Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, Dorothy M. Johnson
Starring: John Wayne, James Stewart
Black & White, 123 minutes
The changing of the guard, the measure of a man, and the need for a hero are all themes running deep through John Ford's classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Tighter and more elegantly confined than most of Ford's westerns, Liberty Valance is the only team-up of two of the cinema's biggest stars. Wayne, the larger than life movie star, and Stewart, the "aw shucks" good old boy who had more range than any of his contemporaries, size each other up in one of Ford's best films, and one of the finest westerns ever made.
In the late 1800's an aging Senator by the name of Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) has just returned to the town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (Wayne). Everybody in Shinbone has heard of Stoddard, but none remember the recently departed Doniphon. Borrowing flashback elements from Citizen Kane, Ford has Stoddard tell the story of his friend to a local newspaper reporter, and over the course of two hours we are slowly sucked into a tale of two very different men who have enough common interests to coexist.
Stoddard is a young law school graduate with dreams of changing the world. He is traveling by stagecoach to the town of Shinbone when he is violently attacked by a gang of men led by the ruthless hellraiser Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, making sure to leave an impression). Somehow managing to make it into town, Stoddard is cared for by Hallie (Vera Miles), a woman who runs a local restaurant. While recuperating, Stoddard earns his keep as a dishwasher for Hallie. It is here that he meets Doniphon, a cowboy/gunslinger who laughs at the notion of law and order, preferring to let his six shooter do the talking. Of course Stoddard, the bleeding heart, and Doniphon, the old school hardass, are going to butt heads, but they both share a love for Hallie, and a disdain for Valance.
Stoddard eventually begins to find his place, and he starts a small school to teach the townsfolk not only the three R's, but History as well. He begins to instill a sort of civil pride in the citizens of Shinbone, and when delegates are chosen to lobby for statehood, Stoddard is nominated with due praise, much to the chagrin of Valance, who challenges Stoddard to a duel. Although afraid and inexperienced with a gun, Stoddard accepts the challenge and ultimately kills Valance. Or does he? If you don't know, I certainly won't spoil it for you, and don' let anyone else either. Just know that the answer leads the film to one of the most bittersweet and satisfying conclusions to ever come out of Hollywood.
The most amazing thing about this film is that it hasn't become dated in the least. It actually works almost in spite of itself. Every review I have ever read on this movie has given away all the major plot points, yet I was still enveloped in the story. In the first five minutes, we know that Stoddard has went on to a lucrative political career, while Doniphon has died, alone and forgotten. We know that Stoddard gets the girl, and we know from the title that Valance gets what's coming to him, but we are so completely caught up in a tale that on the surface seems incredibly simple.
Why? For one, Wayne was never better than his performance here, not even in The Searchers, and Stewart, who is always great, stands his ground and provides a very interesting contrast to Wayne's roughness. Stewart's character is meant to be the more effeminate of the two, and he even wears an apron through much of the picture, including the shootout with Valance, to prove it. The extremely stark cinematography by William H. Clothier gives the film a harsh, almost noirish atmosphere, and Ford, as always, makes great use of his typical stock company of actors, especially Woody Strode. I think it works, however, because of the contrast between two very different men, one devoted to change, one adamantly against it. Unlike most westerns, Liberty Valance tells us that the west wasn't won with violence, but with a change of ideals, and an acceptance of basic human rights. The gunfighters gave way to the politicians, and democracy began to flourish. Now, I don't know if Ford actually believed this way, but this is basically what we were taught in all of our history textbooks, reinforcing the classic line from this particular film, "When legend becomes fact, print the legend."