Thoughts on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) follows its own advice, presenting an entire world and even myth out of one incident: a bullying menace and how he got shot. The outcome is never in doubt—it’s in the title—and even the twist is extremely obvious. Hence, contrary to expectations of realist films, this western stands out for how comprehensive a town and a world it manages to build around its central event.

Richard Brody really outdoes himself this time, submitting a retrospective review so insightful it was quoted by Roger Ebert himself, who I can’t recall ever quoting another review before. As Brody, notes, the world erected around the event is nothing short of civilization itself, composed of the bare essentials in true mythical fashion. If we were to place the four leads on an alignment chart, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) would be Lawful Good, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) would be Chaotic Evil, Hallie would be Neutral Good—and, perhaps surprisingly, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) would be Chaotic Good. His tolerance of Valance’s presence, despite being a better shot, is strictly speaking inexplicable. Ebert implies that, in the love triangle, having Valance around keeps Stoddard in check, but this doesn’t explain the state of affairs before Stoddard is carted into town. A darker interpretation might be that Valance makes Doniphon look good in comparison; without him, Doniphon’s taciturn comings and goings would strike people as rude, maybe even worthy of suspicion.

When Doniphon’s down he throws and burns things (or maybe he was just venting from John Ford’s harassment?); when Stoddard’s down, he does the dishes. And that’s why Stoddard, not Doniphon, deserves to be the Founding Father figure. It’s like Batman and Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight (2008), but with less extrajudicial violence.

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