by Frank Olson
No one did more to define and redefine the traditional cinematic Western than John Ford. With his 1939 breakthrough Stagecoach, Ford made what could be considered the prototypical Western and helped establish John Wayne as the genre’s archetypal hero. The director’s subsequent work in the genre poked and prodded at the tropes and mores that he played such a strong role in creating. Ford was at the forefront of every stylistic change and technical breakthrough in the classical Western during its late ‘30s to early ‘60s heyday. With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Ford read his favorite genre its last rights.
Director: John Ford
Producers: Willis Goldbeck, John Ford
Writers: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, Dorothy M. Johnson (story)
Cinematographer: William H. Clothier
Editor: Otho Lovering
Music: Cyril Mockridge
Cast: James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Edmond O'Brien, Andy Devine, Ken Murray, John Carradine, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen, Willis Bouchey, Carleton Young, Woody Strode, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin
US Theatrical Release: April 22, 1962
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
It wouldn’t be accurate to call The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance the first major anti-Western (a number of Anthony Mann’s ‘50s Westerns could reasonably fit that description, as could Ford’s own The Searchers), but the fact that it was directed by John Ford and structured around the offscreen funeral of a John Wayne character gives it a profound air of authoritative finality that wouldn’t have been possible under different circumstances. Ford went on to direct a few more Westerns after Liberty Valance, and Wayne starred in many more, but this may as well have been the last time that either of them worked in the genre. Here they are saying goodbye to what they are best known for in much the same way that Charlie Chaplin staged silent cinema’s death with Modern Times.
Ford goes about dismantling the myths of the Old West by staging the action in a ragged settlement called Shinbone that feels like a physical embodiment of the traditional Western – a place full of saloons, cowboys, and mercenary gunslingers – and then introducing Jimmy Stewart’s city boy outsider, whose set of values challenge those of the townspeople, in turn calling the Western’s ingrained moral priorities into question. After Stewart’s stagecoach is robbed by notorious criminal Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), he finds that nobody in Shinbone is particularly interested in bringing the crook to justice. The town’s sheriff (Andy Devine) is too cowardly to go after Liberty, while the area’s top gunfighter (Wayne) seems to enjoy having an equally skilled shooter to compete with. Wayne mocks Stewart’s insistence that Liberty be brought to justice through legal means, and insists that he can only be taken down the old-fashioned way – with a gun. Ford spends most of the film asking the audience whether Wayne or Stewart have the correct solution to deal with the Liberty Valance situation, and to his credit he makes strong points for both sides.
The two sides of the argument are given weight by the viewer’s knowledge of what Wayne and Stewart represent as screen icons. While the actors play characters named Tom Doniphon and Ransom Stoddard, what matters in the film is that they are the embodiments of the ideologies that John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart represent. Wayne of course is the no-nonsense man of action, with enough conviction in his black and white sense of morality to defend it with bullets. Though never a particularly skilled thespian, Wayne had screen presence in spades and excelled in roles that simply required him to be a stand-in for the myths of the Old West. Stewart was a much more versatile and nuanced performer than Wayne, and his extensive resume did include quite a few Westerns – including a few where he played roughnecks similar to the one that Wayne plays here – but he was (and still is) most frequently identified as the gentlemanly idealistic Democrat of films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It is this dignified champion of the little guy who appears in Liberty Valance.
The tension between the values represented by Wayne and those represented by Stewart allow the film to get into some highly nuanced moral territory. Ford walks a tricky ethical line with the film, as he frequently asks the audience to sympathize with a gruff redneck (Wayne) whose way of life is becoming obsolete, while sometimes presenting the kindly progressive (Stewart) as a wimp with unrealistic goals. The film’s moral quandary, in which the character who most modern viewers would agree is in the right is presented as a disruptive presence, recalls Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (another film about a vanishing world), in which a gentle automobile pioneer interrupts the lifestyle of a spoiled rich asshole with whom the audience is invited to sympathize. Wayne’s way of life allows thugs like Liberty Valance to operate with relative impunity, but Stewart’s viewpoint leaves Shinbone feeling a lot less lively.
Eventually Stewart accepts that Liberty can only be dealt with through force and he decides to get the gun that will supposedly kill the criminal. But a climactic scene reveals that it is actually Wayne who shoots Valance from behind while the outlaw and Stewart have their face-to-face showdown. The legend of “the man who shot Liberty Valance” propels Stewart to the U.S. Senate, and presumably allows him to pursue his noble goals, but it is a brutal ambush by Wayne that allows it to happen. It is viscerally shocking to see the traditionally heroic Wayne shoot the bad guy in the back of the head from a safe distance, but what’s really interesting about the scene is the way that his actions feel simultaneously cowardly, noble and tragic. The last gasp of traditional Western heroism is a primitive act of violence that paves the way for modern legislative justice. By the end of the film Stewart is a famous and well-liked politician while Wayne is a dead and forgotten soldier. John Ford clearly loved the Democratic principles that the United States was founded on, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance demonstrates his keen understanding that not everyone who fights for their freedoms will get to enjoy them equally – and that some won’t have a place in the new world that they helped create.