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In many ways, the American “Old West” is just as mythical a location as Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Lewis’ Narnia: composed of equal parts real history, tall tales, folk legends, personal myth-building, self-rationalization and flat-out malarkey, the Wild West has become so absorbed into the fabric of pop culture, by this point, that is hard to say where the stories end and the truth begins. Much of this mythologizing is thanks to the work of American filmmakers like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah and Fred Zinnemann, directors who helped shape the public’s opinion of the American Old West as a rough-and-tumble, lawless land where the six-gun was the only jury and where a strong-willed man could carve out an empire with his bare hands. Classic Hollywood Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), Broken Arrow (1950), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), The Searchers (1956),  Rio Bravo (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Wild Bunch (1969) have long posited the West as just such a brutal, beautiful and untamed wilderness, America’s last refuge against the relentless march of progress and industrialization that swallowed the rest of the nation part and parcel.

Nothing, of course, can withstand the march of time for long and the “Wild West” was no exception. Once the railroad began to unite far-flung settlements into something that resembled a larger community, as well as linking the West with the much much-maligned, industrialized East, it was only a matter of time before the formerly untamed frontier would fall to the natural progress of the modern world. As someone who became one of the mythologized West’s biggest proponents, it likewise fell to auteur John Ford to write its eulogy, once the time had passed. To that end, Ford tolled the funeral bell with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a film that purported to bring together two of the Westerns biggest stars, John Wayne and James Stewart, even as it brought the curtain down on traditional notions of the Old West.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is structured as a flashback narrative, beginning in the “present-day” and moving backwards in time to show us the events that led us to where we are. In the present, Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), have returned to the tiny frontier town of Shinbone in order to attend the funeral of one Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Once there, Ransom and Hallie reconnect with old friends, including Shinbone’s former marshal, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) and Doniphon’s faithful manservant Pompey (Woody Strode). When the local newspaper editor pressures Stoddard for a story concerning his return to the dusty hole-in-the-wall that is Shinbone, Stoddard deigns to give him the full scoop, telling the story of how he first came to Shinbone as an idealistic lawyer fresh out of law school and met Tom, his future wife, Hallie, and the miserable human being that would end up helping Stoddard secure his reputation: the outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).

Stoddard describes how he came to Shinbone after being waylaid, beaten and robbed by Liberty Valance during a stagecoach holdup. Despite the continued advise of the cowardly Marshall Appleyard and all-around good-guy Tom, Stoddard is determined to bring Valance to justice with the letter of the law, rather than the vengeance of a six-gun. Easier said than done, however, as Valance and his minions, Floyd (Strother Martin) and Reese (Lee Van Cleef), pretty much run the town, keeping everyone scared (including the Marshall) and under the thumbs of the local land barons. When the topic of statehood comes up, Valance and Stoddard end up on opposite sides of the issue: Stoddard knows that statehood will lead to modernization, industrialization and law and order, whereas Valance’s employers know that statehood will spell the end of their unchecked land rights. Neither man will back down, sending everyone in Shinbone, including Tom and his then-girlfriend Hallie, hurtling towards a violent confrontation that will signal the end for some while heralding a bold, new beginning for others. Liberty Valance is the second fastest gun in the territory, however, and Stoddard is the epitome of the “citified dude” – he’ll need more than justice on his side to take on Valance…he’s going to need a guardian angel.

As with any elegy, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an exceptionally sad film, not only for the events which take place on-screen but for the greater significance that these events held for our society. Although Ford’s film is full of rousing action set-pieces, lots of sharp humor and some nice, broad characterizations (Andy Devine is particularly goofy as the whiny, constantly eating sheriff), there’s a muted, toned-down feel to the proceedings that mark this as the furthest thing from one of Ford’s more “traditional” Westerns, such as Fort Apache or Rio Grande (1950). There’s very little in the way of celebration here, even in those moments where the “good guys” are succeeding (the saloon scene where Tom kicks Valance’s guy right in the face, the statehood representative meeting), since the film seems to be all too aware that these successes will, ultimately, spell doom for the old-fashioned Old West. If Tom Doniphon stands for the traditionally rugged Western settler/survivor, he also stands for the mythologized Western director, as well: whereas artists like Hawks, Ford and Zinnemann plied their trades for a particular mindset in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, auteurs like Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood were dealing with not only the “death” of the traditional American Old West but also changing audience expectations and perspectives.

