I’ve watched John Ford’s 1962 classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance numerous times, and often forced friends to do the same. It resonates more with each viewing, particularly so in recent years. Liberty premiered in a time when the United States was facing daunting changes on the horizon, internally and externally.
Much like the railroad bringing successful U.S. Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) back for a mysterious visit to this inconsequential, backwater place, change is coming to the mythical town of Shinbone whether they like it or not. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) is the cocksure horse trader who finds a young Stoddard robbed and beaten out in the dessert, the victim of a stagecoach heist, and brings him into town to be cared for by kindly Swedish immigrants.
In 1962, the United States was still brimming with pride over the victory of World War II. We had a young, vibrant President who threw down the gauntlet against world Communism, claiming we would “Pay any price, bear any burden” in fighting it. Unfortunately, the U.S. was called on this bluff when the last helicopter left the rooftop of the American Embassy in Saigon in 1975.
Doniphon sees this newcomer to Shinbone and doesn’t know what to make of him. Stoddard is a leading light, bringing education, modernization, and the associated complications. Suddenly, this is a world that Doniphon does not recognize. One he may not belong in anymore. His secret desire? To become Stoddard–but will he have opportunity to change?
Stoddard is the agent of change, cracking open the old society and birthing the new. Stoddard is the youthful 1960s protestors trashing the society that brought them wealth and comfort and embracing an ideology that wants to enslave them. But the danger on Stoddard’s horizon is given human form in Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) himself. Now progress and change needs a protector. Stoddard learned at the movie’s beginning that, as Gene Pitney sang”, when it came to shooting straight and fast, a law book was no good.”
Now the cowboy boot is on the other foot, as Stoddard seeks to stand tall against Valance, to learn the ways of Doniphon. In the final showdown, Stoddard stands helpless against Valance, but amazingly and nonsensically comes out victorious. Valance, his tormentor, the man standing in the way of progress, is killed with a single shot. Doniphon is nowhere to be found.
Two years later, Stoddard, still wracked with guilt over the death of Valance, again sees Doniphon. Doniphon is not the man he once was; the old guard having slowly decayed under the effects of alcoholism. He tells Stoddard what really happened the night Valance died. Doniphon, as unable to join the modern world as Valance was, sacrificed his own world for the sake of progress. He secretly shot Valance in the back from an alley, giving Stoddard the credit, and a new era arrived.
Yet Doniphon does not like what he himself has become. He chooses alcohol to deal with the pain of lost integrity.
At the movie’s end, Stoddard thanks the train porter for taking him back to Washington. The porter replies, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.” Senator Stoddard says nothing in response. He accepts the new world he helped usher in, and even prospers, comfortable with his place in the lie.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance speaks to the popularity of trashing the men and women who founded and nurtured our country throughout perilous times. Their heroism and sacrifice were given to different causes, some more popular than others, but all the same they helped usher in the world and nation we enjoy today. We are Stoddard– fat and happy, some grateful, some scornful, but most knowing we would come up short in a showdown with the evil faced by the likes of those forbearers . . . our Tom Doniphons.