“I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.”
Again, it seems like every Western I see becomes my new favorite. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a step back from genre to take a look at masculinity. The elevator pitch: “John Wayne meets Jimmy Stewart”, and sure enough, it delivers.
In the frontier town of Shinbone, the intelligent Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) is robbed by outlaw Liberty Valance while passing through. The town offers no help, only a bumbling sheriff who fears Valance more than anyone. Stoddard is soon integrated into the town, teaching literacy to the townsfolk and building a strange friendship with Doniphon, a familiar John Wayne character who stands up for Stoddard and teaches him that things are different out west. Stoddard grapples with the notion that his books might not have all the answers, and eventually, someone shoots Liberty Valance.
The core tension of the film is that of East vs. West. The law vs. law and order. Pistol vs. paperback. It’s a wonderful exploration of what a lawless West actually means for someone who lives in the comfort of rules. While a simple Western would put John Wayne against Liberty Valance, this film substitutes Mr. Smith on his way to Washington. Jimmy Stewart is a delight in this performance, certainly one of his best, and it’s satisfying to see one of my favorite actors of the time dropped into a different world that I also adore.
The film handles literacy with great care. The town benefits from Stoddard’s teachings, and the classroom scenes are some of the strongest. Ford uses the film to comment on the progress of the nation with nods to the advancement of African Americans and the work of Lincoln. In the almost comically fake Hollywood soundstage, where most of the movie takes place indoors, Ford works mise-en-scène masterfully to make visual suggestions about equality and progress without forcing them into the script too heavily.
I couldn’t recommend The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance more highly. It’s a mature film, clearly one of the later Westerns. It handles masculinity and the changing American West as well as any film could, and it punches hard. This is one hell of a film, and I’d call it essential viewing for the genre.
Films Left to Watch: 826