I was first introduced to John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in my junior year of high school, when it was required viewing for my American Studies class. Despite my initial aversion to watching it, an old-timey hokey western to my 16-year-old mind, I grew to appreciate this film’s stature as an analogy and representation of American history, for this film grapples with two American archetypes that have immensely influenced how Americans are culturally perceived: the rugged cowboy and the idealistic reformer. These two figures, portrayed by John Wayne and James Stewart, respectively, clash repeatedly in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the film convincingly challenges the viewer through the complexity of their dynamic. While the film clearly endorses the reformer’s stress on education and law as positive agents of change in the West, ultimately it is through an act of violence and deceit that progress comes to the western town of Shinbone, suggesting that the path forward is not always straight and narrow.
The driving conflict between order and lawlessness is introduced almost immediately in the film. Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard is a scrawny lawyer from the East Coast venturing west to open a practice. He has a rough time of it from the start. While en route to Shinbone, his stagecoach is held up by the villainous Liberty Valance, who robs him and then beats him (nearly to death) when he tries to defend the widow sharing his coach. While doing this, Valance ominously sneers at Stoddard, “I’ll teach you law—western law!” Stoddard is subsequently brought to, where he finds himself in the emasculated position of being nursed by sarcastic tough guy Tom Doniphon, played by, who else, but Wayne. When Stoddard angrily calls for Valance to be jailed, Doniphon wastes no time in educating Stoddard on how things work in Shinbone. “Out here, a man settles his own problems,” he claims, calling to mind Valance’s “western law.” It’s clear that Doniphon dislikes Valance, but still, he plays by the same rules as him. It’s these rules that Stoddard sets out to change throughout the course of the film.
While Stoddard throws all his energy into educating Shinbone’s population on reading, writing, and civics, the tension and enmity between Stoddard and Valance builds, until finally, the film reaches its climax in the shootout featuring these two figures. Part of Stoddard must have known that from day one, the only way to settle his score with Valance would not be through his cherished law and order, but by turning a gun on him. The irony of this scene is that while Stoddard is (temporarily) abandoning his belief in these civilizing agents and giving in to a primal need for vengeance, Doniphon is effectively doing the opposite. Doniphon shoots Liberty Valance—but from the shadows, so it appears that Stoddard is the one who kills him. All this so Stoddard and his civic-minded convictions can survive and help the town of Shinbone rise up against the shackles of Valance’s tyrannical hold. Sure, Doniphon claims that he only saved Stoddard to spare their shared love interest’s grief, but one could easily argue that deep down he knows that it is time to replace “western law” with real law, capable of protecting those weaker than himself who would never be able to physically defend themselves against brutes like Valance.
Motives aside, Doniphon’s decision to dupe everyone into thinking Stoddard killed Valance forges a powerful image of Stoddard as a figure who can unite the violent, wild west with the educated, law-respecting United States. Westerners will idolize him for being “the man who shot Liberty Valance,” while Washington insiders will respect his experience of civilizing this lawless territory. To be sure, Shinbone’s residents probably still would have respected Stoddard had he fled from a shootout with Valance. Nevertheless, history has shown that Americans value leaders with experience in combat —from notable military figures like Washington, Jackson or Eisenhower, to the other twenty-three presidents who have served in the military. It is Doniphon who is able to brilliantly make this assessment and act on it in an instant. The tragedy of this flash of brilliance, of course, is that it will lead to the loss of everything he loves.
Objectively speaking, there’s really no ambiguity in what John Ford’s film aspires to be. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a battle between education and ignorance, between the pen and the sword, between progress and holding on to the past. The ambiguity of the film lies in the title itself. It deceives the viewer from the start. For the majority of the film, we are led to believe that the man who shot Liberty Valance is Ransom Stoddard, attorney at law. It seems as though the film is moralizing on the triumph of education and law as vehicles for freedom. In the end, though, when it’s revealed that Doniphon is the real man who shot Liberty Valance, the film forces the viewer to analyze the story in a new light. Considering Ford’s history as a director, perhaps it should have been obvious—The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is ultimately a send off of the American west (and his fixation on it as an artist—Ford only directed one western after this). It is the passing of the baton of American history from the jaded, individualist cowboy to the earnest, optimistic US citizen. This passing is marked by neither fear nor joy, but rather, a solemn, violent, acceptance of fate that is tainted with perhaps a touch of nostalgia.