by Timothy Lane
This is a movie that works on several levels. For younger viewers, it can be a nice adventure movie (I certainly considered it a delightful movie when I was young, and once went to a Halloween party as [more or less] Liberty Valance, complete with a bullwhip we had picked up while my father was stationed in Galveston).
For adults, it makes interesting points about the differing roles of truth and legend in the story of the West (for example, very few people probably know that the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was actually fought near, not in, the corral or that the closest thing to a leader of the outlaws – Ike Clanton – fled the fight at its beginning and thus survived). It also makes a point about the nature of what makes people famous when Senator Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart), in the twilight of a long career of distinguished service to state and country, finds out at the end that he’s known simply as “the man who shot Liberty Valance” – even by someone too young to know anything about the gunfight. (I can remember watching the movie on TV with my mother – we had seen it on the screen years earlier, of course – and we especially noted that scene.)
There are other things we might note today. Ransom Stoddard serves in a variety of often menial roles throughout the main part of the movie (which is actually an extended flashback), including a stint as a waiter, which probably is more meaningful today than it was in 1962. He also sets up a one-room school to teach some basic literacy as well as some patriotic lessons about freedom (made even more significant by the fact that one of his pupils, briefly, is the black servant of his rescuer and friend, the local hero Tom Doniphan [John Wayne). Its view of America could be right out of a standard civics lesson, which again isn’t something we would expect to see today. The notion of a reliance on the law remains a significant issue today. And in the end, there is the simple courage of standing up to a bullying villain.
The setting is the town of Shinbone (reminiscent of the Indiana town of Gnaw Bone, which is located between the Hoosier towns of Columbus and Nashville) which is across the Picketwire from the areas dominated by ranchers. These are the only geographical hints, but one can note that the Purgatoire River in Colorado was (and perhaps still is) locally called the Picketwire. An important revelation at a key moment is that Tom Doniphan, not Ransom Stoddard, actually shot Liberty Valance (which makes Stoddard’s reputation doubly ironic), though it’s always possible that he was only saying that to encourage the prodigy not to give up from frustration that he was only known as a killer.
There was also a hit song using the movie title and (more or less) the plot as a basis, but this came out after the movie and only took advantage of its popularity (much as the Johnny Rivers song “Secret Agent” really had nothing to do with the TV series of the same known that was popular around the same time). I will also note that Paul Shanklin included a parody (“The Man Who Killed Osama Bin Laden”) based on the movie and song, a true delight for a long-time fan of both. • (1451 views)