John Wayne’s mythos has transformed from just a man playing a part, into a representation of America and the American West itself. So it makes sense to end John Wayne week with a film about the self-creation of myths and the blossoming changes of the American West: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) travels back to the town of Shinbone for the funeral of former friend, Tom Doniphan (Wayne). Stoddard’s reputation precedes him, as he’s known as the man who killed notorious outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). But Stoddard is also in Shinbone to set the record straight, and reveal to the town the legend might not be wholly accurate.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The phrase concludes the tale of who shot Liberty Valance, but it also situates Wayne within the American ethos. “John Wayne” as a persona represented individual freedom, the working man who knew right from wrong and defended it with a shotgun. And yet the real Wayne tried to live his life like the characters he played. Even once Wayne was diagnosed with cancer, he questioned how “John Wayne,” the persona would react. Much like Rita Hayworth, the legend of the character overpowered the real person; the hardest person to be was “John Wayne.” So with that, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance shows us the horror of being the real person. Tom Doniphon IS the man who shot Liberty Valance, and yet he’s relegated to the shadows for all eternity. No one wants his story, they want the story of the local lawyer, the big-hearted city boy, who took the man down, the tailor who shot “seven in one blow.”
John Ford’s revisionist Westerns have always sought to undo the American West as we’ve come to know it, whether it was the story of Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine – whom Ford aligns with Doniphon once Stoddard tells the undertaker to put Doniphon in his boots, spurs, and gun belt – or Ransom Stoddard here. When Stoddard and Hallie first enter Shinbone, Hallie hears how the “desert’s still the same.” Not much has changed in the wilds of the desert, and yet the frontier has bloomed like the cactus flowers placed on Tom Doniphon’s coffin. The world of cowboys and Indians, where men dueled at ten paces, is no longer the same. We’ve become “civilized.” Our battles are fought in the courtroom, and that leaves us to question the true meaning of justice. Is it justified to kill a man whose committed well-documented cases of murder and thievery, or let that man’s fate be decided by a group of men?
The Vietnam War plays an unspoken role in this story, as Ford presents us with two schools of thought: pacifism vs. vigilantism (or “Western law” as Liberty Valance calls it). Wayne was a staunch proponent of the war, his work on The Green Berets is evidence, so it makes sense he’d be the one who takes the fatal shot against Liberty Valance. Poor Ransom is a book man, easily out of his depth upon entering Shinbone to the extent he can’t take a punch. He isn’t truly a man, as defined by the film and the genre, so it makes sense his skills are best suited to the government where talk is the law of the land.
Stoddard enters the film brimming with braggadocio. He’s a successful Senator married to the beautiful Hallie (Vera Miles reteaming with Wayne post-Searchers), but his soul is burdened by the secret of his success. Ransom’s profited off Liberty Valance’s death. His accomplishments aren’t earned, but it doesn’t matter to the people of Shinbone. Upon deciding the newspaper won’t print the true series of events, Ford emphasizes how success if mercenary. People, good intentions or not, take success as it comes to them. Stoddard mentions how Tom’s reaction to violence with more violence is “what Liberty Valance was saying,” but the audience perceives Doniphon has it right; killing Liberty Valance is the only way balance can be restored to Shinbone. Doniphon passes the future onto Stoddard, but Stoddard is simply a peacekeeper; he hasn’t created peace itself.
With all this depth and significance, you need actors who make the puzzle pieces fit. John Wayne isn’t the hero of the title, and yet he’s the heart of the film. Wayne’s flirty with Vera Miles, kind to Stoddard, and unwavering next to Marvin. For all his fearlessness, though, he isn’t given as much grist as Stewart. Stewart’s Stoddard lives with his regret and unearned potential which wears on him about as much as the old-age makeup he rocks in the bookends. Lee Marvin is a wild animal as the villainous Liberty Valance. His whipping of characters – for one men are being paddled…to death – is a virulent frenzy of hostility that, coupled with Marvin’s screams, are terrifying. Vera Miles is also good as the kind, Hallie. She’s the girl loved by both Ransom and Tom, but she’s also commanding in the domestic sphere in a way she wasn’t in The Searchers.
In writing this review, my opinion of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance increases. The 1960s were a time of violence, and yet this film says that sometimes brute force is necessary to succeed. It’s well and good to talk things out, but sometimes what’s needed is a shot to the face. For some, this theory sounds excessive and Ford contains these emotions, presenting a cadre of characters with different opinions and perspectives on the subject. The creation of historical narrative also plays well in this feature, downplaying some of the more overt views on violence. Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne are evenly matched, and this couldn’t have been the more perfect movie for me to end my foray into the works of John Wayne with.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.