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Myth and Law in the Films of John Ford

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This paper discusses the image of law, how it is created, the relationship of law and authority in its application and its effect on society as portrayed in the films of John Ford, one of America’s important film-makers during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. The focal point of this study is three films exploring the past of the United States of America. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), a biographical picture about the early years as a lawyer of the later president, and – as Ford is most typically associated with the making of Westerns –The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which, as well as being two of his most acclaimed films, are also considered as highly important in the genre. The films are concerned with the establishment of law and the question of legitimacy. The two broad ways of the development of law are the subject of the first two films, presenting an imposing, unquestionable law-giver on the one hand and, on the other, the operation of custom, which shows the organic creation of social rules within a society. The third film confronts the two ways, showing the different assumptions about the inherent qualities of the law. Myth in this context has a dual function: as a reservoir of visual and/or content pattern but also on the narrative level causing calculated semantic effects. As Ford was a director with his distinct vocabulary of visual style and narrative terms, his films demonstrate a specific use of myth-making techniques, its connection with the inscription of certain values into law as well as a critique of this process.

Document Type: Original Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-6478.00178

Publication date: March 1, 2001

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