Mr. Hollis-Lima and I generally have very similar tastes in film; but our tastes diverge when it comes to Westerns. I grew up watching John Ford films; I might well have been disowned if I decided that I didn't care for The Searchers. Thankfully, I never had to face such an aesthetic-familial dilemma; I have always thought The Searchers a great film. But my favorite Western – another John Ford and John Wayne collaboration – is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Most Westerns of the last twenty-odd years have been "revisionist" pieces. Some, like Unforgiven, look set to become classics. Others are best-remembered for inspiring overrated science fiction. Today, however, most critics would agree that the pioneering (perhaps a loaded word?) revisionist director was John Ford, who was also, of course, the most important "classical" Western director. In The Searchers, John Wayne plays a violent man with an abiding, if understandable, hatred of Indians. Cheyenne Autumn, Ford's penultimate film, follows an abused group of Cheyenne along the Trail of Tears. While The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance occasionally delves into racial matters, it spends far more time exploring violence, politics, and their relation to each other.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, like many Westerns, begins with a train arriving in a small town. Neither gunmen nor tumbleweed greet the train; Shinbone is a thriving small town, with a high school and a telephone line. We never do learn what state Shinbone is a part of, even when that state's famous senator, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) shows up in town to attend the paltry funeral of forgotten rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). As Stoddard's wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), and other friends of the deceased stand vigil over the bare coffin, Stoddard tells an old story to the assembled reporters of the Shinbone Star. Thirty years ago, Tom Doniphon was a friend and mentor to Stoddard. Thirty years ago, Doniphon saved Stoddard's life.
Most of the movie is a flashback to the events of thirty years before, the events that brought Stoddard to prominence, success, and matrimony. When Stoddard, a young lawyer, first arrived in Shinbone, it was a far different town – dusty, violent, and dominated by the bandit and killer Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Stoddard, innocent believer in law and order, quickly runs afoul of Liberty, and finds that the legal system in Shinbone is far from capable of dealing with the outlaw. Stoddard, left penniless by Liberty's robbery, works a waiter and dishwasher for a pair of Swedish immigrants; his idealism quickly wins the heart of Hallie, Doniphon's presumed belle. Though he would much prefer to live a peaceful life, Stoddard comes to realize that, in Shinbone, a man must carry a gun to ensure justice. It's hardly a spoiler to say that Valance and Stoddard eventually duel.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the young idealist grabs a gun and turns pragmatist. One of two heroes nearly drinks himself to death; later, he's sanguine about a crime he committed: "Cold-blooded murder? I can live with that." Liberty is on the payroll of the cattle barons who want to keep Shinbone's territory part of the open range; Stoddard and Doniphon want enclosures and railways and statehood. The heroes may wear wide-brimmed hats, but the true cowboys are on the villain's side. And what are we to make of a film that celebrates America, but features a callous killer named Liberty?
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may lead to somber reflection and dour blog posts, but despite all its moral seriousness, it's a very funny film. Andy Devine appears as a good-hearted, if cowering and incompetent, marshal; his endless dereliction of duty is a running joke. Edmond O'Brien's drunken newspaper editor has several hilarious speeches and one or two inspiring ones, while John Carradine makes the most of the small role of a hypocritical politician. Even John Wayne gets a few good lines – and one great kick – in.
I have not seen the entirety of John Ford's oeuvre; the man was prolific. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may not be Ford's single best film; many would argue that The Searchers is better. But Liberty Valance is clearly one of Ford's best, and therefore one of cinema's best. This is a movie to watch and to force friends to watch. Mr. Hollis-Lima, you've been warned.