The Western and the Courtroom

In my pursuit of seeing all the old classic films, I recently watched Stagecoach, the 1939 film directed by John Ford that catapulted John Wayne from B-movie actor to a major star. This film signaled the beginning of the glory days of the western film, a period that lasted until the 50s, though the ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone gave them a brief resurgence in the 1960s.

I have long had a soft spot for westerns, and even now two of my favorite films of all time are High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953). Both these films were made at the height of the McCarthy-era witch hunts in which many people were hounded by the government and lost their jobs or were sent to prison or forced into exile (or sometimes all three) purely because of their beliefs and associations. These two films, and especially High Noon, with their themes of individuals standing up to powerful and evil forces in the face of public apathy and cowardice, can be seen as allegories for the situation at that time.

My affection for westerns may seem strange since I grew up in Sri Lanka and TV did not come to that country until the late 1970s. (The country skipped entirely the black-and-white TV era and went straight to color.) But as a young boy, I lived in England for three years at the end of the 1950s and that was a time in which it seemed like the TV schedules there featured one western after another. I would come home from school and watch all of them – Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Hopalong Cassidy, Wagon Train, The Cisco Kid, Rawhide, The Lone Ranger, Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel, Roy Rogers, and Rin Tin Tin. Such was my faithful devotion to these shows that to this day I know the words to those theme songs (the ones that had lyrics) and can still sing them though, alas, there are not many requests for this particular talent of mine.

Stagecoach had many features that have since become western clichés – the prostitute with a heart of gold, the drunken and dissolute doctor who can still retrieve his skills in an emergency, the pompous and officious dignitary with an unsavory secret, the sharply dressed and smooth talking gambler with a shady past, the climactic showdown between the good and bad guys, the outlaw who was unjustly accused, the impassive and menacing Indians who swoop down from the hills in an attack, and the sound of bugles signaling the arrival of the US cavalry to the rescue.

Given my addiction to this genre and my deep familiarity with it, I could see all these plot turns coming a mile off. But the film was still absorbing, mainly because the focus of Ford’s film is less on action, apart from a long single attack sequence, and more on the characters and the changing relationships among them as the nine of them are confined to a stagecoach as it traverses the isolated and beautiful and dangerous country.

It says something about the quality of John Ford’s work that despite the fact that the themes he introduced have sincee been so over-worked, I still found the film well worth watching.

Another old film that I had long wanted to see was Anatomy of a Murder (1959) starring James Stewart and directed by Otto Preminger. It deals with another favorite genre of mine, the courtroom drama. As longtime readers of this blog would have guessed, the law has always fascinated me and if for some reason my first love (physics) had been impossible for me as a career, I would probably have gone into law.

The film is surprisingly long for that time (2 hours, 40 mins), such lengths being reserved for certifiable Charlton Heston epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. But the film is engrossing and one does not feel the time passing. For me the best part was that about two thirds of the film took place in the courtroom as the opposing lawyers sparred with each other and the witnesses.

James Stewart, who is one of the most likeable of actors and always a pleasure to watch on the screen, plays a small-time lawyer who is retained to defend an army lieutenant who has shot and killed the person who is alleged to have raped his wife. The screenplay managed to avoid setting up a simple good-bad tension. While one always wants to see James Stewart win, this film complicated things by making his client (the army officer) an arrogant and sneering and thoroughly dislikable person, the client’s wife as a beautiful but highly flirtatious woman, and the rapist also as a complex person. The prosecutors are also not caricatured as evil people out to get a conviction at all costs. As a result, one’s sympathies continuously shift, from wanting Stewart to win, then wanting to smack his client for his insufferable smugness, liking his wife and wanting to believe her story but then not quite sure if she was actually raped or was falsely claiming it, and so on. It was this shifting of loyalties due to the complexity of the characters that made the film so gripping.

There were a few surprises in the film. Duke Ellington composed the score for the soundtrack and had a cameo appearance in a bar, and there is an extremely cute little dog.

An interesting bit of trivia about the film. The judge in the trial was portrayed as an old-school, avuncular type, politely appealing for decorum from the lawyers and gently chiding them when they overstepped their bounds. He was so courtly in his manner that he had a private conference with the lawyers to see if they could find an alternative to the word ‘panties’ during the rape testimony, thinking that it would be too indelicate.

There was something vaguely familiar about the actor playing the judge that I could not quite pin down so afterwards I went to the IMDb website to see who it was. It turns out that the judge was played by Joseph Welch who was the lawyer retained by the Army during the Joseph McCarthy Senate hearings on Communists in the Army and who in 1954 delivered the famous rebuke to McCarthy that I had seen and heard before in film and audio clips.

The famous exchange happened when McCarthy gratuitously exposed, on national TV, a young lawyer in Welch’s firm named Fred Fisher as having been a member in the Lawyer’s Guild, an organization that was alleged to be a Communist front, something that was not relevant to the proceedings. McCarthy’s public revelation of Fisher’s past was an act of spite against Welch.

At which point, Welch, in his distinctive voice, delivered these famous lines in a tone of sorrow and quiet anger which were seen and heard by millions, and were what triggered the memory in me as I watched the film. (Go here to hear the exchange.)

Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. When I decided to work for this Committee, I asked Jim St. Clair, who sits on my right, to be my first assistant. I said to Jim, “Pick somebody in the firm to work under you that you would like.” He chose Fred Fisher, and they came down on an afternoon plane. That night, when we had taken a little stab at trying to see what the case is about, Fred Fisher and Jim St. Clair and I went to dinner together. I then said to these two young men, “Boys, I don’t know anything about you, except I’ve always liked you, but if there’s anything funny in the life of either one of you that would hurt anybody in this case, you speak up quick.”

And Fred Fisher said, “Mr. Welch, when I was in the law school, and for a period of months after, I belonged to the Lawyers’ Guild,” as you have suggested, Senator. He went on to say, “I am Secretary of the Young Republican’s League in Newton with the son of [the] Massachusetts governor, and I have the respect and admiration of my community, and I’m sure I have the respect and admiration of the twenty-five lawyers or so in Hale & Dorr.” And I said, “Fred, I just don’t think I’m going to ask you to work on the case. If I do, one of these days that will come out, and go over national television, and it will just hurt like the dickens.” And so, Senator, I asked him to go back to Boston.

Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I’m a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.
. . .
Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. . .You’ve done enough.

And then he spoke the words that were the coup de grace: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

This shocking public rebuke to a US Senator, delivered by Welch in his sad and gentle voice, was a pivotal event that exposed McCarthy to the whole nation as an overbearing, reckless, and lying bully and started his rapid decline. The Senate censured him in December of that year and he began to be avoided by his colleagues and the press. His alcoholism increased and he died in 1957 of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 48.

The judge portrayed in the film seemed to be exactly like the person who gave this speech in real life. Whether he was selected for this role because he so fitted the part or because of gratitude for helping end the force behind the blacklist that drove so much talent out of Hollywood, I do not know.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity Super Bowl Extra

Mr. Deity reappears to hold a press conference just before the Super Bowl.


  1. Kathy Ewing says

    You might be interested to know (if you don’t already) that Shane is John’s* favorite movie…

    *ie, John Ewing of the Cinematheque

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