“Pompey, go find Doc Willoughby. If he’s sober, bring him back.”
‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’, directed by John Ford in 1962, is an American Western starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne. Stewart plays Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard, a Senator who returns to the town of his youth to attend a funeral. In flashback, Stoddard tells the story of how a man named Liberty Valance once terrorised the town, and the role Wayne’s character Tom Doniphon, the man who’s funeral Stoddard is attending, had in his becoming a politician. In many ways it’s a typical Western: a strange nostalgia for a simpler but more violent past set in a lawless, borderless frontier. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that the movie is more complicated than a simple binary opposition between the pacifistic Stoddard and Doniphon, the brutal man of action. The film is really a mystery summed up by the title. The identity of the ‘man’ who kills the villain is the key to the story. The future that Stoddard represents: Statehood, control from Washington, law and order, modernity, is revealed to be based on a lie. Stoddard rises to power as the mythical slayer of Valance, building his career, as a result, modern America, on the corpse of his victim, but the myth itself is a lie. It’s revealed that Doniphon is the real killer, and therefore the real source of the myth. The result of this is a film that very clinically unpicks the American myth, one that takes the standard Western tropes and explodes them by accessing something deeper that the usual masculine, nostalgic fantasy. Ford’s film is not about the opening of the West by the railroads, this is just a fragment of what he is saying. ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about Washington, politics, history and myth.
Would I recommend it? Yes – two iconic actors (although I prefer Stewart over the wooden Wayne) and a deeply intelligent story and seems to play out the whole of modern American history in ninety minutes. Watch with ‘The Searchers’ for contrast.