John Ford did more to shape the American Western than any other director; in every decade of his career, he led the charge to define and redefine it. By 1962, he didn’t have many films left in him, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance still provided a glimpse of future interpretations of the past. The late ’60s and ’70s found filmmakers demythologizing the Old West; with Liberty Valance, Ford beat them to it, offering a bittersweet look at the closing of the frontier by focusing on two strikingly different men who help one town choose law and order over the chaos of the open range.
James Stewart stars as a lawyer from the East who doesn’t even make it to his new home in the town of Shinbone before his life savings is stolen. The robber is the notorious Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a gang leader given free rein to terrorize the locals in exchange for his work assisting a group of powerful ranchers. Penniless, Stewart takes a job washing dishes at a small restaurant staffed by Swedish immigrants; they include the lovely Vera Miles, an illiterate woman all but married to John Wayne, a goodhearted tough guy who runs a small horse farm and believes security means carrying a gun and being willing to fire it. As Stewart settles into town, he and Wayne strike up an occasionally uneasy friendship—Stewart advocates improvement through education and democracy, while Wayne clings to the tools that helped him tame the unsettled land. Neither fully acknowledges that only one will have a place in a more civilized Shinbone.
Working on a tighter-than-usual budget, Ford only offers glimpses of the sweeping vistas usually associated with his work. The action is largely confined to interiors and a back-lot main street. But the narrow focus suits a film more concerned with civic values than endless plains. In scenes where Stewart wins the town over, Ford uses compositions as effortlessly iconic as Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” paintings while still acknowledging some failings of the democratic system. African-American actor—and Ford regular—Woody Strode recites the opening of the Declaration Of Independence, as a portrait of Lincoln watches in the background. Later, when the town meets to take a vote, Strode waits outside.
Though the title makes it clear that Marvin’s bad guy won’t win the day, what matters isn’t really who wins, but how the victory happens. And in the end, even that matters less than who’s telling the story. A framing device finds an aged Stewart, now a senator, returning to Shinbone, where the story of his tangles with Liberty Valance is still passed around. Order has prevailed, but the more peaceful Shinbone is also a notably duller place. As a final scene reminiscent of James Joyce’s “The Dead” makes heartbreakingly clear, peace and prosperity have a price, and not all those who pay for them get to enjoy them.
Key features: This new two-disc edition offers the standard making-of material and a partial commentary based around archival interviews with Stewart and others.