The Best in the West!
Remembering Montana’s pioneering Western author Dorothy M. Johnson
The Western genre in film, television and literature is historically a boys’ club and it always has been. Men in their male-dominated world, driven by Manifest Destiny, conquered the wilderness and tamed the wild west. Western stories are morality tales with good guys and bad guys battling it out on the frontier. Men like Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey wrote these stories, men like John Ford and John Wayne made them into movies, and men like Lorne Green and James Arness brought these stories to life on television with shows like ‘Gunsmoke’ and ‘Bonanza’. By the year 2000, half of all the movies and TV shows that had ever been made were Westerns. Many of them are forgettable because they follow the same formula: white hat, black hat, good guy, bad guy, etc. The portrayal of women in Westerns is often lacking and usually falls into three categories, damsel in distress, whore with a heart of gold, and vulnerable school teacher.
Though most of these stories follow that familiar path, some stand out for their originality and are, for lack of a better word, masterpieces in filmmaking and literature, and comparable to any classic movie or book.
Who had the fastest gun, or the fastest pen maybe? Who was the best Western story teller? Would you believe me if I told you the best in the West was a woman from Whitefish, Montana named Dorothy M. Johnson?
In 1961, her short story ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ was made into a feature film starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin. And in that same year, her novel ‘The Hanging Tree’ was also made into a film starring Montana native and Hollywood legend Gary Cooper. These two films are arguably two of the best Western movies the genre have ever produced. At the same time her books were being made into classic movies, Dorothy M. Johnson had taken a teaching position in the Journalism Department at The University of Montana. It was said of her that she was a popular and well-liked teacher.
Some 30 years later, I found myself a student at the University of Montana. When I walked through the halls of the Journalism building or Liberal Arts building, I often thought of Dorothy M. Johnson and wondered if her ghost still wandered the halls. I had headed off to college to Missoula to study writing. I was going to write Westerns and bring back to life a dying genre that I loved. And if that didn’t work out, I was going to move to Nashville and write songs and become the next Kris Kristofferson. Go big or go home, I thought!
Did I find her ghost? No! Not in four years. I half-expected a monument or a plaque or painting but I found nothing, absolutely nothing. Not only that, on more than one occasion, I dropped her name to professors only to hear bluntly, “I’ve never heard of her!” I wanted to stand where that great lady had stood in hopes that somehow, I would pick up on this woman’s magic, but the magic was nowhere to be found. I realized that I needed to blow the horn for this lady if nobody else was going to.
‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ is a masterpiece! Directed by the legendary John Ford, it puts a wonderful twist on a wild West shootout. Ransom (Rance) Foster is a drifter from back East, well-educated but with no particular purpose in life. Out on the trail he encounters the outlaw Liberty Valance and his two henchmen. Foster is beaten and robbed by the gang. He is found and saved by Bert Barricune, renamed Tom Doniphon for the movie because nobody was going to call John Wayne ‘BERT!’
Foster makes his way to town and finds a job. Being a ‘dude’ from the East, and well educated, he doesn’t fit in with the townfolk of Two Trees. He makes friends with Hallie, Bert’s girlfriend and starts to teach her how to read. Bert is threatened by Foster and the attention Hallie gives him. The townspeople make fun of Rance Foster and talk behind his back. Foster knows that Liberty Valance will eventually come to town and he will have to face him. He buys a gun and goes out of town every morning and practices.
One morning Bert comes along and finds Foster shooting. He quickly shoots the targets Foster was aiming at, showing off and exclaiming to Foster he’ll have to do better than that against Valance, and that Valance was in town looking for the dude who says he can speak Greek. He tells Foster he should run but Foster refuses, deciding he would rather die than live life a coward. Foster loads his gun and heads toward town to confront Liberty Valance. This brave little man who can hardly shoot marches off to a gunfight against a killer. The town is in shock. Foster calls out Liberty Valance. Shots are fired. Foster is shot in the arm, Valance through the chest.
Foster is hailed as the man who shot Liberty Valance. Hallie nurses Foster back to health but his arm is crippled and he can’t work and wants to go back East. Hallie tries to convince him to stay. The townspeople want him to represent them in Congress. He doesn’t want to run for office until Bert takes him aside and confesses that he shot Liberty Valance. And if Foster stayed and ran for office Hallie would be his girl.
Fast forward 30 years and celebrated Senator Rance Foster and his wife Hallie are attending Bert Barricune’s funeral. Foster is famous for gunning down an outlaw and bringing law and order to the West. He almost tells the journalist the truth about Bert, but stops himself and only says Bert Barricune made me who I am.
The story examines truth-vs-legend. There’s an old adage, “When you can print the truth, or print the legend, always print the legend.” Foster didn’t shoot Liberty Valance, Bert Barricune did. Bert admired the little man for his courage as he walked down that street to face certain death. Bert hid in the shadows as the gun fight commenced and shot Liberty Valance in cold blood as he faced off against Foster. By old West standards Bert murdered a man to save another, and he kept the secret until he died. Rance Foster becomes a Congressman, a Governor and a Senator and makes his state prosperous. He was known as the man who shot Liberty Valance. It was a lie. Foster, who had no real direction in life at the beginning of the story, goes on to do great things. The story plays with our ideas of what is right and what is wrong hovering in a gray area where someone does the wrong thing for the right reason. And they perpetuate a lie because it gives people a hero who gives them hope. It is an amazingly clever plot and Dorothy M. Johnson managed to pull it off in 25 pages.
In 1964, they began production on ‘Man Called Horse’ starring Richard Harris. In the original short story, a young man from a good family in Boston goes out West in search of adventure trying to find men who are his equals. His party is killed and he is captured by a band of Sioux Indians. He is taken back to the village and enslaved. He is treated like an animal. They called him HORSE. The family he is enslaved to are poor. All of the old woman’s sons had died. Over time the white man began to learn the language and make himself useful. His goal was to escape and go back to Boston. The old woman had a daughter. The man they called Horse would marry her after he joins some little boys in a raiding party and kills a rival Indian and steals some horses. His plan was to leave in the spring but by spring his young wife was pregnant. He stayed another season but his young wife and child died in childbirth. After that Horse was free to go but realized that no one will take care of the old woman because all her family had died. He shows terrific compassion by staying with the Crow for three more years to care for the old woman until she finally passes.
We are never given the man’s actual name. He is only referred to in the story as Horse. He goes out West to find men who are his equals and ends up enslaved and treated like an animal. He is no longer a wealthy guy from Boston; he is an animal. He loses his identity. At one point after learning a bit of the language he shouts at them. “I AM HORSE!” In doing that, he loses his ego and his arrogant attitude toward others. He discovers humility and compassion. In looking for his equals he finds his superiors who are better at life skills than he ever will be. All he wants to do is go home until he gets to go home and then all he wants is to stay.
The film was a hit but Dorothy was upset that they had changed the Indians in the story from Sioux to Crow for no reason. When they made ‘Return of a Man Called Horse’ Dorothy M. Johnson was so displeased with the story that she asked the producers to take her name off the credits.
In later years she wrote the historical masterpiece, ‘The Bloody Bozeman’. People often wondered how this little lady with the cat eye glasses, who looked like a librarian could write such great Western stories. She simply did. Dorothy M. Johnson was the best in the West!