The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – 1962
Director John Ford
Starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Edmond O’Brien, Lee Van Cleef, Andy Devine, Ken Murray, John Carradine, Woody Strode, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin
Screenplay Willis Golbeck and James Warner Bellah based upon the story by Dorothy M. Johnson
There is a scene about 40 minutes into The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), future attorney and Governor, but present dishwasher and wait staff, is humiliated in the middle of a dining hall. The source of his humiliation, Liberty Valance (Marvin), brings to light the stark difference in the world he lives with the world from which Stoddard has arrived. Valance is a wild man, with no rules. Might is right and damn the rest to hell. Stoddard is a man of ideals and, ultimately, a vision of the future. The rule of law, democracy, decency, and the prospect of men and women prospering under the protection of civilized society is his understanding, and his contention. In his mind, it is no indignity to wait on tables, even though it makes him the subject of Valance’ mockery. His time will come.
In between the two are Tom Doniphan and Hallie Ericson. Doniphan (Wayne) is the consummate rugged individualist. While he has no fear of Valance, he understands that Stoddard is no match for him in the wild west. Hallie, the daughter of local restaurant owners, has a sweet spot for Doniphan but her heart yearns for the dream that Stoddard offers.
At first glance, …Liberty Valance seems as simple as its antagonist. There is a guy who perpetuates animus and fear and one who stands against him. The citizens of the territory wait for his guidance, but doubt he can even protect himself, much less their interests. Where it gets complicated is in the character of Tom Doniphan. Doniphan would be the ideal man to partner with Stoddard. He has his own plans, even if he likes what Stoddard is about. The moral complexity expressed in Wayne’s actions and dearth of words shows more than Richard Dreyfus has expressed in his entire career.
Wayne helps Jimmy Stewart to elevate the story to a place where most writers could only hope to have their words rise to. One wonders how Dorothy M. Johnson might feel to see the essence of her work expressed through their talents and the quiet dignity of Vera Miles.
John Ford is at the top of his profession here. His skill is in his simplicity and getting the most out of the entire cast. The message of the words are rendered powerful in the sparse delivery. When at the start of the film, one might have an idea of the definition of the phrase “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” By the time we’ve experienced the next two hours of subtle direction of John Ford and his superior cast, the phrase has taken on an entirely different meaning. Even if we are wiser for it and we are better for it, we are quite sad.