The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was such a startling break with the Western as it was previously understood that few knew quite what to make of it in 1962, when it was released to mild success at the box office and mixed reviews. As time went on, though, this atypically tricksy and irony-drenched John Ford film came to be acclaimed as a masterpiece, a postmodern Western before anyone thought to bother applying critical exegesis to “oaters,” as Variety dismissively labeled the genre.
Later critics became increasingly fascinated with Möbius-strip filmmaking that turned back on itself, so The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance became celebrated for questioning the news media, mythmaking, and the Western as a form. Ford’s films were generally defined more by their painterly composition than by waspish dialogue, but at almost the end of the director’s 50-year career, this one would produce perhaps the most famous line uttered in any of his scores of movies: “This is the West, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Long before Watergate-era cynicism about the media set in, we were told with a wink by perhaps the West’s principal mythologist to be skeptical about everything we had been told. Fittingly, a Ford biography would later be entitled Print the Legend.
For students of the Founding, though, the film’s status as an early example of Hollywood self-critique is not as salient as the historical currents running through it. (TCM’s on-demand service is streaming the film through November 29 as part of a celebration of Ford films that includes a new one-hour documentary.) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ruminates on themes Jonah Goldberg develops astutely in his book Suicide of the West, in a section built around The Godfather. As Goldberg lays out, the opening scene of The Godfather is a stark illustration of the conflict between the Old World barbarism of eye-for-an-eye vengeance and a modern American ideal of sometimes imperfect but nonetheless procedurally based justice. The undertaker Amerigo Bonasera is corrupted by his thirst for vengeance in the opening scene and agrees to renounce American justice for the more satisfying promises of clan-based codes, presaging Michael Corleone’s later reversion from New World, Ivy League legitimacy to the medieval moral nightmare of blood feuds.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is The Godfather in reverse: Through violence, a lawless land gets dragged into modernity. In a corner of the West that is on the cusp of statehood, a culture of gunfighters gets displaced by a culture of politicians and lawyers. When idealistic young lawyer Ransom Stoddard, played by James Stewart, arrives in town, he is determined to remove the menace posed by the brutal, murderous bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) by putting him in jail. The ace gunfighter Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, scoffs at him for being a city slicker who doesn’t understand how things work out here on the frontier, and advises him to get a gun. But the film actually takes Stoddard’s side and makes the case that accepting the rule of law rather than bowing to raw displays of power is how a town becomes modern.
The name “Liberty Valance” is a dark irony; though the mythology of the Old West holds that it is a place of maximum liberty, true liberty is contingent on the rule of law. Because everyone is terrified of getting beaten or killed by him, Liberty Valance undermines democratic choice by threatening voters with his whip, and he interferes with freedom of the press when he destroys the town’s only newspaper office, and beats the proprietor nearly to death, for printing a (true) story about him.
The movie’s competing philosophies are mapped along a geographic divide: the Picketwire River (apparently itself a corruption of the Purgatoire River, in Colorado). North of this landmark, we are told, are nasty cattle barons who oppose statehood and wish to retain the anything-goes nature of the Old West. Liberty Valance, it turns out, is an employee of these men, who seek to quash the threat posed by the people, south of the river, who are more numerous and hence represent the democratic ideal of solving disputes at the ballot box rather than at gunpoint. The cattlemen have “high-handed ideas, whatever they are,” Stoddard notes, disdaining the vagueness of unwritten law based on power. South of the Picketwire, though, “We want statehood, because it means the protection of farms and fences. It means schools for our children and progress for the future.”
The lawlessness of the Old West is, like the institution of slavery, a betrayal of the Founding ideals, and Stoddard stands for a new, laws-based America that lives up to the Declaration and the Constitution. A scene in the middle of the movie that does nothing to advance the plot serves this subtext. We have learned earlier that Stoddard wishes to teach the illiterate residents to read, but that isn’t what he’s doing here. Instead, he’s teaching the Founding. One of his students, Doniphon’s farmhand Pompey (Woody Strode), is a black man. Stoddard asks Pompey in class to tell what he has learned about “the basic law of the land.” Pompey confuses the Founding documents, but that’s understandable because of the consonance of the two: “It was writ by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia,” Pompey says. “He called it the Constitution.” With some prompting from Stoddard, who clarifies that Pompey is talking about the Declaration, Pompey recalls that it begins with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Pompey is presaging the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who in his “I have a dream” speech the year following the film’s release, would famously call the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence a joint “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” King noted that “All men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That the John Wayne conception of the Old West does not guarantee these things is made clear when Doniphon bursts into the schoolroom to tell his employee Pompey that he’s wasting his time and must get back to work. Later in the film the cattlemen who wish to retain the lawless territorial status for the area make their case via a speech given by a retired Southern officer who has the audacity to cite Abraham Lincoln in support of his cause while still wearing his Confederate uniform. The link is clear: The Old West represents the same denial of American rights that obtained in the slaveholding South.
Pompey, the black farmhand, is a minor figure in the film and yet he is the fulcrum upon which it turns (he even supplies the rifle used to kill Liberty Valance). By helping to kill Liberty, he makes possible genuine liberty. Tom Doniphon fires what amounts to the last gunshot of the might-makes-right era in the Old West; that he is consumed by guilt and psychologically destroyed by his act marks a radical departure from previous Westerns, in which dispatching bad men was framed as a noble, manly duty. His way of settling disputes is no longer acceptable. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a tale of why John Wayne’s America had to give way to James Madison’s America.