The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. John Ford
viewed: 06/16/03

Another journey to the realm of the classic Western for me, yet another John Ford film that I had not before seen. With John Wayne, no less!

I, like many people I would guess, have a somewhat prejudiced impression of John Wayne, the macho, drawling image of stereotypical American maleness, tough guy who solves problems by shooting people. Interestingly, this film seems to comment on that very stereotype considerably. And I have to say that the only other John Wayne film with which I am familiar, the brilliant John Ford film, The Searchers (1956), also seems to play Wayne against the types and ideals that from the outside seem to be what he represents.

As the film opens, Jimmy Stewart, a U.S. senator, arrives at the town of Shinbone (love that name) on the train, returning to the now civilized almost modern Western community, which boasts churches and schools and even looks very 1950’s. The bulk of film is told in flashback, as Stewart recounts the tale of how the town was settled, how law and order took over and ousted the wild criminal element embodied by Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin, who is totally excellent). It’s an interesting perspective for this film and filmmaker, in the latter days of the studio system and the a late classic-era Western from the greatest of the genre’s directors, looking back at the latter days of the “Old West”.

Wayne represents the classic Western hero, whose tough guy confidence, street-wise smarts, and ability to sling a gun prove to be just the skills that make a man a man in the order of things. Stewart is a lawyer and a pacifist who wants to tame the West with law and justice and shuns the fighting and killing that he perceives makes Wayne’s character just as bad as the villan. Though the story is told from Stewart’s perspective, and presumably the audience is meant to side largely with him, the tension between the two ideologies drives the narrative. In the end, Stewart gets the girl (the usual determinate of who wins in these types of stories), but by compromising his ideals. And ultimately, I am not sure exactly what Ford was saying here, but perhaps it’s that the West needed and authority of violence to instill arepresentative authority of law?

I don’t know exactly, but it’s a very good film, with a well-developed narrative and excellent performances by some truly classic Hollywood stars. If you haven’t seen it, you should add it to your list.

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