John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the all-time great westerns, a movie about the law of the land and the law of men’s souls. This is a movie where the protagonist’s name is Ransom, the antagonist’s name is Liberty and the good guy’s name is Tom. What a good movie this is, not just in terms of artistry, though it’s flawlessly made but it’s good at heart. It tells the story of Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), a US Senator visiting the small spit of dust called Shinbone with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to attend a funeral of an unknown man. A politician of such stature attracts the attention of the local paper and they want the reason Stoddard would come to a nowhere town to bury someone named Tom Doniphan. “Who is Tom Doniphan?” asks the newspaperman. John Wayne, that’s who. Stoddard tells the reporter his story and much of the rest of the movie is told in flashback.
Stoddard is now a young lawyer bound to bring law to the west until he is attacked and robbed on his way into Shinbone by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his crew of guns employed by the big cattle companies. When Stoddard gets into town he is dismayed to find out that this is the way things are run, that Valance and his gang are the ultimate authority and that the pitiful Marshal (Andy Devine) just does his best to keep them out of Shinbone. More of a presence is Wayne, as rancher Doniphan, who looms over the town with his big frame and bigger voice. He acts as the bulwark between Shinbone and Valance but he’s not interested in Stoddard’s lofty idea of law and order. Guns are his law and order, you either have ‘em or you get shot by ‘em. There is a scene where Wayne teaches Stewart to shoot that is cinematic joy. Two different pillars of celluloid manhood sharing an oddly tender moment over an instrument of violence.
We identify with Stewart as we always do but we want to be Wayne, as we always do. Here the Duke gets to be tough as nails, the biggest hombre in town, but still be self-sacrificing and ultimately good. He is the wild west’s Rick Blaine as we find out that Doniphan is in love with Hallie and intends to marry her but can see that she has eyes for Stoddard.
The movie also works as a history of the old West, how territories were advantagess for large cattle concerns who blocked statehood. We see Stoddard organize political rallies and attend a convention representing Shinbone in the fight for statehood. John Carradine has a small part has Major Cassius Starbuckle lobbying on behalf of the cattle companies. This convention in the big city is as wild as anything in the streets of Shinbone especially when a trick horse is ridden onto the vestibule in support of cattlemen. Also at the convention, speaking for Stoddard is Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) the newspaperman from Shinbone. O’Brien is wonderful here as a drunk and a cynic, he may be speaking for Ford.
Ultimately, the movie is about sacrifice and guilt. Stoddard gets everything he wants in the end but he owes it to one man who lies in a coffin unrecognized. “Nobody fights my battles but me,” bellows Stoddard at one point. But it isn’t that simple. “This is the west, sir” Stoddard is told. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Yes, but somebody has to live with the truth.