Your particular stance on progress and industrialization will probably color your particular view of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as being more or less a tragedy. On the one hand, Ransom Stoddard’s relentless quest to bring law and order, along with the niceties of “polite” society, to the untamed West is a noble (if slightly naive) pursuit. Industrialization in the American West led to a number of irrefutable benefits, such as the proliferation of better medical practices, educational institutions, the creation of a justice system that was wholly dependent on mob justice, etc… but it also led to the marginalization of hard-scrabble folks like Tom Doniphon (and Liberty Valance, if we want to split hairs), folks who would be completely out-of-step in a newly “Easternized” West. After all, this was their land, too, and there’s something inherently sad about the notion that a fundamentally good person like Tom (at least as portrayed in the film) will be allowed to lose everything, including the love of his life, in order to uphold Stoddard’s “new order.”

This notion of “the good of the many vs the good of the few” seems to be foremost on Ford’s mind, as the film makes no bones about the fact that Hallie and Tom were the “truer” couple, whereas Hallie and Ransom are the more “proper” couple. Hallie and Tom’s love is portrayed as passionate, romantic and messy, whereas Hallie and Ransom’s marriage seems to be more convenient, albeit more clinical. This, in micro, is the argument between the messier, more wild and more “authentic” Old West versus the more restrained, civilized and law-abiding “New” West. It’s the cactus rose versus the actual rose…Tom Doniphon’s antiquated notions of right and wrong versus Ransom’s Stoddard’s stubborn reliance on the rules of law and order…the emotion versus the intellect.

While The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is full of great performances, particularly John Wayne’s out-of-place cowboy Jimmy Stewart’s pompous, blowhard but well-meaning lawyer, the film really belongs to Lee Marvin’s dastardly villain: Liberty Valance is easily one of the greatest cinematic monsters to ever slime across the big screen and Marvin brings him to terrifying, shuddering life. He’s able to spit out “dude” with the same venom that others might reserve for “motherfucker” and the scene where he horsewhips Stoddard is as horrifying as something from a fright film. Marvin, ably backed up by Peckinpah mainstay Strother Martin and the one and only Lee Van Cleef, is a true force of nature in the film but he’s anything but a one-dimensional villain. In many ways, he functions as the flip-side to Doniphon’s “noble cowboy” character, showcasing the dark side of the Wild West that made Stoddard’s brand of law and order such a necessary, if game-changing, development in the building of the West.

Elsewhere, on the acting front, Edmund O’Brien provides some welcome comic relief as the besotted local newspaper editor/newly-elected statehood rep Dutton Peabody, while Vera Miles is an expressive, eternally sad presence as Tom Doniphon’s beloved Hallie, who ends up embracing both Ransom Stoddard and the change that he embodies. Truth be told, the only performances that grate a bit are Andy Devine’s ever-foolish Link Appleyard and Woody Strode’s ever loyal Pompey. Devine’s whiny schtick gets old quick, although he has some really nice, emotional beats in the “present-day” part of the film, particularly his quietly lovely scenes with Hallie, whereas Pompey is pretty much a non-entity, serving only to follow around and support Tom without much characterization of his own (the most we get is the rather on-the-nose bit where Pompey is able to remember everything about the Declaration of Independence except for the “All men are created equal” part).

As with all of Ford’s films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance looks great, a truly panoramic vision of the Old West that still manages to convey a sense of muted sadness. The black and white cinematography, courtesy of William H. Clothier (who shot several dozen other John Wayne Westerns), is always crisp and clear and there’s a typically expert use of directional lighting and shadows, particularly in the climatic scene where Stoddard and Valance face-off in the streets of Shinbone. Fittingly, the film often feels slightly oppressive, as if there’s a hanging sense of doom over everything: it’s the sense of tension befitting something like High Noon but with none of that film’s sense of release. Even after Valance is dead, Doniphon isn’t (personally) victorious and Ford’s film doesn’t seem particularly interested in celebrating his failure to preserve the old way of life.

Despite it’s status as a classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is just as much a character drama or tragedy (Doniphon’s fatal flaw is his inability to change with the times, which ends up being Stoddard’s biggest strength) as it is a traditional oater. While John Ford was responsible for some of the most iconic visions of the Old West put to film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is just a little bit different. Rather than a celebration of a by-gone era and the people who forged a nation, Ford’s opus is a quiet, serious meditation on the unflinching nature of progress, industrialization and the “taming” of the Old West. In any other film, the moment where Ransom and Hallie end up together would be the culmination of their struggles and a source of joy for the audience. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford asks viewers not to focus on the “winners” in the foreground, but the “losers” in the background, those men and women, including Tom Doniphon, who triumphed over a harsh landscape but ended up being shot straight in the heart by that most unavoidable of all enemies: the modern age.