I’m slowly re-evaluating my feelings about Hollywood westerns. After being mightily impressed by John Ford’s The Searchers I thought I’d try another John Ford western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
An ageing US senator, Ransom Stoddart (James Stewart) returns to the western town of Shinbone for the funeral of a old friend, and is prompted by a reporter to tell the true story of the events of thirty years earlier, events that have now become local legend. At that time Ransom Stoddart was a young lawyer setting out for the Wild West under the impression that this was a fabulous land of opportunity. Before even arriving in Shinbone he discovers the dark truth when the stagecoach he’s travelling on is held up by the notorious Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Stoddart is robbed and badly beaten.
In Shinbone there is no law besides the law of the gun. The town marshall is incompetent, weak and cowardly. Liberty Valance does what he pleases. Ransom obviously has a personal grudge against Liberty Valance but more than that he is deeply offended by the lack of respect for the rule of law.
Ransom makes some unlikely friends in Shinbone. There’s Hallie (Vera Miles), a friendly waitress who takes a shine to him. There’s the alcoholic newspaper editor Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien). And then there’s Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The friendship between Ransom and Tom is an unlikely one and an uneasy one (they’re both sweet on Hallie). Tom Doniphon is the only man Liberty Valance is afraid of. Tom is the toughest man in Shinbone and would have no hesitation in shooting anyone if he had to but he’s not really a man of violence. He wants to be left alone, to marry Hallie and live in his little cottage.
Stoddart, Doniphon and Peabody find themselves in the position of being political allies in the approaching election of delegates to vote on whether this lawless territory should be admitted to statehood, Ransom Stoddard is passionate about this - to him statehood represents educational opportunities, democracy, law and order and progress.
Statehood is opposed by the cattlemen (who always seem to be the bad guys in westerns) and they are using Liberty Valance and his gang to terrorise the townsfolk into voting their way. A final political showdown is approaching, as is a final personal showdown between Liberty and Ransom.
Unlike the revisionist westerns of the 70s which (with the notable exception of Clint Eastwood’s movies) seem more like anti-westerns Ford’s later westerns don’t seem to me to be hostile towards the genre. I get the impression Ford simply wanted to demonstrate that westerns could not only be complex, they were in fact ideally suited for dealing with big ideas.
Like The Searchers this movie deals with people caught between old ways and new ways. The west is in a process of transition. Liberty Valance represents the old ways - the rule of the gun, violence, lawlessness and anarchy. Ransom Stoddart and Dutton Peabody represents the future - stable government, a free press, prosperity and respect for the law. Tom Doniphon is caught in the middle. He must choose sides, and he unhesitatingly chooses progress. The irony of course is that progress is bringing into existence a world in which there will be no place for rugged individualists like Tom Doniphon.
Once again John Wayne plays a complex, contradictory and somewhat tragic character. Tom is a good man but he’s by nature a loner and cannot adapt to a changing world. It’s another superb performance by this underrated actor.
James Stewart’s character is equally interesting. Ransom is adamant that the rule of law must displace the rule of the gun but it’s one of the many paradoxes of the film that lawlessness and violence as represented by Liberty Valance can ultimately only be defeated by violence. The rule of law, in the final analysis, has to be backed up by force. it’s a paradox that Ransom Stoddart never quite manages to unravel or to reconcile himself to.
The supporting performances are entertaining. Lee Marvin, as you’d expect, chews the scenery outrageously. Edmond O’Brien is equally over-the-top.
Like The Searchers this is a fairly dark film in its own way. It’s driven by ideas and by character rather than by action. Right and wrong are not straightforward choices. Moral compromises have to be made and the consequences have to be lived with. Legends grow up around actions that were in reality rather murky. A very impressive film.