Like most kids raised in the south (or even just raised by a certain generation), no one was hero worshipped more than John Wayne. He was treated like a symbol of a perceived lost manhood, an ideal of a time gone by. The fact that he was a huge fucking racist and a drunk was not well known, and if it was, didn’t seem to effect opinions of him. And, I have never been a fan of the man. Probably why I steered away from any movie he was in for so many years.
But my grandmother really worshipped John Wayne. Knew all of his films by heart. And would extol all their virtues at a moment’s notice. Even shit like The Conqueror.
But, there was one of his movies that she fucking hated. Would call it his worst movie, and would never watch it. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
So late in high school, during my tear of watching the classics of the golden age of hollywood, I ended up seeing Liberty Valance, and I fucking loved it. I think it might have been the only time I disappointed my grandmother.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is of a rare class of western in my view, the anti-old-west western. The entire narrative arch of the film is explaining how the old west died in this particular town and state. To me that’s what makes it interesting. John Ford plunges us into a traditional old west setting, complete with immigrant stereotypes, random violence (and the glorification thereof), and the rule of the gun.
From there, we sort of have the layers peel away of this old-westness. This is the only western I can recall where a character is proud to become an american citizen and get the right to vote.
I think what Ford does so successfully here is explain why the west had to die. Why the average citizen benefits better under a system of government, and what has to be sacrificed to make that happen.
I want to shout out a few film related things here. First, Lee fucking Marvin
Lee Marvin in the Lee Marvin role here. Fucking chewing the scenery. What I love about this scene (aside from the chaos that is Lee Marvin) is Jimmy Stewarts part here. Its the typical kind of western showdown. Two guns yelling at each other, and here is Jimmy Stewart, in an apron, screaming for civilized discourse.
Feels familiar doesn’t it.
Also, for being “allegedly” a budgetary constraint, John Ford does wonders with black and white. It’s hard to imagine what this film would be like in color, and I think it would be much worse for the wear. This film needs the shadows to let the underbelly seep in. You feel the darkness of night in this film. No day for night up in here. Ford luxuriates in the ambiguity of action in this film.
I also think the choice of not having the big vistas like his other films is key in hammering home the themes. Again, supposedly for budget, but it completely works here. You aren’t saturated with the big vision of the west. This is about transition. Changing out of the old into the new. And the whole point is to not hero worship the old west.
Lets talk about the ending, cause much is definitely made of it.
To me, the interesting part isn’t the fact that Jimmy Stewart’s character doesn’t kill Liberty Valance, the interesting part is John Wayne’s character’s awareness of what he did. Tom has to give up not just “his girl” as he tells Ransom, but his whole way of existing. He has to give up the west for a better future. And he has to be the person responsible.
He kills Liberty Valance in secret because he knows that if its just a straight bushwack or if he came out of the shadows and just dueled him down, nothing would change. The cattle barons would send another hired gun. But, to keep the narrative that his town and territory needs to grow up, a man of the law stands tall against the disorder of the old west, he stays in the shadows and loses it all.
I think that’s why my grandmother hates this film. This is John Wayne at his LEAST John Wayne. This isn’t the rugged figure on a horse. This is a dude in the shadows who straights up kills a man in a fight he wasn’t involved in, just to move on.
That’s interesting. Much more interesting than more than half of all the films John Wayne was ever in. This is why I think this is the best western of that era, and John Wayne’s most interesting film.
I bring up this film now because it seems like no one learned the lessons of this film. People are out here defending the new Georgia voting bullshit by saying that it in fact SHOULD be easier to own a gun than vote.
It’s like conservative people saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and chose to side with Liberty Valance.
I think more than anything else, the film is a celebration of the franchise. About the fact that we get to pick our own system of government and no fucking gun can take that away.