John Ford … he’s that guy who directed John Wayne westerns, right?”
Sort of. Mr. Ford’s day job was directing westerns. But his passion was political philosophy.
Yes, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is set in the Old West. But this is an intellectually ambitious film.
John Ford tries nothing less than to tell the political history of the United States. He describes the fundamental institutions that bring order, security, and freedom to a formerly lawless and violent land.
“Liberty Valance” has more in common with Plato’s “Republic” than “True Grit.” And more in common with Thomas Hobbes’s “Leviathan” than “Wild Wild West.”
Jimmy Stewart plays Ranse Stoddard: an idealistic lawyer who is moving to the frontier town of Shinbone. Before he even makes it there, a band of ruffians led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) robs Ranse and beats him half to death.
Ranse wants justice. And his idea of justice is very specific: arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment. But Shinbone has no court and the sheriff is a hilarious coward who sleeps in the town’s only jail cell.
Local tough guy Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) tries to set Ranse straight. According to Tom, Ranse has three choices: leave town, submit to Liberty Valance, or get a gun.
Jimmy Stewart is the heart, the soul, and the brains of the movie. And he’s the hero. But it’s John Wayne who gives the most sophisticated performance. Tom believes that the only way to live with dignity in a world run by outlaws is to be a macho bully yourself.
In the film’s finest scene, Tom has lost the girl he loves; he is confused and overwhelmed. He responds by drinking hard and bullying everyone in the bar. It is not admirable behavior, but it is completely understandable and heartbreaking.
In his own way, Ranse is as every bit as tough and fearless as Tom. And he has a forward-thinking plan to save the town.
First, the locals need to be educated and become informed voters. Second, the local power must rest with police officers working for the people rather than hired guns working for rich cattlemen.
John Ford makes an astute observation about the media. In Shinbone, the one newspaper man is a self-important drunkard. If you want the unbiased truth, you’re not likely to find it in the Shinbone Star. Nevertheless, the film argues forcefully that a free press – no matter how flawed – is absolutely fundamental to a great society. Those who call a headline ‘Fake News’ are generally correct. Those who want to use their power to censor a newspaper are enemies of a free people.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is less cynical and more substantive than any political film made in the post-Watergate era. Ford assumes that you think America is a good and relatively free country; he wants to tell you how it got that way and what a mighty accomplishment it was.
“But what about the genocide of Native Americans,” you ask… “what about slavery and white supremacy?!” Hey, fair enough. No one is saying that US history isn’t pockmarked with shameful racism. Indeed, Tom explicitly states that racial segregation is idiotic.
But Mr. Ford’s argument is that American civilization is freer and safer and more admirable than most. And I agree with him.
John Ford did a lot more than just direct westerns. He was one of the most important political philosophers of the 20th Century.