Into the lawless west came Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), fresh from law school, and armed only with law books. His stagecoach however was assailed by masked bandits and he left for dead. His money may have be stolen but fortune was on his side as Tom Donophin (John Wayne) found him and brought him to the small town of Shinbone. So begins the flashback that forms the main narrative of John Ford‘s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, 123 mins).
The flashback is triggered by Stoddard, now a senator, returning with wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to attend the funeral of his good samaritan. Asked by the local paper to tell his story — a famous politician seeing off a practical unknown is quite the scoop — he agrees, citing characters from his past as justification. His story is the stuff of legend, centring as it does on his continued encounters with the belligerent Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the widely feared leader of the aforementioned bandits.
The film is not a simple story of law versus lawless, but is in fact a look at the changing condition of the west, as its wildness is tamed. Donophin and Valance, both cut from the same cloth, represent the old west, where justice and pistols are one and the same; while Stoddard with his books is seen as ushering in a new learned era. He teaches the illiterate of Shinbone to read and write and preaches democracy, all to a classroom comprising women, blacks, and immigrants. It’s classic civil rights stuff and given its shooting in the early 1960s, seems entirely relevant and its contemporary impact would likely have been harder hitting than it would be today.
Despite its moral compass, a love story also runs through, with the affections of both Donophin and Stoddard focused on Hallie. Together before the lawyer’s arrival, Hallie and Donophin grow apart as she sways toward the newcomer. There’s a sense that Donophin, as a cypher for the old west, knows his time is nigh and begrudgingly allows the women he loves to drift away. And while she willingly goes, and enjoys the success that comes, it’s clear from the beginning that she always loved the other. Just another element that gives The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance depth.
One thing that does seem particularly silly is the age of both Wayne and Stewart. At the time of filming they would have been in their fifties, playing men some thirty years their junior. While it’s easier to accept Wayne’s traditional cowboy, Stewart is unbelievable as a fresh-faced graduate. However, it’s easy to set age concerns aside and enjoy his performance as his helpless unarmed attorney evolves into a man whose later success hangs on the legendary reputation he acquires in his final encounter with Liberty Valance. The burden of that legend weighs hard, and as the flashback continues, we learn the facts that, once aired, allow Stoddard some respite.
Away from the main cast’s tale, the town of Shinbone is people with a wide range of memorable characters, notably Edmond O’Brien‘s Dutton Peabody (alcoholic editor of the Shinbone Star) and Andy Devine‘s Marshall Appleyard, whose cowardice allows Valance’s hellraising to go unchecked and brings some comic relief to an otherwise serious film. Lee Van Cleef‘s Reese, one of two sidekicks to Valance, is a touch underused, although he and his compatriot’s limited role serves to enhance their boss’s malevolence. Valance himself is a bit one-note, although his unlikeability allows us not to mourn him too much when the inevitable happens.
When Stoddard’s flashback ends and the truth is out we are left to question the nature of the western myth, asking whether heroes are made or made-up. The railroad’s advent modernises industry; enlightenment changes society. Shinbone — and, by extension, the world — will never be the same again. And with these advances the old cowboy tales — and cowboys like Tom Donophin — are relegated to the past. Stoddard’s is one such tale; his legend will live on, the facts disregarded. But given the truth at the heart of his fame, the romance of the west never felt so bittersweet.