The man who shot Liberty Valance

My relationship with Western movies is very lukewarm. I have never taken to the genre, and every time the prospect of watching one presents itself, my first reaction is to reject the prospect. I don’t like either the mad violence, or the terrible accents or the overbearing attitudes so characteristic of these movies. And I think these movies are over simplistic.

And yet, there are a few Western movies that I have been quite impressed with (Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is definitely amongst them). I think I will put Man who shot Liberty Valance also in this list of aberrations, since I was quite taken with the movie. Although I also have to say it is not a typical west movie, because the protagonist, James Stewart is an educated lawyer- an antidote of the Western cowboy. And the other hero, Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne) who is the typical cowboy, remains more in the shadows even though the entire movie kind of revolves around him.

The movie starts with a US Senator, Ransom Stoddard (played by Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) returning to a small western town Shinbone for a funeral of a friend (Tom). While talking to the local newsmen, Ransom recounts the story of his coming to this town, when the land was ruled by the gun in stead of laws. He himself had an encounter with an outlaw: Liberty Valance, and had decided to bring this man to legal justice. However, the townsfolk advice him to either use the gun for revenge or forget about Valance. Stoddard, unwilling to give up, tries to educate the townfolk and organize them into a community, perhaps trying to defeat Valance by law in the longer run. But as Valance’s atrocities on the town grow in response to his actions, he takes up the gun reluctantly and shoots the outlaw. It is this grand feat, which makes him immensely popular in Shinbone and the rest of the district, and leads to his election as a delegate to Washington to lobby for statehood.
Sometime during the elections, we (and Ransom) are however told the truth behind the killing – it is the village cowboy Tom’s bullet that actually killed Valance and not Ransom’s. This revelation rids Ransom of the guilt and he pursues the legal path, also stealing from Tom his sweetheart Hallie.

The reason I liked the movie had very little to do with the sympathy I felt towards Tom – though the very little did play some part. He got neither the glory, nor the girl and died a lonely death. In a way, Stoddard got to live a life that was Tom’s.
I was touched even more by the dilemma of ‘change’ that seemed to plague the movie and the town of Shinbone. It seemed that though the locals welcomed the more organized and developed town, they still felt a clutch at the heart for leaving behind their old way of life. Even Ransom and Hallie seem to feel a yearning for the quiet life of the village, despite their good fortune.

I loved both Wayne and Stewart in the movie, though Wayne looked a little too old for the role – at points he seemed to be dragging himself in his Western attire. But his slowness lent a pretty touch to the movie – he seemed to be comfortable being the silent spectator in the shadow. Stewart, even though he must be as old as Wayne at the time, was more agile and quite the face of the ‘change’ man that he was intended to be and he slipped easily into the kind of slightly imperfect hero that he has played several times elsewhere.

4 thoughts on “The man who shot Liberty Valance

  1. you chose what is probably the best “Western” ever made. I agree both were a little too old for the part but that actually adds a bit of sadness to the story, specially for the John Wayne character. The film shows how the world is changing and how he, being the representative of the old world, will be gone soon too. ” It seemed that though the locals welcomed the more organized and developed town, they still felt a clutch at the heart for leaving behind their old way of life.”Yes, this is one of the consistent themes in Ford’s films – his traditionalism and the way he shows how these old traditions and values don’t have a chance against the passage of time. He is not really judgmental or against progress. He just wants to show the costs of progress.I recently saw My Darling Clementine which was also quite good, even though a bit conventional. John Ford’s The Searchers is also considered a great classic. I also wrote about two other John Ford movies on blog recently – How Green was my Valley and The Informer both were quite good too.also minor quibble: it’s “valance” not “valence”!


  2. Oops! I think the engineer is still subconsciously trying to make me see the world in scientific terms :-)Thanks for correcting me.I haven’t seen any famous Ford movies before – not even Grapes of Wrath, which I have been told is a very good adaptation. I will find some more movies from him.


  3. I really really like Stewart but this one of the few movies he starred in that I haven’t seen. I think partly because the plot synopsius really reminds me of “High Noon”, which is really great. Gary Cooper is quite fantastic 🙂


  4. I like Stewart too – especially his mildly despondent look 🙂 I have not seen High Noon – though you are right, it does sound a little like Valance, but while High Noon focuses on the theme of duty and betrayal by fellowmen (this strictly based on secondary knowledge!), Valance is about change, development and also, misplaced glory.


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