John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. Two American icons that embody such different ideals that it’s almost inconceivable that they should both play heroes in the same film. (They also worked together in How the West Was Won and The Shootist, but in the former their work appeared in different segments, while in the latter Wayne was the hero and Stewart a supporting character.)
But in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance John Ford throws these two ideals side by side: toughness versus sensitivity, frontier grit versus civilized decency, rugged individualism versus communal values. The result is a remarkably complex and nuanced take on the Western that acknowledges the necessity and the limitations of both ideals, of Wayne’s “hard” virtues and Stewart’s “soft” ones, and explores the transition from frontier rugged individualism to civilized law and order.
What brings the two men together is a local bully named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who dominates the small frontier town where Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), an idealistic young lawyer, is trying to set up a practice. Stoddard wants to bring Valance to justice, but Tom Doniphon (Wayne), a local rancher, tries to tell Stoddard his book learning is useless out here. Both romantic and cynical, it’s famous for the line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” — an extraordinary commentary in a genre that traditionally did just that.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.