Director: John Ford
Writer: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck
DP: William H. Clothier
Editor: Otho Lovering
Score: Cyril J. Mockridge, Alfred Newman
Producer: John Ford, Willis Goldbeck
Starring: James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Vera Miles, Andy Devine
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
Length: 2 hrs. 3. min.
In 1939, John Ford directed the film Stagecoach, which became one of the codifying texts of the Western genre. In Stagecoach, a group of marginalized people and outcasts set out for the frontier, hoping to find a community that will allow them to build better lives for themselves. Ford interpreted American history, in which people claimed and developed the frontier on their own, as an exercise of freedom that gave people the opportunity to overcome the flaws they perceived in the societies they came from.
If Stagecoach takes place during the advent of life on the frontier, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance takes place when the rest of America is catching up to the frontier, just before the western territories gained statehood. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford builds on the mythology he helped to establish, but at the same time, asks us to distrust it; the film asks us to consider that mythology is propagated by those who are best served by it, and that it can be interpreted in many different ways.
The film takes place in a small western town called Shinbone. It begins with the funeral of a rancher named Tom Doniphon. U.S. Senator Ransom Stoddard, played by James Stewart, has come to mourn him. When he arrives at the funeral, one of the first things Ransom notices is that Tom isn't wearing his boots or gun belt in his coffin. He demands that the undertaker bring them, but is told that Tom didn't wear a gun belt in his later years. A reporter comes by and asks about Ransom's relationship with Tom; most of the film takes place in flashback as Ransom tells the story about how he and Tom knew each other.
Ransom first came to Shinbone 25 years before Tom's death, before the western territories gained statehood. As a young lawyer, Ransom headed out west to set up a law office, but his stagecoach was robbed by a group led by a bandit named Liberty Valance. Valance scoffed at the idea of someone trying to practice law in the west and decided to teach Ransom "western law" by whipping him and leaving him for dead. The people of Shinbone took Ransom in and nursed him back to health. He decides to stay in Shinbone, where he meets Tom Doniphon, the only man in town tougher than Liberty Valance.
Like Valance, Tom initially laughs at Ransom's desire to bring law and order to the west. He tells Ransom that unless he takes up the gun, Liberty Valance will either run him out of town or kill him. But Ransom refuses, and decides instead to fight for statehood, starting a school for the townspeople and calling on them to vote. Soon Ransom finds that Liberty Valance has been hired by the cattle interests, who oppose statehood, to threaten supporters of statehood into submission.
From the title of the film, and from real-life American history, we know what happens: Liberty Valance is shot, and the western territories gain statehood. We know that Ransom Stoddard comes out on top, as well as the rule of law and order for which he stands. But this film is not just about Ransom Stoddard; it's about Tom Doniphon, the man no one remembers, and what his contribution was to the process of bringing statehood to the frontier.
Tom is played by John Wayne, an icon of American westerns. As such, he embodies the archetypal western hero; he's tough, aggressive, quick on the draw, and he stands up to the elements. At the same time he's moral, and even though he laughs at the naiveté of those who don't understand the west as well as he does, he looks out for their safety. He's a practical man, but expresses sympathy for impractical people when they show moral worth.
Tom doesn't change his ways over the course of the film. He changes his allegiances - he eventually supports Ransom's efforts to bring statehood to the frontier - but he retains his cautiousness and capacity for violence. This is important because it demonstrates that the rule of law cannot simply be imposed; the people must accept it and willingly make room for it in their society. When Tom stands up to Liberty Valance, he's fighting a battle that Ransom cannot, using the rule of violence to carve out a space for the rule of law. Tom is a hero not just because he protects people from Liberty Valance, but because he's willing to step aside after.
It's also important that the town of Shinbone isn't just subsumed into the law of the United States. It's exemplary of the kind of freedom illustrated in Ford's Stagecoach, where people unite against the elements of the frontier and are therefore form a new community free of whatever lack of unity there was in the old one. It's far from perfectly tolerant, but we can see it in the friendly relationship the Marshall and newspaper editor have with Mexican immigrants, in how a Swedish family runs the town's most popular restaurant, and how Tom stops a barkeeper from turning away Pompey, a black man who works for him, even though archaic laws say otherwise.
John Ford was a political pragmatist, as can be seen in other films of his such as My Darling Clementine, and especially How Green Was My Valley. These films endorse certain ideologies at times, but never adhere to them strictly. Ford shifted the politics of his films to allow his characters fulfilling relationships in whatever situation. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford shows an understanding of why the rule of violence in the west was important; it came with the relative anarchy of the frontier, and that anarchy was essential to the freedom sought by those living on the frontier. But when the rule of violence hits its limit, Ford has it willingly step aside to make way for the rule of law.
And although this film comes down strongly in favor of the rule of law, professing many of the things that make it valuable, it doesn't necessarily insist upon it. A narrative film tells a story, and this film encourages us not to take stories completely at face value; at one point in the film, a newspaper editor, commenting on the nature of news in the west, says: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It tells a story in which the characters' emotional well-being is best served by the dominance of a political ideology, but it wants us to understand that the former is more important than the latter. Ransom Stoddard is not the hero the people need because he holds a political ideology (he in fact compromises it late in the film), but because of the kind of person he is that draws him to that ideology; he's naturally giving, helpful, good at reading people, and the thought of killing someone weighs heavily on his conscience.
It's a film that makes an argument as an appeal to emotion, and it undercuts that appeal to emphasize how much more sway it holds than the content of the argument itself. Ford is pragmatic with the mythology he himself constructed. He shows us how this pragmatism is necessary but only dominant when the rule of violence can be curbed, and consequently also shows us the importance of memory; he acknowledges the unsung hero who deliberately stepped aside to make way for a better future. Tom Doniphon took on one of the most difficult roles a person can: He recognized the importance of pragmatism as a way of yielding to people's cognitive needs, and so he let go of his own to end the conflict between others'.
(Spoilers in the video below)