Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with illustrative still from the film!
The image above shows John Wayne as Tom Doniphon and James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard in John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Lee Marvin plays Liberty Valance as the sadistic murderous leader of a gang of bandits. Early in the film we see Valance beat up Stoddard until his men pull him away. Stoddard is travelling into the town of Shinbone to practice as a lawyer, and Valance is enraged by the sight of his law books. This confrontation sets up a tension between law represented by Stoddard and a kind of liberty represented by Liberty Valance. Hints about the underlying themes in a film don’t get any broader. Stoddard also represents liberty, as liberty for most people rests on there being effective laws to restrain people like Valance. What Valance represents is what 17th and 18th century writers called ‘natural liberty’, the liberty we have before any laws are established to defend ourselves, defend and improve our property and resist external authority, Valance does this with a fierce passion, but also violates the liberty of others, showing the problem with natural liberty. Liberty is tragically divided against itself.
Stoddard thinks he can bring liberty under law to Shinbone. He is patched up in town and sets up as a teacher to the many illiterates in the town. He aims to find a way of bringing Valance to justice after he realises there is no one who is willing and able to enforce the law against Valance. The local Marshall (played by Andy Devine) is a loveable cowardly buffoon ,who is horrified when Stoddard shows him that he has jurisdiction over crimes Valance commits outside the town. Civic liberty requires force to apply laws against natural liberty.
The struggle with Valance acquires a political dimension as Shinbone is in a territory which is discussing statehood within the United States. Its territory status, which suits the local cattle ranchers, is the reason for the lack of effective law enforcement. Stoddard works with the local newspaper proprietor Dutton Peabody (played by Edmund O’Brien) to organise the townspeople behind the campaign for statehood. Politics even enters into Stoddards’ career as a teacher when he gets the class to talk about the constitution and democracy. Law, education and journalism, three aspects of a democratic community, and the type of liberty which belongs to democratic discussion and decision making, the extended version of civic liberty.
The campaign for statehood succeeds and Stoddard launches a national political career. These come out of his reputation as the man who shot Liberty Valance, who certainly was shot to death just before the convention, which Valance was going to attend in alliance with the ranchers. Stoddard thinks he killed Valance and is unwilling to start a political career on the basis of taking life. Tom Doniphon arrives at the statehood convention, though he had turned down Stoddard’s suggestion that he should be a town delegate. This is the moment indicated in the picture above. He is unshaven and haggard because he realises he has lost his girlfriend Hallie (played by Vera Miles) to Stoddard and because he shot Valance. During the night time shoot out between Valance and Stoddard, Stoodard missed Valance and it was Doniphon who shot Valance while hiding out of sight. Natural liberty has to struggle against itself, for civic liberty to appear. Civic liberty appears from the tragedy of natural liberty.
One reason for Doniphon’s despair is presumably that he broke his own frontier code of honour by killing Valance in this manner. Wayne had already been established in many films as a symbol of frontier self-dependence and honour, and the film which really turned him into that legend was Ford’s own 1939 production Stagecoach. Within The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Doniphon is set up a symbol of tough frontier honour within the film, telling Stoddard when they first meet that out west a man solves his own problems, and that out west it’s unmannerly to let a man drink on his own. Doniphon usually addresses Stoddard as Pilgrim, elevating him to the level of the Pilgrim Fathers, the legends of early American history who set up an early democratic settlement. This seems appropriate to Stoddard’s noble ambitions with regard to law, education, journalism and democracy, the extended version of civic liberty.
As the film progresses Doniphon seems more and more sympathetic, representing the good side of the natural liberty, first represented as evil by Valance. Though at first he seems rough and thoughtless compared with Stoddard, as the film unfolds we sense that Doniphon is more sensitive and more willing to sacrifice himself to others. He is the only character in the film with a black friend, Pompey (played by Woody Strode). Pompey is his servant, but they appear to have a friendship of equals; and Pompey is even the dominant figure when Doniphon becomes alcoholic and irresponsible, after realising that he is losing Hallie to Stoddard. At the abstract level Stoddard is concerned with racial equality, as we seen in his class which Pompey attends. Pompey cannot remember ‘Mr Thomas Jefferson of Virginia’s’ phrase in the Declaration of Independence, that ‘all men are created equal’. As Stoodard points out, a lot of people forget that phrase, he might have added that Jefferson himself had a very mixed and complex record on that issue. It’s important that it’s Doniphon who comes closest to an equal relationship with an African-American in the film, he can live the ideals that other people talk about better, but don’t live out. Liberty exists as discourse and as habitual behaviour.
The film is a long flashback into these events, framed by a visit of Senator Stoddard and Mrs Hallie Stoddard many years later. They travel down from Washington DC for Doniphon’s funeral, who evidently never recovered from losing Hallie, and we see Stoddard as a manipulative populist politician, with a slight hint of corruption. That was the result of his courage, and Doniphon’s courage in struggling for liberty under law in Shonbone. Hallie appears to regret that she rejected Doniphon’s love and Stoddard appears to understand. He is dragged into an interview with the journalists of the day and explains the truth about who shot Liberty Valance. Famously, the newspaper editor prefers to print the legend. Fiction arises because we prefer to believe that civic liberty contains the energy of natural liberty and defeated the bad form of natural liberty with that force. Civic liberty leads to self-interested power seeking and the loss of the energy of natural liberty. Or certainly such a danger exists.