Take 45: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
I’ve got to admit that when I saw John Ford’s name and the title The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and that the film was released in 1962, I was preparing to dream up yet another perspective on a classic American Western. Seeing John Wayne’s billing on the picture confirmed my suspicions — until I was surprised to see his co-star was James Stewart. The same Jimmy Stewart who leads at least two other films on this list including It’s a Wonderful Life and Vertigo. These two stars would easily be on the Mt. Rushmore of mid century cinematic actors, and each of them would present a compelling argument for top ten American actors of all time. Seeing them together, as the poster proudly pronounces “together for the very first time” must have enthralled audiences.
These two men occupy very different stock characters that are close to the hearts of many Americans: one is an urban do-gooder idealist, defender of the little guy, silver tongued and possessing heroic, post war, bravery. The other is a grizzled cowboy who bucked expectations and privileged individualism over all other moralistic motivations. Seeing these two titans collide is exciting even half a century later. I’m trying to think of a modern example of this type of pairing — maybe Leonardo and Brad Pitt in Once Upon Time in Hollywood? Yet, that feels exciting because they’re similar, not opposing. Maybe Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson collaborations in comedy? Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito?
I digress. What happens when these polemic stars interact in the early days of the American West is an unexpected balance of theme and plot. This is more of a political drama than it is a traditional Western and the dynamic between Stewart as Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard and Wayne as Tom Doniphon is the heart of that machine. In one corner there is the representative of a boot strap American who encourages Ranse to “take justice into his own hands” and learn to carry a gun. But Ranse believes in the rule of law to enact justice and forsakes the need to kill a man to get his vengeance.
This is a clash of ideals, and one that feels eerily familiar to those of us who live within the current vortex of divisiveness over the soul of our country. Wayne, as he often does, represents an unbending stalwart force — who eventually adjusts ever so slightly to enlightenment and systemic protection of the vulnerable. This is most apparent when we remember that Doniphon eventually stopped carrying a gun belt, because he wasn’t afraid — a truly dramatic shift in philosophy.
The structure of the film reminded me of the full anthology of The Wire in some ways. It’s an illustration of how pillars of government work in tandem to either protect or exploit citizens. Of course the shape of these pillars are refracted through the lens of time. Regardless of where the individuals fall on a time space continuum, a gang does not categorically suggest it should be seen as evil or good — a gang can be the victims’ only source of defense against evil in the form of tyranny. Or, in the case of Liberty Valance’s gang, they can represent the oppressors who terrorize and exploit most effectively when the other pillars of society — the police, the press, the government — won’t or can’t intervene.
When Jimmy arrives in Shinbone he starts correcting the imbalance of power by insisting on education and law, and by exposing the power of collective action to a group of mostly disenfranchised immigrants and women who cannot read. It’s notable that Doniphon is not the town marshall — that role is embodied by a feckless drunk whose top priority is dodging Valance, and he is entirely too afraid to enact justice even when the law is on his side. The local newspaper editor, Dutton Peabody, on the other hand, does not lack bravery and insists on printing the truth about Valance ahead of the election. He is categorically killed by the gang, and avenged by a reluctant Ranse who dubiously earns the name “the man who shot Liberty Valance”.
A quick tangent to reflect on this particular name for a villain, Liberty Valance. It’s poetic to be sure, and so is his silver toed whip which he uses to openly subjugate the townsfolk to his will. I don’t think Ford was intending to be anti-racist with these character details but the symbolism of “Liberty” and the fence he’s built between individuals and their humanities, but this is the effect his vileness takes. His is a sword that cuts both ways - in some ways he stands for the independence of a free territory separated from the restrictive laws of most of the US. In others, he embodies our worst national sins. He is a man who limits the freedom and power of individuals who believe in free will. Regardless of personal feelings, the rising sentiment in Shinbone is that he must be dealt with and his murder of Peabody is the representative tipping point.
The power of the gun vs. power of the law in preserving an individual’s autonomy is the key question of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s also a recurrent issue in our present political landscape. Doniphon and Ranse viewed justice through mirrored perspectives. When Senator Ranse returns from Washington for an unknown man’s funeral and tells his story, waxing poetic about the Shinbone before the railroad, his reputation and the respect those hold for him is palpable. So then what does the twist signify? (Big spoiler ahead!!) The twist in which we learn it was Doniphon who shot Liberty, not Ranse.
The question and answer to which weapon (the gun, the gavel, or the pen) wields the most influence is cast into a new light.
It’s easy to think that because it was Doniphon who pulled the trigger, the gun must be our steel savior. But I think what Ford wants us to walk away realizing is that hearts and minds will outpace brute force every time. That is possibly an overoptimistic reading of the story — but the Aaron Sorkin / David Simon realist in me believes that the goal of this film is to show how free education, free press, and just law serve as the levers we get to adjust as a society. The great responsibility to uphold our ideals, regardless of the missteps of our past, is the greatest service we can provide to the next phase of leaders. When we, like Ranse, look back at our lives, we will be lucky to see the fruits of that labor in action.