The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Revisited


The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)I thought I understood The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) on my first encounter a few years back. I didn’t give my best review so obviously my understanding wasn’t that informed. You could say John Ford has given us an early revisionist western before we knew what we were getting. Shaking up the genre whilst still very much in the classic form of a stranger coming into town. The first time we see two of the screen most popular actors sharing the screen, James Stewart and John Wayne who equally have made an impact on the genre.

The tale of the shooting of bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) begins in retrospect with the death of Tom Doniphon who ready to be buried. A poorly aged Stewart (Ransom Stoddard) arrives back to the town of Shinbone a senator. Why could he possibly want to be in this town, to pay his last respects to an old man? This is all before the tale is told before the local paper newspaper, eager to know why he and his wife Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles). The connection becomes clearers as we leave the turn of the century town for a territorial frontier town on the cusp of great things or collapse.

Beginning with the classic hold up on a dark night, masked gun men bring a stagecoach to a stop to rob all of their money. Not counting on the young(er) and eager lawyer (Stewart) packing only the law in the form of books. Using on words as his weapon of choice in a land ruled by the draw of a gun. Laughed at, beaten he is left for dead by Valances men. This is however just he beginning of the legend.

Eventually brought into town by Tom Doniphon the man we have all been waiting for, the anticipation after seeing Wayne’s name in the opening titles has been held back until nearly the first half hour, building up his part after his demise. The legend that is the Duke is larger than life in now iconic dress even in black and white the colour transfer image of his role takes nothing away from the black and white masterpiece of the western genre, instead lifting him to a higher status. His first beaming smile, his presence is known, we are at ease when he is on-screen. The image is engrained on the genre and the legend. Not forgetting the numerous times he says “pilgrim” aimed at the gunless Stoddard meant he was a newcomer to the western, whilst also on a pilgrim of religious reasons, his religion being the law which he wanted to bring out with him. Which develops into both a term of affection towards the stranger and minor insult which only seems to make little difference to the stubborn lawyer.

It’s not just about bringing the dangerously wild cowboy Valance to justice, something that that town Marshall Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is not too interested in doing, instead happier to stuff his face, having the easy life which comes with his position. The political landscape of their region is in a state of change. The unnamed territory could easily fall into the hands of the cattlemen who built it up, or into a state which would allow them to be looked after as a community. The beginning of a proper infrastructure, paid for by taxes that go to the government. Stoddard is a force for change and he doesn’t even know it. With the growing support of Shinbone through education which opens their minds to the possibilities beyond simple gun-play.

With the help of local newspaper-man Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) he builds a position of power and influence that eventually brings him back to Valance and the influence of fear and guns in the town. The showdown must take place in order for a few things to happen. For progress to move forward, for Stoddard to have some self respect and defend himself and make the town safe. This is the moment we have been waiting for, all the build-up and practice is what we sat down for. Its a long drawn out beginning which become a triumph of good over bad as Valance is finally slain down. The legend is born in those few minutes that s last longer than the length of the film. Itself is a construction of all involved, the actors, lighting, special effects and the director, it happened countess times before too and even after. 

It’s a short gun battle just a few shots, nothing like as many as those fired in Tombstone, Arizona which actually took place at the OK Corral in 1881. Because it was caught on camera, its adds another dimension, built up by the characters who believe they know what happened, a new man is born after that day. Ready for office even on the foundations of a killing, lawful or not. Not politician today would be brought to office with a criminal record as colourful as his.

Going into full political mode its time to get Shinbone’s territory represented democratically and full Fordian style. Making full use of his stock company of actors he has built up over the years we have a raucous time inside that meeting, characters showing their true colours. It’s rich in people, sound and events. All before the truth of that gunfight is revealed to Stoddard, built on the foundation of a lie, a sacrifice of one mans feelings for another’s. To settle a score that could have gone on for years to come between to equal skilled gunmen. A great man who could have had more gives it all up for the pilgrim who has taken all he’ll ever have.

The legend is sealed between the two of them. only to be revealed to a journalist who in the end doesn’t want to publish that story, which is what it will remain to all of, yet in the west it is a prime example of an event becoming screwed and taking on a life on it’s on. A grand delusion part of a countries image that fought to contain itself and prove to the world that the young nation could set an example, making hard decisions. It’s another myth of conquest, not over a native nation, but good over evil to progress and not regress to never moving forward. Why spoil something that a country has taken into their hearts, becoming part of the fabric. If the truth should be known, don’t share too loudly. Ford is rewriting the western genre as we knew it a creator of myths that could so easily be built up and smashed back down, are they lies, points of view and conjecture, its all of them and the passage of time growing into being part of history, something which Stoddard never escapes from.

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  1. Pingback: Professor Neil Campbell (Discussion 22/3/12) | Tim Neath - Visual Artist

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