“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Directed by John Ford, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” may not be the most exciting western ever made, and certainly not the most grand in scale. It lacks the sheer massive spectacle of the often renowned epics of Sergio Leone. Even in the context of John Ford’s films, it cannot quite compare to the epic story of “The Searchers” or the technical mastery of “Stagecoach”. Despite being made in 1962, it was shot entirely in black and white, devoid of any of the panoramic shots one would see in many of Ford’s films. It is slow and at times feels more stagey than cinematic, not to mention that its two stars are too old for their parts. And with all that said, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is arguably one of the very greatest westerns ever made. For Ford’s film is not about the grand spectacle of the Old West; it is about the characters and themes which tamed it and gave birth to the modern civilization which we know of today.
Ford’s film begins in the city of Shinbone, where now aged legendary Senator Ransom Stoddard, played brilliantly by James Stewart, has returned in order to pay respects to an old friend who has passed away. Ransom and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) look around the town as they first arrive, noticing how much more refined it looks, with only shadows and ruins of the past still remaining. When a reporter demands to know why the powerful Senator has ventured so far out West to go to a funeral, Ransom then tells the reporter that the deceased man is Tom Doniphon, an old friend and unknown legend of the town. There the story proceeds to be told in flash-back, which only amplifies the mythical force of the tale.
Many years earlier, Ransom is seen only as a naïve, bumbling lawyer from the East who has decided to venture out West in a stagecoach. But as he reaches near the town of Shinbone, his party is quickly ambushed and robbed by the film’s villain Liberty Valance, a rotten and savage psychopath played fiercely by Lee Marvin. Using his silver tipped whip, Liberty Valance brutally beats Ransom and leaves him to die. Luckily, local cattleman Tom Doniphon, played by the legendary and always charismatic John Wayne, is there to rescue Ransom and transport him into town so he can rest up. There Ransom finds that the town people are more than welcome and kind, but unfortunately woefully disorganized and lacking in not only true law and order but also education. After Ransom regains his strength, he is inspired to bring education to Shinbone by starting his own school open to the public. More importantly, however, he plans to bring feared outlaw Liberty Valance to justice, not through reckless violence, but instead through the means of proper law and order. But he soon learns from Doniphon that such a task is not realistic. It takes more than law-books to stop the reckless types such as Liberty Valance; it takes a gun.
In the middle of all of this is a love triangle between Ransom, Tom and the woman Hallie, and this surprisingly works very well in adding an extra layer of depth to the narrative, not to mention ultimately providing a more emotional side to the story. It also certainly helps that the character of Hallie is a strong one, and not some damsel in distress. At the start of the film, she is illiterate, but under the guide of Ransom, she has the will to learn – a will to progress.
And progress is the key theme to the film. Throughout his illustrious career and to this very day, many critics have characterized director John Ford as a conservative, ultra-patriotic, jingoistic and even racist film-maker. Now he may have very well been a conservative politically, but he certainly was not a racist and throughout his career his films proved to be more progressive than others may let on. Whether it be the criticisms of Manifest Destiny and reckless nature of the Old West in his highly acclaimed “The Searchers”; or his condemnation of classism in “Stagecoach”; or the most obvious example in his film adaptation of Steinbeck’s glorious Depression Era novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”, where he brutally examines the struggles of farmers during the Dust Bowl – Ford more often than not championed the common man and the common hero, not to mention being unafraid of criticizing America’s past. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is yet another great example. It simultaneously celebrates and condemns the history of the Old West, glorifying its unknown heroes and criticizing its cruelest aspects.
The three main characters are heavily allegorical. Ransom Stoddard represents the progress needed to fully civilize the west; Liberty Valance is the brutal villain who is in the way of that progress; and Tom Doniphon is the good-hearted but equally brutal hero who is needed to enforce Ransom’s law and order. For the citizens of Shinbone to prosper, Liberty Valance and the ideas he represents must be destroyed. This is further developed through the political subplot involved in the story, where ironically cowboys are the villains. When statehood threatens the business of powerful cattle barons, they hire Liberty Valance to violently threaten the public of Shinbone to vote in their favor. Cowboys, who have long been romanticized in western myths, are here shown to be oppressors of the common folk.
But what adds to the characters and thematic material more than anything is the perfect cast. And really, what can possibly be better than a western starring James Stewart and John Wayne? Two giants of the film industry and two of America’s most cherished performers. Stewart, of course, owns his role, channeling the naïve idealism of the likes of Jefferson Smith from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. And it is needless to say that Wayne easily pulls off the rough, stubborn, common man hero who we are normally accustomed to – an old fashioned man’s man, who no one can mess with. In addition, Lee Marvin is the perfect scum-bag villain who is easy to hate. The beautiful Vera Miles, whose theatrics are rather toned down here, is the love interest who is easy to fall for. The comic relief, involving Andy Devine as the cowardly Marshal and Edmond O’Brien as the drunken journalist, is considerably less annoying compared to some other Ford westerns, and their characters are even rather amusing.
And with all this talk about characters, themes, plot and casting, let it be known that the film is also a very fine piece of entertainment. If you are looking for a visually spectacular and majestic western, this film is not for you. What you will find here is a relatively quiet drama, filled with several scenes of remarkable tension, memorable dialog and multiple surprises. A superbly written and thoughtful western. And in particular, I loved the way Ford handles the last 30 minutes of the film, as it is brilliantly anti-climatic, taking the film in a bit of a different direction then initially suspected.
And ultimately, between Ransom and Tom, one of these men will have to kill Liberty Valance, either figuratively or literally. One will have to win the girl; one will have to take the glory. In the end, both are heroes; one noted as fact while the other only heard of in legend -- similar themes that I think the much acclaimed and popular comic-book film "The Dark Knight" even tried to touch upon, but never at such a profound level as they are here. And for my money, this is even a better piece of entertainment. A quintessential western. And perhaps while not quite an underrated film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” deserves to be discussed with Ford’s very greatest films, and it is arguably his definitive statement and masterpiece in the genre.