The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Film Analysis
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The man who shot Liberty Valance ( movie review)
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As they pay their respects, reporters ask Stoddard why a United States Senator would make the long journey from Washington to attend the funeral of a local rancher. The story flashes back 25 years; Stoddard is a young, idealistic attorney. When Stoddard takes Valance to task, he is brutally whipped and left for dead. In Shinbone, Hallie and other townspeople tend to his injuries, and explain that Valance victimizes Shinbone residents with impunity.
Marshal Link Appleyard Andy Devine lacks the courage and gunfighting skills to challenge him. Doniphon who is courting Hallie is the only man willing to stand up to him. Stoddard opens a law practice in Shinbone, inviting retribution from Valance, who cannot abide challenges to his "authority". Force, Doniphon explains, is the only thing Valance understands; but Stoddard advocates justice under the law, not brute force. He earns the town's respect by refusing to knuckle under to Valance, and by founding a school to teach reading and writing to illiterate townspeople—including Hallie. When Doniphon notices that Stoddard is trying to teach himself to use a revolver, he offers a lesson.
During target practice he shoots a hole in a paint can, splattering paint on Stoddard's suit, explaining that this is the sort of trickery that he can expect from Valance. Infuriated, Stoddard punches him in the jaw and leaves. Shinbone's residents meet to elect two delegates for a statehood convention at the territorial capital. Doniphon nominates Stoddard, because he "knows the law, and throws a mean punch".
Stoddard explains that statehood will improve infrastructure, safety, and education. The cattle barons oppose statehood, and hire Valance to sabotage the effort, but Stoddard defies him again. Doniphon advises Stoddard to leave town, but Stoddard believes in the rule of law, and is willing to risk his life for his principles. That evening, Valance and his gang beat Peabody nearly to death and ransack his office. Stoddard goes into the street to face Valance.
Valance toys with Stoddard, shooting his arm and laughing at him. The next bullet, he says, will be "right between the eyes"; but Stoddard fires first, and to everyone's shock, Valance falls dead. Doniphon watches Hallie care for Stoddard's wounds, then heads for the saloon. At his homestead, in a drunken rage, he sets fire to the addition that he has just finished in anticipation of asking Hallie to marry him. His ranch hand, Pompey Woody Strode , rescues him, but the house is destroyed.
At the statehood convention, Peabody nominates Stoddard as the territory's delegate to Washington, but his "unstatesmanlike" conduct is challenged by a rival candidate. Stoddard decides that he cannot be entrusted with public service after killing a man in a gunfight. Doniphon takes him aside and, in an inception flashback, confides that he, Doniphon, actually killed Valance from an alley across the street, firing at the same time as Stoddard.
Reinspired, Stoddard returns to the convention, accepts the nomination, and is elected to the Washington delegation. The original flashback ends; Stoddard fills in the intervening years. He married Hallie, and then, on the strength of his reputation as "the man who shot Liberty Valance", became the new state's first governor. He then served as U. Senator and Ambassador to Great Britain before returning to the Senate, and now there is talk of a vice presidential nomination. The reporter realizes that Stoddard's entire reputation is based on a myth; but after reflection, he throws his interview notes into the fire.
When he tells the train conductor Willis Bouchey that he will write to railroad officials, thanking them for their many courtesies, the conductor replies, "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance! Multiple stories and speculations exist to explain this decision. Ford claimed to prefer the black and white medium over color : "In black and white, you've got to be very careful. You've got to know your job, lay your shadows in properly, get your perspective right, but in color, there it is," he said. Filming in black and white helped ease the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept that disparity.
Clothier , however, "There was one reason and one reason only Paramount was cutting costs. Otherwise we would have been in Monument Valley or Brackettville and we would have had color stock. Ford had to accept those terms or not make the film. Another condition imposed by the studio, according to Van Cleef, was that Wayne be cast as Doniphon. Ford resented the studio's intrusion, and retaliated by taunting Wayne relentlessly throughout the filming. Wayne's football career at USC had been curtailed by injuries. He also ridiculed Wayne for failing to enlist during World War II , during which Ford filmed a series of widely praised combat documentaries for the Office of Strategic Services , and was wounded at the Battle of Midway ,  and Stewart served with distinction as a bomber pilot.
Wayne's avoidance of wartime service was a major source of guilt for him in his later years. Stewart related that midway through filming, Wayne asked him why he, Stewart, never seemed to be the target of Ford's venomous remarks. Other cast- and crew-members also noticed Stewart's apparent immunity from Ford's abuse. Then, toward the end of filming, Ford asked Stewart what he thought of Strode's costume for the film's beginning and end, when the actors were playing their parts 25 years older.
Stewart replied, "It looks a bit Uncle Remussy to me. Now, I don't know if Mr. Stewart has a prejudice against Negroes, but I just wanted you all to know about it. Inept with a gun, Ransom is badly overmatched. Yet, almost inexplicably, he manages to get off a shot that seemingly strikes with deadly accuracy. He is hailed by everyone as a hero, with one exception: Tom, who watched the encounter from a secluded spot, then used a rifle to bring down Valance before the outlaw could kill Ransom. By timing his own accurate shot to coincide with Ransom's misdirected one, Tom was able to create the illusion that Ransom triumphed.
He accepts no glory then or later, and when he dies, only a handful of people know the secret. Now, Ransom decides to disclose it to newspaper writer Scott. But that man, mindful of the importance of Ransom's reputation, declines to print the truth. One could argue that there's nearly as much going on in the subtext of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as in the text. Ford's casting choices are the first place where this is evident. Neither James Stewart nor John Wayne is cast against type. Stewart plays the bumbling-but-earnest Everyman in a manner that evokes memories of George Bailey and Mr. Wayne brings Tom to the screen in much the same way he did for all of his bigger-than-life characters — an imposing figure whose heart of gold belies his gruff, tough exterior.
In the normal course of things, Wayne would be playing the hero, and, in a sense, he is. But the glory and the girl go to Ransom. So, the epitome of Cowboy Masculinity dies in obscurity while the Everyman rises to prominence and prosperity. Stewart and Wayne therefore engage in a strange role-reversal by being themselves. By , most films were routinely made in color. This was not a case of a director resisting "progress" — for more than a decade preceding The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance , he had been working primarily in color. So, the decision to shoot this movie in black-and-white was obviously an artistic one. One can surmise that Ford's intention was to evoke a sense of nostalgia. To an extent, this movie is about the passing of the old ways. The West is changing.
The frontier is dwindling. The present is dissipating not into history, but into legend. And, in the midst of all this, the politician is rendering the gunslinger obsolete. Tom's final, heroic act goes unsung. Ford understood that an audience's recollections of older, less thematically complex Westerns would add a layer of poignancy to the viewing experience. Black-and-white helps him achieve this. Also, its starkness works better with the somber material than the lushness of Technicolor. In the pre-Watergate era, it was still possible to believe that the press would "do the right thing" and cover up a scoop of this magnitude.
Today, the only thing the media delights in more than building a legend is tearing one down. We still have legends today, but they have to be carefully nurtured and jealously guarded lest someone find a flaw to exploit. A modern-day remake of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would center not on Ransom or Tom, but on the reporter who must struggle with the ethics of using this information to sully a man's reputation.