With a remake in the works, it’s time now to re-evaluate The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. Wikipedia informs us that the iconic film director John Ford considered it his favorite film. And critic Roger Ebert wrote that each of the ten Ford/Wayne westerns is “… complete and self-contained in a way that approaches perfection”, and singled out Liberty Valance as “the most pensive and thoughtful” of the group.
It begins with a much too long expository scene. Senator Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (played by James Stewart made up to be well into his seventies) along with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) return to the frontier town of Shinbone, to attend the funeral of Stoddard’s old cowboy friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Oddly, the town newspaper editor never heard of Doniphon, despite his legendary reputation, made clear by Stoddard, who then relates both his and Doniphon’s story, at the editor’s behest.
The presence of a telephone at the railway station in the opening scene suggests that the story begins a little after the turn of the century, possibly 1905. Stoddard relates how he came to Shinbone years earlier as an idealistic young attorney, where he immediately was drastically assaulted by Liberty Valance during a stagecoach robbery. Can we assume this might have occurred 25 years earlier, perhaps around 1880? Stoddard, as a young attorney, would probably have been about 30 years old (Stewart is miscast here, as he was a little over 50 when he acted in Ford’s picture).
Now the location of the story is never revealed, but a big part of the plot revolves around “homesteaders” and “big ranchers.” The homesteaders (which include small landowners, small farmers, etc.) are in favor of statehood and the moneyed interests (cattle barons, etc.) oppose them. While historians inform us that for the most part the wild west was relatively non-violent (especially in comparison to what’s happening today, particularly in the big cities), there was one bloody conflict, the Johnson County War, which occurred in Johnson, Wyoming, between 1889 and 1893, which may have been the model for the conflict alluded to in Liberty Valance.
But even if you buy the idea that a criminal like Valance might have ended up as some kind of private contractor for the WSGA, the idea that everyone in the town of Shinbone was a milquetoast (epitomised by the bumbling sheriff played by Andy Devine), and was afraid to stand up to someone like Valance is absurd. Here, only Tom Doniphon has the guts to stand up to Valance, along with Stoddard (who advocates a non-violent approach).
After some small ranchers were falsely accused by WSGA detectives as “rustlers,” and were killed, the homesteaders formed their own organisation, the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers’ Association (NWFSGA). As Wikipedia tells us, the WSGA hired 23 gunmen and 4 cattle detectives and ended up assassinating the head of the NWFSGA. Various dignitaries including a State Senator joined the gunmen and in response (now read this!) the Sheriff in the nearby town of Buffalo GATHERED A POSSE OF 200 MEN and ended up cornering the WSGA men at a ranch where there was a standoff for two days. Only the intervention of Federal troops on orders from President Benjamin Harrison prevented further bloodshed. So much for wimpy homesteaders!
Another plot contrivance which I find hard to swallow is the idea that a Senator from the frontier would have taken up the mantle of pacifism during that time. The wimpy Stoddard is such a pacifist that he walks out after being nominated to represent the pro-Statehood forces in Congress. Why does he walk out? Because he feels guilty that he violated his pacifist precepts by shooting Liberty Valance. It’s only AFTER Doniphon reveals that it was he who shot Valance, that Stoddard has a change of heart. Now his guilt is assuaged and he can accept the nomination.
The only thing good about this film is the twist that it was Doniphon and not Stoddard who shot Liberty Valance. After the duel, the rest is anti-climactic. Wimpy Stoddard goes on to become Senator and Doniphon takes to the bottle, after he fails to “get the girl.” It’s odd that macho John Wayne accepted the Tom Doniphon part. Perhaps he liked the idea that the macho Doniphon was a flawed character who could so easily self-destruct.
I can’t but help also suggest that “Liberty” is a parable about McCarthyism considering the film’s release in 1962. Doniphon might have been a stand-in for McCarthy who took to the bottle after being censured by the Senate. The fight might have been justified but the methods weren’t. Doniphon must pay a price—and it’s the pacifist, Stoddard, who is ultimately rewarded.