This year marks the 60th anniversary of the theatrical release of John Ford’s classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Marking the first onscreen collaboration between John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, the picture is widely regarded as being among the very greatest Westerns ever made. The storyline touches on a number of important socio-political themes, including the role of the press, race, the democratic process, the emancipation of women, the importance of education, and much else. To my mind, what especially marks the film’s continued relevance is its examination of the criticality of order—as a necessary precursor for justice and, thereby, peace—for the securing and propagation of a free society.
Set in the tiny western town of Shinbone, an isolated outpost in an unincorporated US territory teetering on the precipice of statehood, the film takes its thematic bones broadly from Dorothy M. Johnson’s 1953 short story of the same name. Two men—Tom Doniphan (John Wayne) and Ranse Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart)—whose fates intersect in the film’s eponymous shooting are the central focus. Their story is told largely in flashback, bookended with events occurring around the funeral of Doniphan, which takes place in the film’s modern day. Stoddard, an influential senator, is a surprise guest at the service. When the local paper asks him why so important a man is attending the funeral of largely unknown and seemingly insignificant person, Stoddard tells the central story that forms the core of the film.
A short synopsis. The film opens with Stoddard traveling on a stagecoach along an isolated road in the desert toward Shinbone. The coach is ambushed by Liberty Valance and his gang. After robbing the passengers, Valance discovers Stoddard is an attorney intending to set up a practice in town. Valance tears up the lawbooks and beats Stoddard nearly to death, leaving him unconscious on the side of the road. Doniphan comes along in his own horse and cart, discovers Stoddard, and carries him into Shinbone. He takes Stoddard to an inn and pays the innkeeper to nurse him back to health.
Here we pause in our synopsis. The 20th century Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey wrote significantly about the Good Samaritan as he examined the ethics of the use of force. Whatever one might think about the ramifications on self-defense of Christ’s instruction to turn the other cheek, Ramsey observed, surely few would suggest the mandate includes exposing the other side of your assaulted neighbor’s face to his attackers’ repeated blows. What then, Ramsey asked, might we suppose the Good Samaritan ought to have done had he arrived on scene while the assailants were still at their fell work? Or if such assaults weren’t isolated and rare occurrences but rather a routine and larger systemic crisis? John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance grapples with this question. In fact, Johnson’s short story directly evokes the biblical parable when she describes Doniphan’s rescue of Stoddard (the characters have different names in the short story). The Doniphan character is described as “stepp[ing] down from his saddle, a casual Samaritan.”
The film’s treatment of the answer to Ramsey’s question sets up a tension between Doniphan and Stoddard. Each man has a different view regarding how problems like Liberty Valance are handled. Stoddard intends to go forward with his legal practice and bring law to Shinbone and the surrounding territory. The problem is that the local sheriff suffers from a chronic case of invertebrate cowardice and will do nothing to enforce those laws. Doniphan, a realist about the conditions in Shinbone, cautions Stoddard to be soberminded in his expectations.
“I know those law books mean a lot to you,” he tells Stoddard, “but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.” Stoddard doesn’t take the advice well. “You’re saying just exactly what Liberty Valance said,” he tells Doniphan. For his part, Doniphan isn’t moved by the moral equivalence. If you set up your law practice, he warns Stoddard, “you had better be ready to defend it with a gun.”
Later, after yet another confrontation between Stoddard and Valance, Doniphan again intervenes. Moving between the two men, he stares Valance down. Valance leaves, but it is clear that he isn’t finished with Stoddard. Stoddard again complains of the speed with which Doniphan rushes toward possible violence. Doniphan mocks him, looking in the direction in which Valance fled, he wonders aloud, “Now I wonder what scared him off? [Was it] the spectator of law and order?” Stoddard reluctantly admits it was the “gun that scared him off.”
Now is set in motion the climactic confrontation. Resigned to the fact that the law is impotent again Valance, Stoddard challenges Valance to a duel. It doesn’t look good from the start. Even drunk, Valance quickly disarms Stoddard, wounding him in the shoulder. Valance gives Stoddard the chance to retrieve his pistol. Stoddard does so and even manages to outdraw Valance. The two men fire. Valance is hit, making his own shot go wide. He staggers into the street and falls dead. It won’t be until later that we discover, along with Stoddard, that Stoddard also failed to hit his target. Instead, Doniphan, standing in the shadows of an alley, was responsible for gunning down Valance. He tells no one, allowing credit for the kill to go to Stoddard.
A common interpretation of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sees at the heart of the story a tale of two kinds of man – the rugged individualism of Tom Doniphan and the more progressive cultivation of Ranse Stoddard. This theme bears out in a number of ways. One symbol that conveys the sentiment is a contrast made between the wildflowers found in the desert and the cultivated flowers sold in shops. This contrast plays out in obvious ways between Doniphan and Stoddard, who are suggested to represent different conceptions of masculinity and manly courage. It’s not so much that the film denigrates one over the other, but it suggests that the requirements of masculine courage shift as communities pass from states of anarchy to civilization. Just as preferences for flowers shift as cultivated flowers become increasingly available, so too do the requirements of manhood. Regarding her Doniphan character, Johnson puts it this way: “he was…an unwanted relic of the frontier that was gone, a legacy to more civilized times that had no place for him.” While once essential for keeping the wolves at bay and for the maintenance of basic societal goods, when such modernizing effects such as railway lines break into the wilderness, connecting the wilds at last to civilization, this interpretation goes, hard men like Doniphan, rendered obsolete by enforced laws and social reform, are no longer necessary. Liberty Valance, in this view, is an elegiac witness to when hard virtues made way for softer ones.
While this reading of the film holds, the lesson mustn’t be overdrawn. As I’ve written before, it’s a common theme in Westerns that the man of violence is essential for bringing about the conditions to allow that kind of order out of which justice and other social goods can take root and grow. When they’ve done so, when the wolves have been put down, civilization no longer has a place for the gunslinger. They ride—or, really, are driven away—off into the sunset. Their day is done. This is, of course, an American myth. Polite society will always need men—and, yes, yes, women too—capable of using force to protect the innocent, right wrongs, and punish evil.
A good society’s sons and daughters must be nurtured to grow into the kinds of men and women who can bring justice and love together in the right ways, for the right reasons, at the right times, with the right intentions, and against the right things. The hard men of the West mustn’t be forgotten. Implicit in Ford’s masterwork is the understanding that their memories must be maintained in legends in order to steel the spine of those who come after, to fortify their spirits, to stiffen their resolve. If we forget these lessons, when good men cannot be counted on to stand between the victims and their aggressors, then men like Liberty Valance–whose very name signals a perversion of freedom–will rise and rule in their cruelty.
In the closing scenes of the film, Stoddard’s wife looks out over the new, vibrant city of Shinbone. “It was a wilderness,” she remarks. “Now it’s a garden.” You did this, she says to him. While the viewer knows this isn’t entirely true, it isn’t entirely false either. Hard on the heels of Doniphan’s killing of Valance, Stoddard brought law—established and enforced—into Shinbone. He helped lead the territory into statehood. He civilized the wilderness. While true, the viewer—and Stoddard—know that he couldn’t have done this alone. Necessary, discriminate, and proportionate force in the last resort in defense of good was essential in Old Shinbone and New. And it remains essential today.
The garden still needs to be defended with a gun.