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It’s a rare occasion that Hollywood takes a break from its standard, more popular genres and hands us a Western, and even more so when that Western turns out to be good. Few recent examples come to mind: this True Grit, Open Range, The Proposition, 3:10 to Yuma, and in times of dire need it helps to turn back to the good old years of the Duke and Clint Eastwood to whet the Western appetite.
Our selection for today is 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin, directed by the most famous Western filmmaker of all time Mr. John Ford. Helmed by Ford, with a cast like that — the movie’s gotta be a slam dunk, right? Well, yeah, that’s why it’s here …
Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is a freshly minted lawyer from back east who wants to experience life out west. He finds out life might be a little different between the two sections of the country as his stagecoach is robbed by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang. Valance viciously beats him with a whip and leaves him there. Stoddard’s only good fortune of the day comes from Tom Donophan (John Wayne) finding him and helping him along to the town of Shinbone, where he receives care from gorgeous and feisty Hallie (Vera Miles).
“Pompey, go find Doc Willoughby,” Donophan says to his trusty servant. “If he’s sober, bring him back.” They help Stoddard up.
“You better get yourself a gun,” he says to the beaten man. “I know those law books mean a lot to you, but out here a man settles his own problems.”
As you may suspect, Stoddard’s first run-in with Liberty Valance isn’t his last. Stoddard tries to bring law and order and civilization to Shinbone while Liberty and Donophan promote the current cutthroat “stick your neck out for nobody” approach of lawlessness and chaos (easy when you’re the big fish in the pond.) Stoddard and Donophan also vie for Hallie’s affection, a competition that strains their friendship and eventually leads to the ruin of one man and the success of the other.
Interesting in the film are the philosophical questions it raises about law and order. Donophan is a much tougher character than Stoddard. There are several scenes that show him standing up to Valance while Stoddard futilely tries to talk his way out of his problems. The local marshal is a bumpkin (“There’s one jail cell. The lock is broken and I sleep in it.”) who couldn’t arrest a little kid if tasked with it. It wouldn’t be hard to argue an “eye for an eye” approach. The law is effectively lamed, and Valance has free reign to rob, pillage, and murder without repercussion. His only restraint comes when challenged by Donophan. How effective is having a law with no means to enforce it? Is it right to kill in cold blood if that person has consistently shown himself to be a menace to society (even within the boundaries of the Western framework)? The film has some startling answers, as our idealistic young lawyer realizes that sometimes the only way to fight fire is with fire, and he stoops to Valance’s level.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of John Ford’s best films, and one of the best Westerns. It’s delightful cast and complicated moral questions make it an exemplary piece of filmmaking for the genre. Give it a look-see.