When movies depict the past, that past generally becomes the immediate present of the audience. We watch events of long-ago happen before our eyes, and are content to take a temporary departure from the Twentieth Century. But the films of John Ford make no attempt to take us into the past; they are about the past.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the newspaper editor says, "This is the West. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend," Ford's films show the legend. His world is diffused by time, by memory and nostalgia, by folklore and myth. In How Green Was My Valley, Ford's adaptation of Llewellyn's novel of Welsh coal miners, the story resembles a dream, seen in retrospect by a man who has had his entire life to romanticize the past: his childhood and his family. Ford is not interested in reality but in subjective viewpoint, not fact but romance and legend.
Ford's greatest films are his westerns, a uniquely American art form he helped create, and a genre of which he is undisputed master. These westerns are memory films, filled with the traditions of the past, created from the anecdotes, fables, and songs that sprang from American history. But in addition to drawing on Americana, Ford created it; the characters and situations in his westerns, from The Iron Horse to Stagecoach to Ford Apache to The Searchers to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, have become as much a part of American tradition as those on which Ford originally drew. He has chronicled every conceivable part of the West, and his personal heroes are among the most fully realized characters in motion picture history: Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) in Stagecoach, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) in My Darling Clementine, and the men that John Wayne played in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, made by the 67-year-old Ford in 1962, is unmistakably the director's final statement on the West. In it, Ford gives us a capsule version of the world it took him 40 years to create, and then shows us how it died. Liberty Valance is a film about death, about a sad but inevitable transition from an old social order to modern society as we know it today.
The film opens as Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arrive at Shinbone to bury a friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Asked by the Shinbone Star editor why an important Senator should return to a small town to bury an unknown man, Stoddard tells his story; a long flashback begins.
Ford takes us into the past, to Shinbone before the coming of the railroad modernized the town. It is the Ford town, complete with a drunken doctor, a crusading newspaper editor, a cowardly marshall (brillantly played by Andy Devine), two saloons-one high class, and then the Spanish place down the street--and assorted cowboys and farmers. There is no formally enforced law and order; Doniphon says, "Out here a man settles his own problems."
Ransom Stoddard, a young Eastern lawyer traveling West on Horace Greeley's advice, is in the stagecoach held up just outside of Shinbone by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), "the toughest man south of the Picket Wire." Trying to defend a woman passenger, Stoddard is beaten by Valance, left for dead, and brought to town by Tom Doniphon. Stoddard's first instinct is to demand the arrest of Liberty Valance; Doniphon tells him that law books mean nothing out West, that if Stoddard wants to take Valance, he'd better start carrying a hand-gun.
He comes into conflict with Liberty Valance again when the town has to elect two representatives to the Statehood Convention; Sotddard and the townspeople want statehood--it would mean government protection of their rights, the establishment of schools and the railroad. But Liberty Valance and his guns work for the cattle barons who want to keep the territory for themselves. Valance challenges Stoddard to a show-down, although he knows Stoddard can hardly hold a gun. Miraculously, Stoddard kills Valance, wins Hallie (Tom's former girl), and goes to the political convention.
Realizing that he will be nominated on the grounds that he shot Liberty Valance. Stoddard becomes disgusted and leaves, but Doniphon stops him and reveals that it was he who actually shot Liberty Valance. His own conscience clear, Stoddard goes back into the hall and accepts the nomination; Doniphon goes home alone.
Tom Doniphon is the archetypal Ford hero, the John Wayne of all Ford's westerns. A man of action and few words (note his instinctive hatred of the rhetoric in the Convention speeches), Doniphon is very much an individual who minds his own business. When Stoddard nominates him as a representative to the Convention, he refuses, saying, "I've got other plans. Personal plans."
On the other end of the scale, Ford portrays Liberty Valance as the archetypal villain. The deadliest and most sadistic killer in all Ford's films, Liberty Valance has been filtered through all Ford's other villains, emerging as a composite of the worst features in each. Doniphon and Valance, then, represent the individuals of Ford's West, Doniphon standing for order, Valance for anarchy. When they confront each other in the restaurant, Ford cuts directly back and forth between close shots of the two of them, establishing the direct link between them and the instinctive understanding each one has of the other.
Stoddard, on the other hand, is of another breed; the movement West, triggered by Greeley, came after the settlers in the wagon trains, and brought with it well-established Eastern customs. To Ford, Stoddard represents blind progress. Stoddard's first confrontation with Doniphon reveals absolutely no understanding between them; they eye each other as if the other were a strange animal.
Ford reveals Stoddard as incapable of adjusting to the life of the West: when Tom brings Hallie a "cactus rose," Stoddard, having seen real roses, cannot appreciate the beauty of the desert flower. Where Tom sees Liberty Valance as a source of personal conflict, a potential menace to his own well-being, Stoddard can only see Valance as the embodiment of a social evil that must be wiped out through new laws and social reform.
Though the audience tends to identify with Doniphon's individualism and to feel instinctively a desire to preserve the simplicity of the old West, the social change brought about by the railroad and the need for staehood slowly make the Doniphons and Valances obsolete. By killing Liberty Valance, facilitating Stoddard's rise to political prominence and the progressive modernization of the West, Doniphon destroys himself. Hallie, once Tom's girl, has fallen in love with Stoddard, and in sparing him, Doniphon loses her. He is left without the girl he loves at the dawn of a new era that has no need for his kind of individuality.
The film, then, chronicles the death of the old West and of its heroes, men sacrificed to the needs of a growing society. The characters in Liberty Valance are the archetypal figures of all Ford westerns brought together for a last reunion, in order that they might be destroyed. Almost no traces of the old Shinbone can be found at the beginning and end of the film.
Ford bitterly laments the intrusion of reality on his legend. When Hallie says to Stoddard at the end, "This country used to be a wilderness. Now it's a garden. You helped to make it," we cannot help feeling a deep regret that it had to happen that way. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is Ford's deeply personal farewell to a period in American history he loved, a folklore he helped create. Ford's westerns represent one of the most significant achievements in the history of American art. Liberty Valance, his masterpiece, is one of the greatest films of all time.