The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at 60: the great American western
John Ford’s 1962 masterwork remains a surprisingly downbeat film about the west with never-better performances from James Stewart and John Wayne
“This is the west sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The famous line uttered by a newspaperman in John Ford’s masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance symbolizes the mythological west that he and his most famous collaborator, John Wayne popularized. At 60 years old, it is the greatest western of Hollywood’s Golden Age, even usurping Ford’s own The Searchers that has always clambered its way near the top of greatest film lists.
The story focuses on Ransome Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), an American senator arriving at the town of Shinbone with his wife, Hailey (Vera Miles), to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (Wayne). Through flashback, Stoddard tells his story to the press of first coming to the town as a young law graduate. The townsfolk are terrorised by gang leader Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin in a career-best role). Valance works for the local cattle barons, who are fighting the territory’s right to statehood. Doniphon is the only one who can stand up to Valance, but Stoddard believes that legal justice can prevail against him. In between that, there is a love triangle between Stoddard, Hailey and Doniphon. And then there is the question: who was the man who would eventually shoot Liberty Valance?
Ford’s vision of the west has become synonymous with how audiences perceive it. It’s almost impossible not to think of the American frontier without John Wayne framed against Monument Valley’s harsh terrain. Scorsese called the director the “essence of classic American cinema”. Orson Welles watched Ford’s Stagecoach 40 times to understand how to direct his first movie (that film being Citizen Kane). But much of Ford’s influence has been lost on contemporary moviegoers. Though he created the romantic notion of the west, aspects of his work have come under scrutiny. In particular, his depiction of Native Americans as often faceless cannon fodder for Wayne’s rifle. Even The Searchers has been endlessly debated by critics whether the director endorsed or condemned the protagonist’s racist actions.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is not a film about American heroes but about the country itself. Ford brilliantly captures this through the personas of its two leading actors that were cultivated over the preceding decades. He’s self-critical of both his own legacy as a film-maker and the country that he helped mythologize. If The Great Gatsby is the great American novel, then this is the great American film.
Since the 1930s, Stewart always represented the good-natured raconteur who stood up against corporations and bullies. He was not an intimidating figure but always prevailed against injustice and rarely relied on violence as his key method to victory. “No one fights my battles,” Stoddard exclaims angrily to Doniphon. He never wants to use violence as the method to take down Valance (“I don’t want to kill him; I want to put him in jail”). Even when he played darker roles like in Vertigo, Stewart was always intensely likable. However, Ford is critical about whether such a law-abiding citizen can really succeed in America. By the end, Stoddard still detests violence, but to achieve liberty, he must shoot Liberty. In America, violence will always take precedence over language. “What’s reading and writing ever done you,” Hailey exclaims to Stoddard.
Conversely, Wayne’s persona consisted of action, often involving the draw of a pistol to solve his problems. Though he spoke with a long drawl, his words were as violent as the bullets he fired. Ultimately, America is a country built on violence, and thus to preserve its ideology, a bullet will always change more than words. But violence comes at a cost. And Doniphon, who once favoured brute ferocity is condemned to the consequences of using it.
Melancholic and downbeat, there is nothing glamorised about the west here. Ford’s breakthrough western Stagecoach showcased the chaotically brutal but equally adventurous side of the west. In Liberty Valance, the older Stoddard sees the stagecoach that first brought him to Shinbone, now reduced to a dusty, broken-down relic of the past. Like Stoddard, Ford’s own Stagecoach brought him to the forefront as America’s premier film-maker. With the New Hollywood movement a few years away, it is as if Ford foresees himself as an obsolete artefact.
Despite the polarizing racial politics of his filmography, one of the most poignant moments features Stewart teaching the illiterate townsfolk how to read and write. Wayne’s African American sidekick, Pompey (Woody Strode), is asked to recite the American constitution from memory but forgets the sentence that “all men are created equal”. Stewart replies: “That’s quite all right Pompey, a lot of people forget that part of it.” Sixty years on, people still seem to forget that part.
As always, Ford brings his signature visual poetry to every frame. Doniphon is often framed in shadow to reflect his own personal, violent philosophy creeping into Stoddard’s psyche. And a shot of a cactus rose placed on a coffin is the greatest representation of unfulfilled love in film history.
It’s a movie not driven by heroism but by regret at the choices and lies that were made in making America’s foundation. Wayne’s last scene is not a triumphant, gallant ride into the sunset, but bitterness and sadness at losing the woman he loved to Stewart. American masculinity never looked more defeated. And Stoddard is no Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Though he has brought statehood to Shinbone, he has done it through a method that goes against his personal convictions (“Isn’t it enough to kill a man without trying to build a life on it?”).
Though not Ford’s last western, it serves as his own eulogy to the genre he helped shape. Wayne’s own legacy as an icon of radical conservative politics meant the director’s work was frequently interpreted as being intertwined with them. By burying his famous leading man, Ford has put an end to the mythic John Wayne character that was introduced in Stagecoach. After 50 years of making westerns, maybe he felt the legend was no longer worth printing.