Hey Pilgrim, You Forgot Your Pop-Gun: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Leave it to 1962 to be the year that repeats the most during my month of westerns and even more  impressive is that it has further proven to be a year of excellent pieces of cinema, both How The West Was Won and Lonely Are The Brave vying for my favorite film of the entire month long marathon.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance could easily compete with these films on many levels, precisely considering that not only does incorporate the Ford/Wayne combination which carries the same sort of admiration and validity as Leone/Eastwood, yet what makes Valance particularly notable is that it also includes James Stewart, who is putting on some of the best work of his entire career as a wide-eyed and overly idealistic character, which he would make a career out of, but, nonetheless, takes on a new level within this film.  As I have come to realize as I have gotten through this entire month of films, I am realizing that one of the main things of westerns post 1960 is the manner with which they will first set up the expectations of the traditional western, only to immediately deconstruct them in wild and unimaginable ways.  While Valance does not deconstruct the genre in the ways the El Topo or Sholay it does reconsider the types of masculinity that not only occupy the space of the west, but, more importantly, who is respected based on their varying degrees of masculinity.  Of course, the notion of masculinity has always been of huge importance within the western, but it is decidedly so for Ford, one only needs to reflect on his classic Stagecoach and the introduction of Wayne in this film to really realize that fact.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance manages to perfectly divide itself between the shootouts and gunslinging notable for a Ford western, including excellent performances by both Lee Marvin and Lee Van Cleef to heighten the intensity, as well as being what could be a theoretical prequel to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington where a beleaguered politician realizes the world of back door deals within the most minor of political interactions.  What Valance is, aside from a great western, is a prophetic and established statement on the way society interacts with itself on an intimate, as well as large scale.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance starts in the future with the return of Ransom "Ranse" Stodard (James Stewart) to the town of Shinbone, along with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) in what initially appears to be a minor political move to meet with the constituents for his former town.  Yet when they arrive at a funeral home it becomes clear that they are indeed their to pay their respects to their late friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who has died assumedly of old age.  During his reflections on his time in Shinbone, Ransom begins recalling his initial trip to the west, quoting Horace Greeley in the process, yet it is during his initial arrival to the city when Ransom's stagecoach is robbed by the notorious Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).  This interaction leads to Ransom promising that he will assure that Liberty meets justice sometime in the future, an act that leads to mocking on the part of Tom upon Ransom's arrival, Tom believing that the only way to undermine the gunslinger is through the use of lead, knowing full and well that law will never retain the devilish individual.  As Liberty continues to ransack the town, Ransom and Tom come to odds about the proper way to deal with the criminal, all the while their town, along with the larger state, attempt to push to statehood and endeavor that draws in Liberty who wants a say in the endeavors with the hope that it will afford him more power for his cattle business, and a larger influence over the community he has instilled a great fear within.   Ultimately, Ransom realizes his legal threats hold no water against the wild and irrepressible Liberty leading to a shootout in the streets of Shinbone that lead to Ransom being injured, but, ultimately, to the death of Liberty.  This heroic act leads to Ransom becoming the icon of the town and a heightened political figure, one who is elected to senate on the basis of him being the "man who shot Liberty Valance," which is to some a point of praise, while to others it is a vilified action.  Yet when Ransom is second guessing his own respectability as a politician, Tom informs him that he may have helped a bit in the downing of the gunslinger on that fateful night, adding a fire to Ransom's political aspirations, so much so, that he makes a career of it, being certain to return to Shinbone to thank Tom for his help upon his death, not to mention forever being hesitant to embrace his hefty moniker.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance certainly falls with the "traditionalist" framework when discussing it as a western.  It includes the definitive good guy figure, as well as the obvious and unquestionable bad guy figure.  However, where it takes a decided departure is when it comes to consider who is the better of two goods, as opposed to the more often considered lesser of two evils.  One is hard pressed to decide who they are expected to like more between the stoic and determined Tom and the idealistic and equally determined Ransom.  They are approaching ethics and justice from two completely opposing spectrums and Ford devours the possibilities, often having the presence of Liberty's threats be at the very least secondary to the action occurring within the film, in fact, for a film that bases its title upon the killing of such an assumedly central figure, Liberty Valance essentially serves as a concept with which the two good guys must conceptualize how to properly deal with an issue.  Tom is fully convinced that the only way to counteract Liberty is through an equal, and, therefore, greater use of led, hoping to gun him and his wild posse down in the streets, whereas, Ransom believes that like a secular preacher he can raise his authoritative book of laws and by some form of magic they will essentially stop the possessed man in his tracks.  Of course neither Ransom or Tom is completely right, one being so inclined to use violence that he completely overlooks its very real effects on a community that must repair every bullet hole or lost life in the process, whereas the lack of immediacy with Ransom's political threats result in a grey area of time where lawlessness is allowed in hopes of future reprimands.  In typical Ford fashion everything is realized by the end, but it proves a burden for both men to acknowledge that their embraced ways of life are inevitably predicated on their own reliance, even if minimal on the belief systems of the other.  Tom is forced to embrace the power of a political voice to stretch beyond the confines of a city and exact moral change to the masses, while Ransom comes to realize that when seeking justice in some cases it is absolutely necessary to break a few bad eggs, often with necessary voice, a framework that Ford cleverly extends to the political process.  In essence, neither framework is completely correct, but viewers are certainly assured that Liberty was completely wrong.

Key Scene:  The entire "steak" ordering scene is acting and editing at some of its finest of the era.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly and while a small computer can be a bit oppressive to its large statement, it is certainly worth watching in this format as soon as possible.

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