One of John Ford's last great Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a complicated film operating on many levels.
The film begins with aging Senator Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) arriving in a former frontier town to attend the funeral of a friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Then the story flashes back to Rance's arrival in the town as a young man about thirty years earlier (both Stewart and Wayne were twice the age of their characters). He wants to practice law, taking the advice of Horace Greeley to go west. Upon arrival, his caravan gets held up by the nasty outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Ranse gets nursed back to health by his future wife Hallie (Vera Miles).
Enter Tom Doniphon, a mysterious local, the only one with the courage to stand up to Liberty Valence. Although Ranse has the courage to challenge Liberty, he stands no chance in a physical confrontation. And he detests guns. Rance builds a successful law practice and leads a movement for the territory to become a state, defying the large landowners. The frontier is closing, a place where old values are in decline and newer ones are taking over.
That's the dichotomy between Rance and Tom. The man of thought vs the man of action. In The Searchers Ford's suggests that John Wayne's character Ethan, a ruthless Indian hater, has no place in the "civilization" emerging in the West. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Wayne lets Rance take credit for ending the threat to the town, even letting him take Hallie as his wife (suggested she and Tom were together). These characters become archetypes of the American mythos.
The theme of civilization is further emphasized in Ford's depiction of the democracy emerging in the west. Rance teaches a class on civics and instructs the ruffians of the frontier on the merits of voting and civic duty. Ford's portrayal an emerging democracy looks a little hokey, yet the message is clear: democracy, as flawed as it is, stands as a workable alternative to a culture based on fear and violence.
A troubled production, Ford and Wayne feuded throughout. The two aging stars, Stewart and Wayne in a young man's story, adds a layer of melancholy. What seems to be a story of courage becomes something else, a commentary on history and the inevitable mythmaking that distorts rather than shines a light, cinema being one of the biggest culprits.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is a fascinating Western, a commentary on the genre itself. It would be a compelling story to revisit in a remake.