The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: How the West Found Law

Since the United States of America has always been a democracy, it may be easy to forget that not all parts of the country have been free, and I’m not even talking about slavery. As new territories on the North American continent were seized by U.S. authorities, law and order were not always prioritized in those rather primitive areas. The Old West would eventually succumb to civilization.

This classic John Ford adventure, his last great film, tells the story of how a young, naive attorney became the first person to introduce the concept of real law and order to folks who had gotten used to being afraid of the local thug.

The film begins with the venerable Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife returning to the town of Shinbone where he began his political career several decades before. A friend of theirs, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), has passed away and they are there to pay respects. A newspaperman confronts the Senator and asks him about the real story behind his visit. After some hesitation, Senator Stoddard decides to tell him. His story begins with his first arrival in Shinbone as a young attorney with a law degree from back East. The first thing that happens to young Ranse is that he’s mugged and beaten by a man called Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He’s taken care of by a local couple and Tom Doniphon, a rancher. They explain to Ranse that Valance cannot be punished according to some East Coast law; the only way to get him is to get a gun and acquire the skill needed to kill him in a duel. No one has done that so far and Tom doesn’t really care as long as Valance stays out of his way (which he makes sure to do). Ranse is shocked at the state of things in Shinbone, but starts a new career teaching both children and adults how to read.

As a major convention draws nearer, where the question of whether the territory should be a state or not is to be decided, Ranse becomes an important figure in the process of electing delegates to the convention, something that once again puts him at odds with Liberty Valance. He also manages to come between Tom and his beloved Hallie (Vera Miles).

Sign of cost restrictions
It’s not really a typical Ford western. Don’t expect any impressive Monument Valley sequences; the fact that the movie was shot in black-and-white has been labeled a sign of the cost restrictions. This is more like a grand political drama, a depiction of what it must have been like for those who first tried to tame the Old West. It is also a story about the freedom of the press, how easy it was for powerful criminals to quash anyone who dared write something negative about them. There is also a romance, which might seem superficial and uninteresting at first, but it serves to bring depth to the character of Tom Doniphon and complicates events near the end.

Stewart and Wayne are of course too old for their characters (Stewart, 54, plays a kid just out of law school), but there’s a reason why they were huge stars; they are absolutely perfect for their parts (men they have essentially played before at a younger age), and this is also the first time Wayne gets to call someone “pilgrim”, which became part of his screen persona. Marvin is also terrific as the thoroughly reprehensible Liberty Valance, whose first name is about as ironic as they come.

The first fledgling attempts at justice, democracy and freedom of speech in a much-idealized period are portrayed with a great sense of humor and tension… although some viewers might find the newspaperman’s decision to bury this great story in the end a tad unbelievable.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 1962-U.S. 123 min. B/W. Produced by Willis Goldbeck, John Ford. Directed by John Ford. Screenplay: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck. Story: Dorothy M. Johnson. Cast: James Stewart (Ransom Stoddard), John Wayne (Tom Doniphon), Vera Miles (Hallie), Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance), Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine… Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef, John Carradine.

Trivia: Hal David and Burt Bacharach wrote a song called “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, which became a hit, but wasn’t featured in the film.

Last word: “Sometimes [Ford] would holler, ‘Duke!,’ and whatever John Wayne was doing, I don’t care if his pants were down around his ankles, he’d stop and come running. I told the other actors, ‘You see Duke running? He’s a millionaire. He doesn’t have to do that. But that old man made him a millionaire. That’s respect.'” (Actor Woody Strode, TCM)

 

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