The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, 1960. Directed by John Ford. James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Lee Van Cleef, Andy Devine, Edmund O'Brien, Strother Martin, Woody Strode, John Carradine.

I recently sat down and watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence as the second half of a double feature with Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the film it most resembles. In both films, James Stewart is an idealistic patriot with a high school civics class view of how government is supposed to work. In both films, his idealism runs up against the brutal reality of how government REALLY works and he is pitted against the forces of corruption. In both films, he has a guide through that brutal reality (Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith, John Wayne in Liberty Valence). The difference, however, is in the internal conflict of the character. In this respect, John Ford reveals that he was an enormously more talented filmmaker than Frank Capra. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is marred, as many of Capra's films are marred, by a simplistic viewpoint and by an essential corniness. His characters were symbols instead of human beings. Don't get me wrong, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a terrific movie, but I find that I prefer The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.

In Ford's film, Stewart's character, Ransom Stoddard, finds that he himself is not immune to the corrupting influence of desperate circumstance when he is compelled to take the law into his own hands. This defeats him for a time, since it flies in the face of everything he believes. This has an interesting reflection in John Wayne's character, who is the icon of the Western Hero who, taking the law into his own hand, shapes the frontier to suit his own anima. The conflict between Stewart and Wayne, the film's two heroes, is more interesting than the conflict between Stewart and Lee Marvin's bandit, Liberty Valence, although both conflicts are avatars of the same thing. This is a movie about the civilizing of The West. Marvin is the lawless bad man, Wayne, the lawless good man, and Stewart is The Law, which comes in and creates a world that has no place for either kind of lawless man. In The Law's wake come churches and schools and the railroad and commerce and government--Ransom Stoddard becomes the first governor of the new state and eventually goes to the senate. Wayne's character dies forgotten by all but his friends. And yet, the myth of The West remains even after civilization tames it. At the end of the movie, the reporter who has listened to everything decides to "print the legend," and the conductor on the train tells Stewart that "Nothing is too good for the man who shot Liberty Valence." Apparently, the veneer of civilization is pretty thin....


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