Director - John Ford
Starring - Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin
In the westerns of the thirties, forties and fifties, there was a clear line of right versus wrong, good guy versus bad. At the beginning of the film, when someone new rides into town, all you have to do is check out the color of his hat, and by paying careful attention, you can fairly reliably ascertain whether they are a hero or a villain. In the films of the late sixties and seventies, the west is filled with anti-heros, outlaws, and characters whose motivations are all colored in shades of gray. A good man and a bad man are harder to tell apart, both through their deeds and their choice of clothing. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is roughly halfway between these two extremes. Our main character may be obviously good, but he has a limit and can be pushed over it.
A sort of companion piece to the earlier Jimmy Stewart film, Destry Rides Again, this film explores the somewhat darker side of being an upstanding citizen. Where in Destry, Stewart played a character who overcame the danger and conflict through sheer force of will, never letting his ideals falter, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sees him as a strong-willed man left with no further options than to turn his back on his idealism and resort to violence. Whether one film was a commentary on the other, or if it was just a sign of changing times is something I can't say for sure, but together, each illustrates the glory and the grime of standing up for what you believe in using what is essentially the same character as a means of illustration.
Liberty's story is a familiar one. Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a well-meaning yet naive lawyer, who while on a stagecoach heading into the small town of Shinbone runs afoul of a local desperado and general bully, Liberty Valance (the one from the title). Valance, played by the deliciously malicious Lee Marvin, beats Stoddard to such a degree that he is in need of treatment by the local nurse/doctor, which forces him into the lives of the local restaurant proprietors (including the love interest of local tough guy and town hero Tom Doniphan played by John Wayne).
As Ransom mends, he searches for a legal means of defeating Valance, educating the town, and unbeknownst to him he works his way into the heart of the restaurant owner's daughter Hallie Stoddard. As this affection becomes more and more plain, Ransom runs the risk of ostracizing his best and only chance of beating Valance at his own game. Without Tom Doniphan standing in between the outlaw and himself, Ransom will be forced to either use violence and maybe live, and or stick by his ideals and likely die.
Well, hopefully the title of the film should explain that someone, at some point, actually does deal with Valance, but the grand question is who, and ultimately the question becomes Does it matter?" The world is a violent place full of trials and challenges. Is rising to face those challenges on those terms a failure of character? Does it diminish the fact that you do what you can to find a better way, or does the need for self-preservation trump such minor concerns? Not to mention if you go against your ideals, resort to violence, then find out that it wasn't even you who ended up solving the problem, what then? Are you still culpable for the choices you made, or do you get a pass?
The film posits that it is all about perspective. Ransom Stoddard, gets teased, taunted, beaten and worn down so low, that he finally picks up a revolver, squares off with Liberty Valance, takes aim, and shoots. Liberty ultimately got what he wanted. The high-minded, goody-two-shoes, was knocked from his high-horse and forced to come down to his level.
Ransom drew, shot, and Liberty ultimately died, but it wasn't Ransom's bullet that did the killing. Tom Doniphan, watching from the darkness, made the shot that killed Liberty Valance and saved Ransom's life. The towns people held Ransom up as a hero, and by saving his life, Tom made sure the woman he loved was happy, but did it negate or tarnish Ransom's sacrifice? I think it did. Ransom took the woman Tom loved, whether he meant to or not, so through his bullet Tom responded by robbing Ransom of both his ideals and the ability to deal with the problem himself, although ultimately it cost him everything.
Tom tells Ransom what he did, freeing and trapping him with his choices at the same time, but it doesn't change what everyone in the town thinks happens. The outcome is still the same. The only ones affected are Stoddard and Doniphan. Their perception of their own actions defines how they see themselves, and ultimately informs their actions on into the future.
That's pretty heady stuff considering that Destry Rides Again was really more of a typical hero cowboy story about men wearing white hats saving damsels in distress from the men in black hats. Wayne's Doniphan and to a different yet just as important degree Stewart's Stoddard are each wearing multifaceted hats made up of constantly shifting shades of gray. Each man is not what you might consider a bad guy, nor are they as undeniably good as compared to the heroes of earlier westerns, but I would argue that this makes them each more compelling characters, capable of a more realistic portrayal, and ultimately more relatable to the audience.
Definitely worth a look, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is leagues better, in my opinion, than another John Wayne film Stagecoach, but not nearly as good as some rather grittier and challenging westerns out there like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Oxbow Incident, and a film not on this list (though it should be), The Proposition. Check it out.