is filled with the potential for violence until Stoddard intervenes by picking up the steak himself. " Are you two crazy? Willing to kill each other over a lousy steak. Well, it’s picked up."

But neither Valance or Doniphon is "crazy" within the moral context of the old Shinbone. If there’s a dispute, as Doniphon is always reminding Ranse, it’s settled by a six gun. Valance and Stoddard share a disdain for law. Stoddard, on the other hand, is the lawyer, the man of law. He is the agent of change who by the end of the film has brought both law and the railroad to Shinbone. He is the outsider at the beginning film who arrives beaten and broke, but he ends the film as the esteemed Senator who has turned the Fordian wilderness into a garden.

We can also see Stoddard as "polytropic." Maybe not wily, but certainly he is capable of playing a multitude of social roles. Stoddard changes persona from scene to scene. First, he’s the neophyte lawyer, then a dishwasher and waiter in the local eatery, then cub duke.JPG (12234 bytes)reporter, and schoolmaster. Finally, he trains himself (not too successfully) to be a gunfighter, and even engages in a fist fight with Doniphon. Later he evolves into a caricature of a slick politician before hinting at the end of the film that he might like to be a small town lawyer again. Liberty Valance and Tom Doniphon can only be themselves. Liberty is the quintessential sociopathic Western gunslinger, living only to inflict and absorb violence. Doniphon is , well, John Wayne, the laconic, deadly Western hero. Neither can adapt to the new Shinbone, and therefore both die. It’s Stoddard’s ability to adapt to the necessities of change which allows him to prevail.

Finally, Stoddard also fulfills the third trickster" requirement of dealing in lies, but lies which turn out to be true. Stoddard is not your typical "trickster" like Brer Rabbit or Tom Sawyer, amoralists who enjoy playing with the truth. In fact, if anything, Stoddard is too "honest." Ford makes him annoyingly moralistic, even correcting Hallie on her grammar. But the crucial fact upon which the plot revolves is that Stoddard is involved in a lie. The lie, of course, is that Ransom Stoddard is the "man who shot Liberty Valance." Once Doniphon tells him the truth of the matter, all his public acts become deceitful because his political success is based on a lie; the voters think he killed Liberty Valance, but actually Doniphon did. Yet by the end the of film this "lie’ turns into a larger "truth." Maybe Ranse didn’t kill Liberty Valance the man, but Valance was more than just a man, he was the a symbol for a whole social structure. In this sense, by bringing law, democracy (and the railroad) to Shinbone, Ransom Stoddard very much is the man who shot (and killed ) Liberty Valance.

There’s a darker side to Ranse Stoddard which I will save for another time. For now, let’s appreciate him as a good example of the lawyer’s larger social role, one in which we can take pride as lawyers. Lawyers are the appointed agents of change in American society; they perform this necessary social function because they have the imagination to see a possible future and the skill and tenacity to make that vision a reality. And even the lawyer’s loose way with the "truth" is necessary if he or she is going to help society rethink its conventional wisdom in the process of creating new social values And sometimes the lawyer even gets the girl.


Posted January 14, 2000

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Other Movie Comments by John Denvir