The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
(United States, 1962)
You figured that a John Wayne/John Ford movie would have to make the list somewhere, right? Actually, I'm not a big fan of Ford's work, although I recognize that he is an important figure in the history of American cinema. Likewise, while I acknowledge that Wayne is an icon, he has never been one of my favorite screen personalities. Nevertheless, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great motion picture - far more persuasive and thought-provoking than the other highly-regarded Ford/Wayne collaboration, The Searchers. There's nothing subtle about what Ford is doing here. He wants us to question the validity of what we call "history" and to wonder about the true nature of heroism. In today's society, when the media has the power to make or break a reputation, and when heroism is such a fragile commodity, a movie like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has added meaning. It is one of my favorite Westerns.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with the return of Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles, as the generic "love interest"), to the small frontier town of Shinbone. Stoddard is an influential and well-liked political figure, but nowhere is he more revered than in Shinbone, the place where his career started. On this sad day, however, Ransom has returned to pay tribute to an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who has died. Initially, he intends to slip in and out of Shinbone with little fanfare, but, when a newspaper reporter corners him, he decides to reveal the true story about how his life in politics began and why his most famous appellation, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," is unearned. We see events unfold in flashback. Years earlier, Ransom arrives in Shinbone broken, bruised, and bloodied after being robbed and beaten by the notorious outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, dripping malice in a virtuoso performance that put him on the Hollywood map). With the help of various locals, he recovers his health and vows to bring Valance to justice. For Ransom, a book-learned attorney with little knowledge of the real world, "justice" means "jail." But in Shinbone, where the marshal (Andy Devine) is spineless, the path to justice coincides with the trajectory of a bullet. This is a lesson that Tom impresses upon Ransom soon after they meet. Shinbone's Law requires a gun, not a book. Tom is one of the most respected men in Shinbone because of his prowess with his firearm. In time, the two become rivals for Hallie's affections, but each earns the other's grudging respect. And, in the matter of Valance, they are agreed. In the film's pivotal scene, Ransom confronts Liberty in a duel. Inept with a gun, Ransom is badly overmatched. Yet, almost inexplicably, he manages to get off a shot that seemingly strikes with deadly accuracy. He is hailed by everyone as a hero, with one exception: Tom, who watched the encounter from a secluded spot, then used a rifle to bring down Valance before the outlaw could kill Ransom. By timing his own accurate shot to coincide with Ransom's misdirected one, Tom was able to create the illusion that Ransom triumphed. He accepts no glory then or later, and when he dies, only a handful of people know the secret.
A single quote, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," encapsulates the primary theme of John Ford's last great Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Truth is only meaningful as long as it agrees with what the public wants to hear. When heroes don't exist, it is necessary to invent them. A clear-eyed deconstruction would likely reveal that what most of us accept as "history" is a patchwork of real events, exaggerations, and tales so tall that Paul Bunyan would likely blink in amazement. In part because it does not conform to the mold of what is considered "typical" for a Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has an appeal that extends beyond the genre. This is a smart, thoughtful motion picture that uses an engrossing, character-driven story to emphasize an insightful theme. Along with The Searchers, it represents John Ford at his most accomplished. And it is one of the best Westerns Hollywood has ever produced.
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