John Ford's black-and-white Western, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," presents a contrast between charismatic authority and legal authority, to use the typology of German sociologist Max Weber. The contrast parallels the difference between the values of the West, or Wilderness (embodied by John Wayne), and the values of the East, or Civilization (embodied by James Stewart).
The story, written by Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah, unfolds in one long flashback, in which the truth behind a killing is revealed. Set in 1901, the movie begins with the return of Senator Ranse Stoddard and his wife to the town of Shinbone.
Stewart's Ranse Stoddard represents rational-legal authority, symbolically as well as practically. A decent lawyer from the East, he comes to practice law and bring order to the West. Wayne's Tom Doniphon, in contrast, is the uneducated leader who holds that "You make your own justice here and enforce your law." He is the rugged individual, using physical force, not laws, in fighting the outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), because it is the only effective and efficient way.
It's Wayne who teaches Stewart how to shoot, and it's Wayne who kills Valance, though he lets everyone believe it is Stewart. Later, when Stewart is accused of being a killer and walks out of the territorial convention, Wayne explains that he fired his rifle from a shadow, to coincide with Stewart's shot. He thus relieves Stewart of his guilty conscience so that he can pursue his political career and lead the territory to statehood. We also learn that Wayne refused to accept nomination as a delegate to the convention for "personal plans" which are not specified."
Stewart's gradual rise to power represents the coming of law and order to the West, but it is also inversely related to Wayne's decline and demise, from a strong and necessary leader to a doomed hero. In the transition from a disorganized to civilized community, Wayne is the instrument as well as the victim, because there is no longer need for his dogged individualism. Moreover, his ideals stand in the way, impeding progress.
Wayne's charismatic leadership and his ideals of anarchic freedom cannot co-exist with Stewart's legal authority and ideals of order. Hence, John Wayne functions as role model not only for children or adolescents but also for adult men, who, for one reason or another, have to be instructed with technical skills or have to be restored to proper, i.e. manly, code of behavior.
Stewart's lawyer is at first reluctant to use violent force in defeating Liberty Valance. Gradually, however, he comes to accept Wayne's code as the only appropriate behavior in the Wild West, that is, that force should be used to meet force. But Stewart is no good at shooting and Wayne has to instruct him, at Hallie's (the woman they both love) request. Wayne's sharp lesson is done in semi-humorous, semi-sarcastic manner, making a fool out of Stewart by puncturing paint tins used as targets. Humiliated, Stewart angrily knocks Wayne to the ground, demonstrating first steps in adjusting to the mores of the West.
The critic McBride has observed that Wayne and Stewart represent two approaches to life, as well as two successive phases in American history. Wayne is "the Man with the Gun," the old-style frontier individualist. Stewart, by contrast, is the man from the East, representing political order of impersonal justice and bureaucratic authority. Stewart's rational authority inevitably supersedes Wayne's charismatic leadership of the Old West. Wayne is therefore the tragic hero, a man of the past, whereas Stewart is the man of the future.
Shot in stylized black-and-white, the film is stark and gloomy, reflecting John Ford's more cynical approach to the West (and Western) toward the end of his life.
The truth behind the killing of Valance is gradually revealed, but for Ford, the myth is more important than the reality. As the reporter observes: "It ain't news. This is the West. When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend." As such, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," is one of the earliest, and most poignant films about the making (or fabrication) of myths.
Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart)
Tom Doniphon (John Wayne)
Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles)
Liverty Valance (Lee Marvin)
Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien)
Link Appleyard (Andy Devine)
Doc. Willoughby (Ken Murray)
Major Cassius Starbuckle (John Carradine)
Nora Ericson (Jeanette Nolan)
Peter Ericson (John Qualen)
Produced by Willis Goldbeck
Directed by John Ford
Screenplay: Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah, based on the story by Dorothy M. Johnson.
Camera: William Clothier
Editor: Otho Lovering
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge, Alfred Newman
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Eddie Imazu
Costumes: Edith Head
Oscar Nominations: 1
Costume Design (b/w): Edith Head
Oscar Awards: None
The winner of the b/w costume Oscar was Norma Koch for "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"