By Caroline Nelson ‘16Film Columnist
In the wake of the recent election and its questions about what it means to be an American, what shape the future of our country should take, and what it means to live in a democratic state, one could do worse than to turn to John Ford’s masterpiece “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” This film is an examination of how the democratic principle and a desire for civil society take root amongst a motley assortment of people, eventually bringing us the commonwealth we inhabit today.
But it is also a look at the darker side of this process. The film delves into how the process is grounded in violence, illustrating the price we all pay for civilization and the lies and compromises on which we base the most fundamental aspects of our existence. It is a Western that lives up to the genre’s full potential.
In the past few decades the genre has come under fierce critique to the point that people who have never seen a Western are convinced of their fundamental stupidity and jingoism. John Ford both helped create and critique the conventions of the genre. This film takes many of the assumptions about the form and turns them on their heads to the point where most of the “innovations” of the revisionist HBO show “Deadwood” are really borrowed from Liberty Valance along with most of the central themes. Where one expects wide, open spaces, this film offers claustrophobic interiors. Instead of a celebration of a character taking justice into his own hands, one finds a sad portrait of lost idealism. And in the place of an affirmation of traditional gender roles, this film questions the value of many traditionally masculine traits.
This movie is made by one of American cinema’s greatest directors (the only one to have ever won four Academy Awards for directing) and when one carefully studies the mise en scene and framing of the shots it’s not hard to see why. The story of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a long flashback narrated by the protagonist Ransom Stoddard (played by the classic Hollywood nice guy Jimmy Stewart) when he returns to the town where the events of the film take place along with his wife (a spirited and touching performance by the lovely Vera Miles) in order to attend the funeral longtime friend Tom Doniphon (played by the quintessential Western star John Wayne). These characters and this community’s attempts at self-governance pit them against the psychopath after whom the film is named—Liberty Valance, portrayed with frightening viciousness by a compelling Lee Marvin.
All these actors give brilliant performances. Jimmy Stewart is always brilliant as the idealistic character. But he plays one whose darker side is revealed when pushed past breaking point. John Wayne is at his best as the knight in sour armor. While struggling with a sense of greater decency, his stoic façade lurks for violence and self-destruction. The knowledge that he will be shot does little to diminish Valance’s threat. He is hired by moneyed interests to prevent political organization with his particular brand of violence, bullying, and sexual sadism. All these factors sort themselves out in one of the greatest plot twists in the history of cinema and a heartbreaking conclusion that evokes the unknown sacrifices that paved the way for modern society.