The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Real men wear aprons It’s only taken 26 years, but I’ve finally reached the point where I can watch an honest-to-God John Ford western. My whole life, I’ve associated John Wayne with my dad, my grandpa, and traditional ideals of masculinity that on some level I’ve always rejected. From pudgy, monster-obsessed elementary schooler to scrawny, music-obsessed hipster-about-town, I’ve never much felt the urge to embrace the Western. Maybe more accurately, I’ve never been sure if I’m up for it — would The Duke simply be too much man for me to handle?

The answer: Well, sort of. Wayne certainly swaggers more than he acts, but even though his appeal seems to boil down to his ability to exude machismo while doing little more than standing still, Ford puts that presence to excellent use. And, as if as a nod to pasty nerds like myself, Valance makes a hero out of an intelligent, determined and thoroughly non-macho character.

Having been exposed to Westerns only though modern revivals (the excellent, exceedingly sombre The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and revisionist classics (Unforgiven, McCabe and Mrs. Miller), I can’t rightly say how Valance fits into the traditional pantheon. It gives off the impression of being transitional, though. The snivelling, overweight marshal (played to the obnoxious hilt by Andy Devine), for example, comes across as obligatory comic relief, something to keep the story from getting overly bleak. But bleakness is where Valance naturally gravitates. Although the framing story (with senator Jimmy Stewart attending the funeral of an old friend) makes it clear from the beginning that both Stewart and Wayne will emerge from the proceedings relatively unscathed, from the moment we flash back to the main story, things get rough. Stewart starts this section of the film by getting beaten nearly to death and robbed of all his earthly belongings. All he has left is his dignity, a few of his law books and the determination to get revenge on the man who wronged him not through gunfighting, but through the legal system.

Stewart was born to play this sort of sincerely determined idealist, and occasionally, Ford overdoes it. When Stewart discovers (to his shock) that many of the folks in the town he’s ended up in are illiterate, his conviction about the importance of education makes a bee-line for the stereotypically schmaltzy Stewart. But more often than not, his twitchy, nervous and endlessly decent persona is perfectly at odds with the Old West setting.

It’s also perfectly at odds with Wayne, who brays his way through scenes with the ease of someone who’s done this a thousand times before. I still can’t imagine watching Wayne carry a full movie, barking his lines in the most cocksure manner possible, but the secondary role suits him wonderfully. Rather than having to be a real person, he can be the stoic gunslinger, thoroughly devoted to the code of survival and manliness of which Stewart represents the end.

I’m still undecided as to whether the end of the movie is optimistic or bitterly cynical. Stewart, having been a thorn in the side of the no-good Liberty Valance for too long, has been called out for a gunfight. He stands his ground and, remarkably, wins — presumably because Valance is soused out of his gourd. The victory grants Stewart the popularity to run for office, but at the cost of his integrity — how can someone build a career on law and order when they built their name in a gunfight?

The revelation that Stewart is not, in fact, the man who killed Liberty Valance, that Wayne had been hiding in the shadows — “cold-blooded murder,” he calls it — should alleviate Stewart’s guilt, but it’s not so simple. The cost to Wayne’s soul is staggering. He ignores his code of honour by shooting a man who wasn’t threatening him, and does it so that Stewart can be with the girl that Wayne clearly loves… the sacrifice takes a clear toll. So the old west denigrates itself to make way for the new, and the new trades on a grittiness and authenticity that it never truely earned. When the train conductor tells Stewart at the end that “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” it’s meant with sincerity but comes across as a blade to the gut. The man who truly shot Liberty died with nothing; no love and likely not much in the way of self respect. But nothing’s too good for the man who was content to take the credit.

One Response to “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
  1. Mary says:

    I don’t know much about westerns either, but I think some nice bookends for the “classic” western period are Stagecoach (the beginning) and The Searchers (to my mind, a kind of anti-Western), both John Ford/John Wayne collaborations. And I never realized until now that Wayne actually doesn’t carry either movie 100%. He’s just such a big star that you automatically think of them as “John Wayne movies”, which isn’t necessarily the case.

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