July 31, 2011 · Print This Article

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is the exact kind of western I like best, and it is an outstanding example of the intellectual/ethical western.  I am continually drawn to the classic western genre because of the conflict between the aging power of men with guns, and the growing power of men with ideas.  A western set in just the right time period like VALANCE, shows how the days of just being able to hire a gunman to impose fear on a town, or a whole territory, are no longer as effective as they were in decades past.

The marquee is glowing for VALANCE, a western directed by John Ford starring both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.  All of them deliver their unique contributions to classic westerns, with well timed and directed scenes by Ford, Wayne playing a man of courage and Stewart playing a man of reason.  What drives the interest of the viewer when watching VALANCE is how much will Wayne and Stewart need to cross into each other’s worlds.  Can a man without a gun like Stewart use the power of his ideas to transform a town in total fear of a true thug like Liberty Valance?  The only man not afraid is Wayne, who can hold his own against anyone and exists as a sort of clown fish immune to the tentacles of Valance’s anemone.  To be either kind of man like Valance or Wayne in the west, requires skill with a gun.  As I have written before, as a man you have to choose to be a player in the gun world, or be subject to those that do.  A character like Wayne’s who is honorable but takes no bull, and is not afraid of the sharks around is fascinating to me.

Equally so is a character like Stewart who believes that ideas and law can set things to order and rid society of the oppression of men with guns.

And that is the setup.  How can a man like Stewart so strong of will and mind possibly defeat someone like Valance who is brutally and unhesitatingly violent.  Everyone tells Stewart to leave town, and no one would think less of him for it, so the decision, the ethical decision lies upon Stewart himself.  He has not the skills to defeat Valance, but he does not want to be subject to him so what can he do?  Can one only fight fire with fire?

The story is told in flashback with the present day bookending the movie.  It was used very effectively and with lots of character development VALANCE is a movie going experience to be savored.  It has easily ascended to my all-time top five classic western list.


Got something to say?