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When Senator Ransom Stoddard returns home to Shinbone for the funeral of Tom Doniphon, he recounts to a local newspaper editor the story behind it all. He had come to town many years before, a lawyer by profession. The stage was robbed on its way in by the local ruffian, Liberty Valance, and Stoddard has nothing to his name left save a few law books. He gets a job in the kitchen at the Ericson's restaurant and there meets his future wife, Hallie. The territory is vying for Statehood and Stoddard is selected as a representative over Valance, who continues terrorizing the town. When he destroys the local newspaper office and attacks the editor, Stoddard calls him out, though the conclusion is not quite as straightforward as legend would have it. Written by
Anticipating Peckinpah and Eastwood, John Ford's Hamlet-like Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance deconstructs the legends of the Old West as a place where good always triumphed over evil and civilization overcame barbarism, a myth that he helped to create. Ford's 1962 film, based on the story by Dorothy M. Johnson, looks at how myths are created and, in its complex vision of the passing of an era, both pines for the lawless open spaces and eagerly anticipates the railroads bringing paved roads, schools, and law enforcement. The film contains the classic phrase "When truth becomes legend, print the legend", cited by a journalist who refuses to print newly discovered facts about an incident surrounded in myth that took place years before.
While there are stereotypes and all-too familiar stock characters, Liberty Valance succeeds because of strong performances by John Wayne as the macho embodiment of the old school, and Jimmy Stewart as the man who brings literacy and respect for law to the small town, though unconvincing as a young man just out of law school. Shot in black and white on a studio sound stage, the film opens with gray-haired Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) arriving at a small frontier town named Shinbone with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles). Met at the train station by a reporter eager for a story, Senator Stoddard tells him that he came to attend the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).
It is there that he reunites with Tom's dependable ranch hand Pompey (Woody Strode) and, since no one remembers Tom Doniphon, relates his story that takes us back to the time before the coming of the railroads. As Stoddard tells it, he was a young law graduate who arrived from the East in a stagecoach, following the advice "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country" first made in 1851 by John B. L. Soule, editor of the Terre Haute Express and incorrectly attributed to Horace Greeley. His welcome to Shinbone, however, is not what he had hoped. He is met by a sadistic bandit named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) who robs the stagecoach and beats Stoddard after he tries to protect a female passenger.
Rancher Tom Doniphon finds him unconscious and brings him to Hallie, his girlfriend's house. When Stoddard recovers, he asks the Marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) to make an arrest but Doniphon soon sets him straight about how justice is done in Shinbone - with the barrel of a gun. Without money, Stoddard works in the family restaurant as a dishwasher and also for the editor of the local newspaper, a man named Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) who is overly fond of the bottle.
Ransom develops an interest in Hallie and soon sets up classes to teach her and other locals how to read and write and also to convey the finer points of democracy and its institutions. Threatened by Valance and taunted by Doniphon, Stoddard goes against his ideals and learns how to shoot a gun with the help of Doniphon who "educates" him and shows him the error of his liberal ways.
After Stoddard and Peabody defeat Valance in an election to be representatives to the Sate Senate and an editorial appears contrasting the goals of statehood with the interests of Valance and the cattlemen, Dutton is severely beaten by Valance who then baits Stoddard into a gunfight. The showdown between Stoddard and Liberty is the centerpiece of the film and the shot heard round the West allows the victor to build an entire career based on the incident.
The legend of Shinbone will soon be joined by real-life icons Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, and Kit Carson and the truth about the West with its corruption, misogyny, domination of the weak by the strong, and Native American genocide will be quietly buried. John Ford helped to romanticize the West and create the myth and, now in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he allows us to understand its melancholy and its lie.
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