Fact vs. Legend in the Old West
In my two previous posts on the great American films of the year 1962, I discussed a historical epic, Lawrence of Arabia, and two brilliant adaptations of stage plays, Long Day's Journey into Night and The Miracle Worker. The fourth American masterpiece released in 1962 was a Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Directed by the undisputed master of the genre, John Ford, the movie was at the time dismissed by most critics as a throwback, a relic of an outdated genre. Since then the reevaluation of the films of Ford and his recognition as one of the major American auteurs have led to the reevaluation of this movie. It is now rightly regarded as his last great work, and of the same caliber as his greatest Westerns: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), and The Searchers (1956).
The film begins with the arrival by train in the small Western town of Shinbone of a distinguished U.S. Senator, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), who have returned to Shinbone for the funeral of an old friend—and onetime rival of Stoddard for Hallie—Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Stoddard is known as the man who first gained fame for killing the notorious gunman Liberty Valance in a gunfight in Shinbone, an event that launched his political career. When newspaper reporters pressure Stoddard into giving an interview, he agrees in order to set the record straight about his own history and his friendship with Doniphon. Most of the rest of the movie consists of a flashback that begins with Stoddard's arrival in the town decades earlier as a recent graduate of law school.
It is on the stagecoach ride into Shinbone that Stoddard has his first encounter with Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) when Valance and his cronies rob the stagecoach. Valance, a vicious sadist, not only robs the passengers but also humiliates Stoddard and vandalizes his most prized possession, his set of law books. With this irruption of violence and cruelty into the orderly world of Stoddard, the thematic concern of the movie is immediately established (and will be elaborated on in many variations for the duration of the film): the conflict between might, represented at this point by Valance, and right, represented by Stoddard, the enduring conflict between anarchy and the rule of law.
In the restaurant/saloon in Shinbone, Stoddard first meets his future wife, Hallie, who works in the kitchen, and Tom Doniphon, who comes there to visit her. When he hears of the encounter with Valance, Doniphon offers Stoddard a pistol and tells him, "Out here, a man settles his own problems." Stoddard refuses the gun. Amused by the naiveté of Stoddard and his idealistic belief in the power of the law, Doniphon nicknames him—half-affectionately, half-condescendingly—Pilgrim. Is he alluding to the self-righteous innocence of Christian Pilgrim in The Pilgrim's Progress, or perhaps to the Pilgrims of New England, who came to settle a new continent and encountered more difficulties than they had ever imagined?
Embarking on a campaign to civilize and bring democracy to the Old West, Stoddard quickly gains many followers. He founds a free school in the town to teach literacy to both children and adults. He organizes a town meeting to discuss the territorial convention to petition Congress for statehood. He befriends the local newspaper editor, the alcoholic Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien), and persuades him to write articles and editorials in support of statehood.
But Liberty Valance is hired by the big cattle ranchers, who feel threatened by the regulation that statehood would bring to their industry and by the Constitutional rights that the people of the territory would gain. The school is destroyed, the newspaper editor Peabody savagely beaten after he writes in support of statehood, and the town meeting disrupted. The cattle barons and their hired gun, Liberty Valance, have set themselves in opposition to the most hallowed institutions of democracy: the rights to universal education, free speech, a free press, and free elections.
This is all too much even for a pacifist like Stoddard, who declares, "When force threatens, talk's no good any more," arms himself, and goes looking for Valance. It is this decision that leads to the nighttime showdown between the two men in the streets of Shinbone. It seems certain that Stoddard, no match for a practiced gunman like Valance, will be killed, but he miraculously manages to shoot Valance dead. In the rowdy town meeting that follows, Stoddard, treated like a hero, is elected to be the town's representative at the territorial convention.
At the convention Stoddard, whose reputation as the man who shot Liberty Valance has preceded him, is nominated to present the convention's petition for statehood to Congress. However, appalled at being lionized for committing an act of violence, an act that in retrospect he feels went against his conscience, he declines the nomination and walks out of the convention. Outside, he finds himself face to face with Doniphon, who has followed him, and who drops a bombshell: It was he, hiding in the shadows, who actually shot Liberty Valance, and we are shown the true version of events in flashback from Doniphon's point of view, Rashomon-style. Stoddard is at first stunned and then, relieved at last of the guilt he felt over killing Valance and becoming a celebrity for committing an act that violated his personal ethics, he returns to the convention and accepts the nomination.
As the film returns to the present, Stoddard has finally told the truth to the newspapermen and acknowledged that it was actually Doniphon who was the hero. He is unprepared for their reaction. They refuse to print the story, preferring to preserve the false version of history that has become accepted as the truth. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," they tell Stoddard, a line that itself has become almost legendary.
The truth behind the legend
One of the reasons this movie was dismissed when it was released is that much of the black-and-white picture was shot in the studio and very little on location. Because of this it lacks the pictorial grandeur of Ford's other Westerns shot in the Monument Valley and Moab, Utah, an essential element of those movies and one of the things that give them their distinctive character. But to make up for its lack of spectacular scenery, Liberty Valance has a far greater emphasis on theme than any of Ford's other Westerns. In his last great movie, Ford chose to explore larger issues than the character-centered conflicts of his earlier Westerns, specifically the question of the proper role of force in a democratic society. One critic, Richard Brody, writing about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in a recent issue of the New Yorker (Oct. 26, 2009), went so far as to call it "the greatest American political movie."
Doniphon's revelation at the territorial convention causes Stoddard to modify his position on the use of force. Stoddard learns that where force is concerned, things are not as simple as he thought. He learns that force is in itself neither right nor wrong, but that it is the application to which force is put that makes it right or wrong. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Ford suggests that force is necessary to create and maintain order, that force and the rule of law must work together to defeat anarchy and deflect destructive violence. Without force, the rule of law is powerless, but the controlled use of force and the rule of law working together can create an environment in which democratic institutions are able to flourish and civic stability is assured.
And Ford the storyteller seems to argue that the element of meaning created by mythology is just as important in forging a sense of community and civic identity as the facts of history. No matter how an individual viewer reacts to Ford's views—if indeed this is Ford's view, for equating the ideas of Ford with the ideas expressed by the characters in his movies can be a risky thing for a viewer to do—he makes a reasonable case that at the least must be given serious consideration. And as Peter Bogdanovich, perhaps the greatest Ford scholar and interpreter, points out, in Liberty Valance Ford does expose the facts behind the mythology, and one could argue that the idea that the facts don't always correspond to the myth is actually another important theme of the film.
In casting John Wayne and James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford achieved a real coup. The familiar screen persona of each makes him the ideal embodiment of the attitude his character represents. As the embodiment of force, the ultra-masculine Wayne is the ideal Tom Doniphon, a realist, a stolid loner who lives outside society but uses his strength to protect its most cherished values. As Doniphon's opposite, the embodiment of the rule of law, Stewart (the man who played Destry, the sheriff who refused to carry a gun) is the perfect Ransom Stoddard, an idealist who longs to establish and become part of a community based on order and democratic values.
Each man represents one of the elements essential to the maintenance of a civilized community: the power of reason sustained by the power of physical strength. And perhaps most important, by the end of the movie each man comes to see the philosophy of the other as complementary to his own and to incorporate in his own philosophy elements of the philosophy of his opposite.
In the next installment of this series, I'll be examining the final American masterpiece of 1962.