This bitter revisionist Western examines how town newbie and aspiring lawyer Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) wrongly received credit for the murder of marauding criminal Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who was actually shot by rough-around-the-edges cowboy, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Stoddard goes on to have a fruitful political career (he is a senator when the movie begins, 25 years after the infamous shooting), while Doniphon, who did the dirty work, remains stuck in this shitty old town called Shinbone.
The oft-quoted line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” though it’s almost always quoted for all the wrong reasons because the movie itself goes to great length to present the actual facts and subtly damn anybody who prefers the legend. Critic J. Hoberman said in his 2003 historical whirlwind, “The Dream Life: Movies, Media, And The Mythology Of The Sixties,” that “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a movie based upon “the astounding statement that American history was founded on a necessary lie.” You could go as far as to suggest its plot—which weighs the “official” version of a shooting up against what really happened—predicts the speculation surrounding the JFK assassination, a little over a year away. Something was in the air in the early ’60s and credit 68-year-old cowboy picture mythmaker John Ford for capturing some of that zeitgeist when he totally didn’t have to do such a thing.
Ford’s lack of sentimentality for the west is clear right from the start. As Sen. Stoddard, who is back in Shinbone to attend the funeral of Doniphon, gazes at his frenemy’s coffin, the undertaker whines, “the county’s gonna bury him you know, gosh, I ain’t gonna make a nickel out of it,” while an obnoxious newspaperman hounds the senator and former Shinbone resident for a quote. There’s no “good ol’ days” attitude here, just impolite people trying to make a buck and get over. And soon we’ll realize Stoddard’s opportunistic streak too, having built his political career on his role in supposedly shifting Shinbone’s values, namely by way of killing Liberty Valance.
See, 25 years earlier, Stoddard, then new to Shinbone, was robbed and whipped by Valance upon arrival, and that convinced him that this place had to change. So he confronted the locals, all corrupt or afraid for their lives (“What kind of a community have I come to?” he asks, like any well-meaning member of the clueless upperclass), and proceeded to teach Shinbone how to read and how democracy works and, through that, “civilized” the town a little bit. Though that only really happens once Liberty Valance is taken care of for good, which is something Stoddard thinks is the job of the law, and rough-and-tumble townie cowboy Doniphon thinks is the responsibility of whoever can pop the damn fool, mostly because the law here, Marshal Link Appleyard (the hilariously ineffectual Andy Devine, who looks like he sat in a pie the whole movie), prefers to stay out of it all.
Movie stars John Wayne and James Stewart have their personae used against them here. Wayne plays an antediluvian tough guy whose shtick is wearing thin, which is totally where Wayne’s career was at this point. And the beloved James Stewart gets reconfigured into a slightly slimy “nice guy” (shades of the Kennedys and the Kennedy clones we’re still dealing with, such as Martin O’Malley). His character, a more-educated outsider who thinks he has all the right ideas about change but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty and can’t when he finally tries, is—in City Paper contributor D. Watkins’ colloquial sense, at least—a gentrifier. And the whole movie plays out on Hollywood sets that approximate the West. Lacking the director’s signature outdoor vistas and shot in a black and white that’s more muted silver and grey, it’s like Ford decided the West doesn’t deserve to look gorgeous anymore.
Every western is about the inherent contradictions of democracy, though Ford makes that explicit with folksy scenes celebrating voting and freedom of the press, along with special attention paid to the people that are left out: Love interest Hallie (Vera Miles) tells meat-head Doniphon at one point “you don’t own me” and eventually marries Stoddard, a fate we’re not supposed to entirely think is that much better though it is more stable; Doniphon’s black farmhand friend Pompey (Woody Strode) is portrayed as part of the community, though Ford also goes out of his way to make it clear he’s not allowed to participate in any of the town’s democratic proceedings.
American democracy in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is in its infancy and ruled by hicks, hucksters, and high-falutin’ idealists. It the rare presentation that actually rings true, mostly because John Ford’s mournful, pessimistic classic acknowledges the central role spin plays in our country’s come-up and doesn’t forget the people “progress” plows right over.