#3 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Contemporaneous reviews of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance applaud its first two-thirds and then feel like the final third just took too long to get to the point, robbing it of the kind of drama they’re expecting. I’ve even seen comparisons to an episode of Gunsmoke. The contemporary view of the film seems to have been that it was just a Western drama, but it’s so much more. This is one of the great American movies. I don’t mean that it’s one of the great movies made by Americans in America with American money. I mean that it’s one of the movies that best explains America, and it does so by attaching that history to a compelling drama that contrasts two men.
In the vein of Drums Along the Mohawk and Wagon Master, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the story of the creation of a community that functions as a microcosmic telling of the creation of a nation. Using a flashback structure to great effect, we open the film with an elderly Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) returning to the small Western community of Shinbone. The countryside has been tamed as the train pulls into the clean station, and they’re met by the former marshal of Shinbone, Link (Andy Devine). There’s a deep sadness to this trip, returning to the place they had both called home and had formed their futures many decades ago, a trip brought on by the news of the passing of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The editor of the Shinbone Star, the local newspaper, sits Ransom down and convinces him to tell the story of a famous man’s connection to this unknown dead man.
That flashback does something important in terms of tone. We know based on that as well as the title that certain people are going to survive the events set in the past and some will not. This moves the focus away from the more visceral elements of the story and towards the more subtextual.
Ransom arrived in Shinbone as a fresh out of law school lawyer looking to make his way in the West. He’s on a stagecoach that gets robbed by the notorious local outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) just outside of town and beaten to within an inch of his life while left for dead. Saved by Doniphon and his trusty black companion Pompey (Woody Strode), Ransom is taken to the house and restaurant of Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and Peter (John Qualen) Ericson as well as their employee Hallie. Ransom, as he recovers, is frustrated at the lack of action against Liberty Valance. He runs around just outside of town, causing harm, and the spineless Marshal Link won’t do anything about it, even when Ransom figures out that, according to the laws of the territory, Link does have jurisdiction to arrest Liberty for his crimes. He’s also infuriated with Tom’s attitude of every man needing to take care of his own business, seeing it as the same thing as Liberty’s point of view.
What makes this more than just an extended episode of Gunsmoke is that the conflict between Ransom and Liberty gets tied up with the overall effort to approve statehood for the territory. The large ranchers on the north side of the Picketwire (the Purgatoire River) have employed Liberty as a hired gun to help terrorize the smaller land holders, especially when it comes to them coming together to support statehood, a proposition that would greatly diminish the ranchers’ powers in the area. When the then owner of the Shinbone Star, Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), helps push Ransom’s law business, it catapults Ransom to the height of informal power in Shinbone, culminating with him presiding over the meeting to choose delegates for the statehood convention in Capital City. When Liberty walks in, demanding that he be considered as a delegate, it’s actually Tom’s presence and insistence on Ransom as a delegate instead of himself that helps bring the people together to stand up against the man who’s been terrorizing them for so long.
This ignites the final, fatal showdown, and it’s where the subtle point of the movie ends up playing out rather brilliantly. Ransom is no coward, but he’s a man of books with little use for guns. He abhors the use of force to settle wrongs between people in a supposedly civilized place, but when Liberty attacks and nearly kills Peabody, he finally decides that something must be done. He’s the one to do it as well. The showdown ends up being Liberty playing with Ransom until Ransom miraculously shoots Liberty dead with his bad arm, and this tends to be where the contemporaneous reviewers disengaged a bit. They knew that Ransom couldn’t have done it, and they saw the next thirty minutes or so as just dragging out the thin fiction. That view is missing the tragedy of the film, though.
Ransom’s supposed act of heroism is what sets him on his path to great power. Hallie falls for him. At the territorial convention he’s lauded as a hero and nominated to be the territory’s representative to Congress on the question of statehood, and it eats at him. And then Tom shows up, drunk, having burned his own house down after seeing Hallie embrace Ransom so gently, and he tells Ransom the truth. Ransom didn’t kill Liberty Valance. Tom did. He shot Liberty Valance with a rifle from down a side street and simply walked away.
Who is this movie about? Who’s the title character? In some ways it’s about both. Ransom is the man known to have killed Liberty Valance (it’s the last line of the film), but it was Tom who actually did it. It was Tom who nominated Ransom to the territorial convention. It was Tom who saved Ransom from Liberty in the beginning. This story is Tom’s, and Tom’s story is a tragedy.
What is this movie about? This movie is about the legend over the fact. This is about how the men who actually made America get forgotten while those who are lucky enough to get the credit are elevated by the history books. John Ford, long before during the production of Stagecoach, called John Wayne the ultimate everyman. He didn’t see Wayne as an exemplar of humanity, but a great example of the normal. I think that’s key to seeing how this plays out. It was the everyman who tamed the West, but it wasn’t the everyman who was praised for it. It was the everyman who killed Liberty Valance, but it was Ransom Stoddard who got the credit and the girl.
That core reality is one of the big reasons I call this one of the great American movies. The other is how it uses education and the political process to help tell its story. The meetings and convention are strong examples of politics in drama used to both advance the story and the subtext. They’re the American ideal at its most basic form where people in a community come together to elect representatives to advance their interests, where the little guys can find the strength together to fight larger power centers. And it does all that while telling an involving, tragic story of the sacrifices made to create the America of the day.
Performances are uniformly great. Both Stewart and Wayne are honestly too old for their parts, but they play them both extremely well. Stewart has that innocent Eastern befuddled charm that morphs into anger while Wayne is firstly affable and nice and ends drunk and broken completely convincingly. Marvin is wonderfully threatening as Liberty. I also have to say that Edmond O’Brien as Peabody the editor is wonderful in his oratory as he finds his own strength through Ransom’s example, the best moment being when Ransom is so taken with Peabody’s editorial that he decides to use it in class. And it’s wonderful to see John Carradine come in for a small part at the end, being the ranchers’ mouthpiece at the convention.
In a body of work as long, varied, and wonderful as John Ford’s, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is near the top. It’s interesting that it’s so different from his other masterpiece of a western, The Searchers, focusing on small, indoor spaces instead of the wide outdoors of Monument Valley, telling a largely confined story of personal drama matched with wonderful subtext. It truly is, much like The Right Stuff, one of the great American movies.