This week's pick for "Movie of the Week" is a film by one of the Great American directors. "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" was
directed by John Ford and released in 1962 during the twilight of his career. After years of making some of the best classic Westerns, this film marked something of departure for Ford, paving the way for a new era of revisionist Westerns.
The film begins in the aftermath of the plot's main events. We are introduced to a man named Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife (Vera Miles), arriving by train to attend a funeral. Stoddard is obviously a respected senator with strong ties to this small Western town of Shinbone. When a reporter asks Stoddard to explain his reasoning for traveling all the way from Washington, we get the full story of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance".
As I approached the film, I was already wary of the usual plot devices. I'm not a big fan of the traditional Western and its revenge-obsessed notions of honor and justice, and this film seemed susceptible to head down that path. Under the direction of the man who practically legitimized the genre and starring its most famous star (John Wayne), what else was I to expect? Well, I'm happy to report that I was proven wrong.
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is almost experimental in its design. It seems borne out of curiosity, wondering what would happen if George Bailey or Jefferson Smith (iconic Jimmy Stewart characters in Capra films) were transplanted to the wild West? It was probably a strange proposition at the time, but it produced fascinating results. This is vintage Jimmy Stewart, the model upstanding citizen, but this time transplanted into a rough, violent world. His Ransom Stoddard sticks out like a sore thumb (that earnest voice is fully intact), but he serves a purpose, both for the filmmaker and the story itself.
Ransom Stoddard starts out as a lawyer, hoping to set up a practice in Shinbone. He gets a rude awakening however, as his stagecoach is robbed upon arrival by a violent outlaw named Liberty Valance. Upon realizing that Stoddard is a lawyer, Valance teaches him a lesson in "Western" law, mercilessly whipping him to near death.
Shaken but not deterred, Stoddard vows to uphold his values, challenging the society's lawless, violent ways. It's a risky proposition, due to a cowardly marshal and a community too afraid to stand up for justice. Eventually, Stoddard himself is corrupted by the ways of the land, opting to purchase a gun after further harassment by Valance and his gang.
Due to its mostly indoor settings, Ford doesn't get the chance to flaunt his trademark landscape photography here. Instead, the film is more internal, in terms of both the indoor setting and its psychological debates. Whereas traditional Westerns touted violent retaliation as a natural solution, Ford uses Stewart/Stoddard to challenge the ideal.
As always, John Wayne represents the old method of "shoot first, ask questions later", mocking Stoddard as an idealistic "pilgrim". When Stoddard succumbs to the pressure then (buying a gun), it's hard not to feel disappointed. The mythology of Jimmy Stewart saving the day proves to be no match for the brutal world of the Western. So even as Ford critiques the violence, he realized that some circumstances required it, as evidenced by the film's title.
All of this seems strikingly relevant today, in light of the ongoing discussion surrounding gun control in America. As these Westerns and actual history would attest, the United States was built on a violent foundation. It's therefore no surprise that so many are clinging to the 2nd Amendment in the name of self-defense. Ford understood this, as Stoddard's eventual political career is launched not by his intelligence and community service, but rather a perceived gun-slinging reputation that he reluctantly subscribed to. In the end, the film is therefore not completely revisionist (romanticized violence is still the main fix), but its use of Jimmy Stewart as the protagonist was a brilliant move in subverting the expectations of a Western hero.
"The Man Shot Liberty Valance" gives you all the usual qualities of a great John Ford film - talented cast, good script, strong cinematography, smart direction. However, this is a case where the film's themes and social implications transcend the actual filmmaking. It's a well-made film, but more importantly it challenges your expectations of cinema. It's certainly worthy of its preservation in the National Film Registry, fulfilling the criteria of being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".