The top line on the poster for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance states, “Together for the first time,” and it is one of the few times when the hype was worth it. The film combines two of the biggest Western actors, Wayne and Stewart, with the best director of Westerns, Ford, and even features an amazing supporting performance from Lee Marvin as the titular villain Liberty Valance. The film may have come at the end of their respective careers, and of Wayne, Stewart, and Ford only Wayne made or starred in another Western of note, True Grit. However, they all were at their best in Liberty Valance and the result is one of the best Westerns that combines the themes of both rugged Western expansion and the eventual need to bring law and order into the territory. Liberty Valance is all about the difference between myth and truth as well as perception and reality, and how history can be a tenuous thing. Note: Unfortunately to discuss this film I will have to ruin the ending due to the impact it has on the film’s meaning. If you have not seen the film and don’t want the ending ruined, don’t read on. All I will say is that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great Western that deserves to be seen by any fan of the genre.
The film hinges on the interactions between the two main characters Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) and Tom Doniphon (Wayne) and their respective relationship with the townsfolk of Shinbone. Stoddard is a displaced lawyer trying to open a practice in Shinbone, while Doniphon is a rancher and gunfighter who fits in with the normal stereotypes of the old west. The values are diametrically opposed but they are tied together because they are both the man who shot Liberty Valance. That might not make sense without having seen the film, but I shall explain as best I can. Stoddard, in his attempt to use the law to bring down the murderous and thieving Valance ends up in a one on one shootout. To the surprise of everyone in Shinbone, Stoddard appears to kill Valance with one shot, even though he has never shot a gun before, and he is praised by the townspeople. After the incident Stoddard’s becomes a hero and is elected to represent Shinbone at the statehood convention. While their he is nominated to be the territory’s US representative and his new found fame makes him a shoo-in to win. Stoddard, however, struggles with his guilt over murdering Valance until he is confronted by Doniphon. Doniphon tells Stoddard that he was actually the one who shot and killed Valance, he did it from out of sight in an alley to the side of the shootout. He then tells Stoddard that he is responsible for taking his fame and opportunity to bring order to the territory and make it a better place. Stoddard accepts and is elected as the representative, the first step in a successful political career.
That last paragraph had a lot more plot synopsis than I normally like to include in my posts, but the particulars of that chain of events perfectly represent society’s development in the old west. We love to glamorize the violence and chaos that made up the frontier, but we also make sure that this violence is palatable and righteous. Larger than life figures such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Pat Garrett are celebrated for helping bring down dangerous outlaws, but how do we reconcile their role as both celebrated lawmen and murderous vigilantes? It’s easy to give them credit for their actions, but the reality is that they are just as guilty of murder as the men they killed.
In Liberty Valance, Stoddard and Doniphon’s actions are used to emphasize this dichotomy between order and chaos. Stoddard is the lawyer and their school-teacher. He not only brings an expertise on law, but also a level-headedness and kindness not seen out of many people in the old West. He represents the future of the community, and is the impetus in their change from caring only for themselves to acting like an actual town. Stoddard also brings the potential for statehood, and more generally the ability to be a part of something bigger than just Shinbone. Unfortunately, his way also means the end of men like Tom Doniphon and Liberty Valance, people who are unwilling to give up their independence for the greater good. Yet as Stoddard learns at the end of the film, these sacrifices come with major costs, and he was lucky to have someone like Doniphon to do the dirty work. The death of Liberty Valance brought Shinbone many great things, but at its most basic level it was a cold-blooded murder. That is something Ransom Stoddard will always have to live with.
In that way The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the perfect Western to usher out the careers of the genre’s greatest stars. It is all about the landscape of the changing West and the idea that the frontier can’t live forever. Unfortunately neither could Ford, Wayne, Stewart, and the peak of Western genre. Just like Shinbone they all had to advance with the times and become part of the greater whole. Still it’s nice to take a look back every once in a while.
Up Next: I sacrifice my appetite and watch the Academy Award nominated documentary Food Inc.