When I think of John Ford, I think of the wide open Western expanses that define practically every shot of classics like The Searchers. When I think of John Wayne movies, I think of the straightforward moralism of The Cowboys. When I think of James Stewart (barring the final act of Vertigo), I think of the archetypal “Aw, shucks” All-American of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, when all three combine to make such a jarringly out-of-character film for all involved, it should be no secret that I found The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be among the most interesting of the “classic” Westerns this side of High Noon.
Far more a commentary on the death of the Wild West than a traditional oater, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is unlike any Western of the era or, honestly, any other film of John Ford’s career. Removing itself from the iconic Western vistas that are Ford’s metier and placing itself in crowded homes and claustrophobic streets, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance captures the transformation of the West from a lawless frontier to the first stirrings of civilization and law & order. And most surprisingly of all, the film has something honest and fresh to say on ethics that remains fresh 52 years later.
After his stagecoach is robbed by the brutal bandit and bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and he’s beaten within an inch of his life, East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is rescued by the rough but generally decent gunslinger and rancher Tom Doniphan (The Longest Day‘s John Wayne). Ransom has had every penny to his name and every last worldly possession stolen by the untouchable Liberty Valance and as he has to start from scratch to recover his assets and make a name for himself in the dangerous town of Shinbone.
Shinbone’s Marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is a fat, slovenly coward and even though everybody in town knows Liberty Valance is a crook and a murderer, he won’t lift a finger to bring him to justice. Tom is the only man in town with enough nerve and talent with a gun to stand up to Liberty, but Liberty knows well enough to stay out of Tom’s way to avoid taking a bullet from him. But Ransom wants Liberty brought to justice. However, unlike every other Western hero ever, justice to ransom doesn’t mean a shoot out in the streets. It means a trial and jail. But, in a town without a competent criminal justice system, Tom’s way of the bullet could be the only true answer.
The film’s framing device is that decades later, Ransom Stoddard has returned to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Ransom is now a U.S. Senator and he could be the Vice-President of the United States if he wished. And, through a story given to a local newspaperman, we hear the real story of the legend that shot him into political stardom. But, in actuality, it gives the film an example to delve into one of the most important philosophical debates of all time: What is more valuable, truth or results? And, to an extent, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes down on the utilitarian side of that equation.
I can’t explore those themes too deeply without ruining the film (although, considering the fact that it’s 52 years old, I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I did), but time and time again, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves itself to be more psychologically and philosophically minded than the vast majority of its late 50s/early 60s peers. The film is essentially an argument that the American West that Ford himself helped to mythologize in the American conscious had to end, and that the typical John Wayne heroes of the past didn’t have a place in the modern world.
James Stewart plays a character that is simultaneously a deconstruction of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington typical Stewart idealist as well as an argument for why society needs men like him. I’ve probably said this before on this blog, but James Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors (not necessarily one of the ones I think is the best), and along with Vertigo, this is certainly one of his most complex and demanding roles. And as we Ransom struggling to balance his desire for law & order and due process against the brutal realities of the old West, Stewart captures all of the character’s frustration and desperation.
John Wayne and Lee Marvin also shine in the two primary supporting roles (even if Wayne gets top billing in the film, Ransom is the main character). Tom may ultimately be a good man, but he’s also a bitter roughneck who isn’t afraid to be a bully when he needs to make a point. Along with The Searchers, it’s one of the more complicated characters of Wayne’s usually pure white hat career. And Lee Marvin might not have the most fully-written character in the titular Liberty Valance, but he makes the man drip venom and anger, and he steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s not afraid to chew the scenery a little bit.
I wrote half of this review last night and True Detective is coming on in five minutes (seriously, watch that show; it’s the best new HBO show since The Wire and easily the best show on TV right now) so I’ll draw this review to a close. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Western that even non-Western fans can get behind. In fact, it’s so drama-driven that fans of more traditional, action-driven old West epics may find it to be a bit of a bore. But for everyone with an open mind for the possibilities of Western storytelling, it’s a must see classic deserving of the title.
Final Score: A-