The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance review by Tom Blain
It doesnt seem like 10 years since my first and only viewing of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I saw it for a film class and the gist behind showing it was to demonstrate how John Ford had transformed the construction of a Western; a construct that he himself had a heavy hand in forming with movies like Stagecoach. Now, Ive never been a fan of the Western myself, and while I dont rate it as low as I would a musical (the genre to torture by) I would routine change the channel if I found myself face to face with one on television.
But Liberty Valance at the time felt little different. My ten years later memory of Liberty Valance was a smattering of story lines, conflicts, characters, and study book deconstructions of the flashback tale told by and extra Westerny Jimmy Stewart. One thing that I remember being refreshing was that this wasnt a tale of white expansionist cowboys vs. red (or gray if black and white) savage Indians. It didnt end with a shootout between rifles and bows. This was a conflict of Law vs. Lawlessnes or Society vs. The Wild. The lawless West was established, now it had to struggle in order to become a cultured society.
The movie is told in flashback from the perspective of Senator Ransom Stoddard (old Jimmy Stewart). He tells the story after arriving in Shinbone by train to go to a funeral of a man no one in town seems to recall; a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The newspaper men extract historical details from the veteran Senator about the way things used to be before the railroad (railroad=civilization). The flashback begins with a young idealist lawyer Ransom Stoddard (still played by an old 50-year old looking Stewart) who follows Horace Greelys advice to go west and gets a rude awakening when his carriage gets ambushed by outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). To Valance, law is relatively equal to a horse whip across the face and law books make fun pistol targets.
A beaten up Stewart is found in the wild and brought to Shinbone, a town with a cowardly lion Marshall (Andy Devine), a drunken newspaper man (Dutton Peabody), and a restaurant run by illiterate desert beauty Hallie (Vera Miles) that serves steaks the size of a 10-gallon hat. Shinbone is a town settled but not yet civilized. There is a main street with a group of roughly built buildings and people with jobs, but no signs of prosperity, wealth, or promise. Everyone just sort of gets by and there isnt even a sense of law; at least officially. When Liberty Valance and his cronies ride into town the Marshall runs and hides (and drinks). The only one keeping the peace is Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who usually steps up in time for Valance to step down. Apparently the pecking order of toughness is thoroughly communicated to everyone in and around Shinbone and Valance knows that he only number two.
Stoddards ultimate goal (post healing) is to get back on his feet, practice, law, and throw Liberty Valance in jail. The idea of using a gun to control Valance disgusts the promising lawyer who sees the potential statehood of the area as the goal for total protection from people like Valance. He also has side goals of trying to educate the towns people and teach all (men, women, and children) how to read and how to stand up for themselves without using violence. It wasnt mentioned in the film, but I also believe he had plans for offering healthcare to everyone whether they were poor or wealthy just a hunch. His creepy gosh darnit idealism bordering on sainthood is a grating clich I find common in John Fords film (Young Mr. Lincoln is another film that comes to mind).
Ford loves the stark contrasts between good and evil, but in Liberty Valance there is a Good A (Stoddard) and a Good B (Doniphon), although the order can be easily disputed. For the purposes of this film, Doniphons character (lawless, but at the same time good in the sense that he polices Liberty Valance) is a necessary to component. Without Doniphon, the gangly, defenseless Stoddard would have been killed five times over. Of course there is the question of, if Doniphon is so tough why doesnt he kill Valance sooner? The reason lies in between what happens to Doniphon between the end of the flashback and from when the flashback was told. After Valance is killed Doniphon and his old West ways cease to be relevant. He needs Valance around to give his kind (rough and tumble, law-keeper) some purpose. Between the end of the flashback and his death, Doniphon is forgotten (his funeral is largely unattended) and it is assumed he retreated to his ranch on the outskirts after he lost the girl and his status in townall to Stoddard.
Of course Doniphons grand purpose is that he finally does take down Valance and does so, under the guise that the shaky handed Stoddard is the one shooting the gun. Hense, the saying that sums up the film, When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. This is as much an admission by Ford that the West is often glorified by legend and fun-to-tell stories that re-write the gritty truth. But darn it all those legends make for much better movies! In the film, it means the legend (Stoddard shooting Liberty Valance) meant more for Shinbone because it helped Stoddard (a well read leader) rise to popularity in town and around the surrounding area where Valance harassed countless cattle ranchers. It meant a more prosperous future for Shinbone as well as Stoddard and Hallie.
The film in parts has slow corny scenes that should have either been cut down or cut all together. Most of the scenes with Vera Miles or preachy scenes with Stoddard speaking up American ideals grow long and weary. It picks up in places when Liberty Valance is around and comes to an apax between Valances murder and Doniphons admission. As far as Fords films are concerned its probably one of the most entertaining, if not the most interesting for its flashback (and flashback within a flashback).
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