John Ford‘s “The man who shot Liberty Valance” is at first glance a well produced, star-studded, entertaining Western. However it is when you start to strip away the name actors and get to the heart of the story, that the film’s complexities come to the fore.

Jimmy Stewart stars as attorney at law Ransom Stoddard, a man from the comfortable East of America, determined to bring the freedom of Democracy to the Western town of Shinbone. As he arrives he gets his first taste of the lawlessness of the West, a vicious encounter with the maniacal Liberty Valance (portrayed with fervour by Lee Marvin). He is rescued from near-death by the roguish charm of gunslinger Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who takes him to be nursed by his love interest Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles). Once recovered, Stoddard sets upon his task to bring law and order, and to rid the people of Liberty Valance. Not using the violent and fearful methods that the people of Shinbone are so accustomed to but through education and morality.

On the surface, the film as an entertaining Western is near perfect. Jimmy Stewart – who despite lacking range remains one of my favourite actors –  utilizes his usual affable tics and mannerisms to great effect. Wayne really shows some surprising depth here, bringing his usual machismo, but adding in some humour, charm and a certain vulnerability as the events unfold around him. Lee Marvin, despite being the titular villain, is not given an abundance of screen-time, but controls any scene he is in with a wild-eyed veracity. Disregarding the usual cinematic elements though, where “The Man Who..” really excels is how it intertwines rich allegory with what is already a strong film.

The film is set on the cusp of the transition from the old violent ways of Western America, to a new Republic governance, and it is the values and ideals of both sides of the era that is personified so perfectly in Wayne’s Doniphon and Stewart’s Stoddard. They are two sides to the same coin, with similar aims but very different methods. While they would both like to be rid of Valance, Doniphon settles disputes with steel and lead, Stoddard with democratic values. It is this allegory that gives this film so much depth.

Doniphone is bemused by what he sees as Stoddard’s naive, new-fangled way of handling himself, and is reluctant to adopt his way of thinking. He tells Stoddard he will fail, and urges him to toughen up and use violence to settle his dispute with Liberty Valance and clean up Shinbone. Stoddard continues on with his mission, but Valance gradually wears him down, until he feels there is no other way to deal with the situation but to use force. This is the crux of the film. In a tense, inevitable showdown between Stoddard and Valance, Valance is shot and killed. It appears Stoddard has beaten him, but Valance and what he represents, is still the victor. Violence succeeded where modern law failed, and progress stalls.

As Stoddard is lauded for ending the scourge of Liberty Valance, he runs for office, however his claim to the position of Governor is quickly knocked back by his opposition based on his apparent hypocrisy. How can a man stand to represent freedom and law and order with blood on his hands?It is then that Doniphon appears and we find that it was him that shot Valance from the shadows. Doniphon, the personification of old-west ideals, has bowed down to progress and accepted that the world has moved on without him. He essentially sacrifices any chance of his own place in the new world, to enable Democracy to guide the way. He gets blood on his hands, so that the new law doesn’t have to, and stuck as a product of his time, he dies alone many years later. The wild West begrudgingly, but honourably, gives in to allow a more civilized way of life to pass.

Ford is not condemning the old world – far from it in fact – Doniphon’s noble sacrifice is showing us that while progress was inevitable, it was only possible by standing on the shoulders of the men that fought and lived in the “wild” West. Once you are open to the idea that it is deeper than it appears initially, the film reveals its bounty without over-analysis.

The Man who shot Liberty Valance is a wonderful, dark film, that is as deep as it is visceral. A 5-star must see.

5 / 5