The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): The Idealization of the West and the formation of Statehood


     “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” is a western directed by John Ford. The story begins with Senator Stoddard returning back to the town in the west that made him famous to visit Tom Doniphon’s funeral. From here he tells the story of the past to the press and the story unfolds. The story involves Ranse Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) who is seeking his fortune out west when he is attacked and robbed by Liberty Valance. From here is found by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who brings him in to a restaurant where he is nursed back to health. From here the story unfolds as the path to statehood is used to explore the relationships in the town and to Liberty Valance and his gang. 

Here is the assessment of the film:

Pros: The Cinematography – The film is in black and white and makes great use of shadows. Visually the movie is stunning and makes good use of the sets it takes place on…giving life to the town and the west. 

Ranse Stoddard – James/Jimmy Stewart is a fantastic protagonist. He is the idealistic lawyer who doesn’t believe in force until he realizes Liberty doesn’t care and will continue to hurt and rob and keep the territory from seeking federal protection. After he is abused by Valance at the restaurant where he falls in love with the owners daughter Hallie (Vera Miles) he begins training with a gun. He also teaches Hallie and the town how to read and write and about the law. He is a complex character who respects Hallie and has a respect for Tom who helps him but is doing so grudgingly for much of the film. 

Hallie Stoddard – Vera Miles is fantastic in her role and the writers do a good job of giving her agency. After she learns how to read and write from Ranse she becomes a teacher in the class. She chooses to be with Ranse too and never shows Tom that she feels romantically the same way he does, though she does respect him deeply. 

Tom Doniphon – It is John Wayne, this is his thing. He is the gruff, no-nonsense hero. Really my biggest issue with his character is his condescension to Hallie and thinking he owns her. It takes her clearly showing she loves Ranse for him to finally get that which leads to him burning the cabin he built for them. He is the one who kills Valance but is never recognized for it by anyone other othan Hallie and Ranse since the press refuses to destroy the legend of Ranse being the one to kill him. He also isn’t racist and stands up for the man named Pompey (who is African American) who works for him. 

The Formation of Statehood – Tom represents military and Ranse represents civilization. Tom is all protection and Ranse is all about education. Both were needed for the territory to become a state and get the recognition on the federal level. This dynamic is explored really well in their relationship to one another…ending in Ranse getting the nomination and Tom defeating Liberty and his gang…as well as remaining a symbol of the nameless soldier. 

Okay: Doc. Peabody – The drunk doctor is pretty much just that. He is the idealistic press man who is nearly killed which inspires Ranse to challenge Liberty to a gun fight near the end. He isn’t bad, he just is one note. 

Marshall Appleyard – Played by Andy Devine (famous voice actor for Disney, played Friar Tuck in their “Robin Hood” animated film) is a coward just trying to protect his family. He is cool in that he has a large Hispanic family and protects Peabody as well at one point. His problem is we don’t see that so much of his fear is tied to his family and protecting them. Showing that would have elevated his character to a pro. 

Cons: Liberty Valance – He is cruel of the sake of cruel and extremely one note. He doesn’t elevate this either and his goons are one dimensional cronies as well. He exists as an abstract threat at his best because there is no character there. 

Western Problem – Native Americans are seen as savages and even seen as redskins in this. The fact that there were already people in the territory is glossed over as a Manifest Destiny is embraced as represented by Ranse. I wish this had been addressed at least a little…though this a problem from lots of movies in this era and even westerns today. 

       “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” was an enjoyable western, though the problems of Tom’s misogyny for most of it till the end and the racism towards the natives cannot go unspoken. It is the idealization of statehood where the biggest threat are nameless gangsters who kill and take for the sake of doing so….and it is in that idealization that it is at it’s best. It’s just a shame it didn’t capture the complexity better. I would recommend this movie, just know these problems. 

My final score is 8 / 10. It definitely deserves the praise it gets as a classic in cinema, largely because of how well the leads handle their roles. 

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