The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
In John Ford’s stark, melancholy swan song for the conventional frontier Western, aged Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) returns to the small town of Shinbone with his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), for the funeral of his friend, Tom Doniphan (John Wayne), where he recounts for reporters his relationship with the man. His arrival in the town years earlier as a newly minted lawyer had been welcomed with a vicious beating by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a flamboyant thug hired by powerful business interests fearful of the lawyer’s intentions to stump for statehood. Doniphan, a rancher and feared gunman, finds Stoddard unconscious, takes him into town, and continues to protect him, particularly after coming to realize that the woman he loves cares more for the lawyer. Despite Doniphan’s warnings that the only law in the region comes at the end of a gun barrel, the stubborn lawyer insists on teaching the illiterate townspeople about the rule of law in a democratic society. When Stoddard is elected as the regional delegate to the territorial convention, Valance baits the politician, a notoriously inept gunman, into a showdown. The film, which plays like a Western version of Freud’s CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS, reflects the aging director’s ambivalence about many of the beliefs that had animated his earlier work. Shot on two soundstages because of a limited budget and Ford’s poor health, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE blends a stripped-down look with an intentionally fractured, ambiguous narrative to stand as a haunting elegy for the fearless gunman, the endless wilderness, and the loss of freedom their vanishing signifies.