“When the legend become fact, print the legend.” — Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Though I understand and respect their importance in the history of both American and Italian cinema, I have never really been a huge fan of westerns. Maybe its all the testosterone (“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do…”) or maybe it’s all the dust but westerns have just never really been my thing.
However, I will always make an exception for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is not just a great western but a great film period.
But you already knew that. It’s a little bit intimidating to review a film that everyone already knows is great. I even opened this review with the exact same quote that everyone uses to open their reviews of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. To a certain extent, I feel like I should have found a quote that everyone hasn’t already heard a thousand times but then again, it’s a great quote from a great film and sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with agreeing with the critical consensus.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with a train stopping in the small western town of Shinbone. The residents of the town — including newspaper editor Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) — are shocked when Sen. Rance Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) get off the train. Sen. Stoddard is considered to be a front-runner to become the next Vice President of the United States. Scott is even more shocked to discover why the Stoddards are in town. They’ve come to Shinbone to attend the funeral of an obscure rancher named Tom Doniphon (played, in flashback, by John Wayne).
Sitting in the funeral home with Doniphon’s coffin (and having reprimanded the local mortician for attempting to steal Tom’s boots), Rance tells Scott why he’s come to pay respect to Tom Doniphon. We see, in flashback, how Rance first came to Shinbone 25 years ago, an idealistic lawyer who — unlike most of the men in the west — refused to carry a gun. We see how Rance was robbed and assaulted by local outlaw Liberty Valance (a wonderfully intimidating and bullying Lee Marvin), we discover how Rance first met Hallie while working as a dishwasher and how he eventually taught her how to read, and we also see how he first met Tom Doniphon, the only man in town strong enough to intimidate Liberty Valance.
At first, Rance and Doniphon had an uneasy friendship, epitomized by the condescending way Doniphon would call Rance “pilgrim.” Doniphon was in love with Hallie and, when he attempted to teach Rance how to defend himself, he was largely did so for Hallie. Rance, meanwhile, was determined to bring law and society to the west.
And, eventually, Rance did just that. When Shinbone elected two delegates to the statehood convention in the territory’s capitol, Rance attempted to nominate Doniphon for the position but Doniphon refused it and nominated Rance instead, explaining that Rance understood “the law.” When Liberty Valance attempted to claim the other delegate spot, Rance and Doniphon worked together to make sure that it instead went to newspaper editor Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien). And when Liberty Valance attempted to gun Rance down in the street, Rance shot him.
Or did he?
That’s the question that’s at the heart of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. However, as a film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is far less interested in gunfights than it is in politics. Perhaps the most important scene in the film is not when Rance and Liberty meet out on that dark street. Instead, it’s the scene at the statehood convention where the reformers (represented by Rance) and the cattlemen (represented by John Carradine) battle over who will be the territory’s delegate to Washington. Between John Carradine orating, the horses riding in and out of the hall, Edmond O’Brien drinking, James Stewart looking humble, and John Wayne glowering in the background, this is one of the best political scenes ever put on film.
When Rance first arrives in the west, there is no political system in place. With the exception of the ineffectual town marshal (Andy Devine), there is no law. The peace is kept by men like Tom Doniphon and, oddly enough, by Liberty Valance as well. (Whether he realizes it or not, Shinbone’s fear of Liberty has caused the town to form into a community.) What little official law there is doesn’t matter because the majority of the Shinbone’s citizens can’t read.
When Rance arrives, he brings both education and the law. He makes Shinbone into a town that no longer needs Liberty Valance but, at the same time, it no longer need Tom Doniphon either. Hence, it’s Rance Stoddard who goes from dishwasher to U.S. Senator while Tom Doniphon dies forgotten. Rance represents progress and unfortunately, progress often means losing the good along with the bad things of the past.
(It’s no coincidence that when Rance and Hallie return to Shinbone, the first person that they see is the former town marshal, who no longer wears a star and who, we’re told, hasn’t for years. Time has passed by.)
It’s a bittersweet and beautiful film, one that features four great performances from Stewart, Wayne, Marvin, and Vera Miles. Personally, I like to think that maybe Sen. Stoddard had a daughter who married a man named Smith and maybe they had a son named Jefferson who later made his way to the Senate as well.
It would be fitting.