The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance essentially does for John Wayne what Unforgiven did for Clint Eastwood: deconstruct the myths on which his career was based. The difference is that Eastwood knew perfectly well what he was doing. Wayne may not have been so astute. His performance betrays little of the knowingness, pathos, or tragedy which Eastwood conveyed so well 30 years later. Indeed, he’s every inch the swaggering cowboy here, an alpha male so indomitable that the rest of the cast is reduced to sputtering incompetence every time he appears onscreen. Only later do we see how empty his character’s life has become: pathetic, used up, and sad. Therein lies the key to this extraordinary western and the reason it stands alongside the greatest films the genre ever produced.
The director’s signature themes can still be seen, of course. Civilization does come to the frontier town of Shinbone, facilitated by a laconic outsider who cannot share in its fruits. In this case, however, it takes two outsiders: Wayne’s Tom Doniphon and Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard. Neither of them can handle Lee Marvin’s title character (an outlaw bandit as hateful as any ever put onscreen) by themselves. That he terrorizes Shinbone to within an inch of its life is a given; that the townspeople are perfectly inclined to let him lends Liberty Valance its special qualities. Tom, though quite the manly man, doesn’t seem much interested in bringing Valance to heel. Neither does anyone else in Shinbone, a feckless collection of cowards and hypocrites most exemplified by Andy Devine’s sponge-like marshal. These are no hardy pioneers carving a life for themselves with their bare hands. They see lawlessness, they see injustice, and yet they do nothing. The very community Ford’s previous films so loudly lionized becomes little more than a herd of passive sheep.
It’s Stoddard who offers a better way: insisting on trials before hangings and the rule of law over the simplicity of the gun. Tom can kill Liberty Valance, but Stoddard can kill the idea of Liberty Valance, and in so doing prove that morality is more than just a word. Stoddard’s way offers hope for the future, a fact which Tom realizes perhaps before anyone else does. But that future can’t begin without a monstrous hypocrisy. Liberty’s got to go, and the manner of his undoing — the death which marks the beginning of real law and order — makes a lie out of everything law and order represents.
Tom and Stoddard both know it, and the tragedy of that destroys the former while shading the latter with sad, irreparable compromise. Stoddard, at least, can move forward and appreciate the fruits of their labor (along with the attentions of Vera Miles’s Hallie, whom both men love). Tom, the decisive gunslinger, is left alone and forgotten. Both work to better a community unworthy of their efforts, but which becomes so thanks to the sins they commit. That separates them from Ford’s other heroes, flawed though many of them are. Those earlier figures viewed civilization as something too good for them: something they could defend but never join. Tom and Stoddard see the gutter civilization is wallowing in and irrevocably stain their hands while pulling it out.
Eastwood could tell them a thing or two about that job, as could Leone. Once they got their chance, the Western would never be the same. Ford doubtless sensed their arrival, and like his protagonists here, opened the way for them even though he couldn’t follow. Liberty Valance is a terrific yarn, with strong performances, clever humor, and one of the tautest showdowns ever put onscreen. But it’s best remembered because of its unique position between the old and the new: a swan song from one of the genre’s great masters who could see what was coming and knew there wasn’t any room in it for him.