John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is considered to be one of the greatest of American movies. This Western film begins with Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife, Hallie, returning to Shinbone for the funeral of Tom Doniphon, an ex-outlaw and old friend of theirs. Upon the Stoddard’s arrival, the editor in chief of the Shinbone Star begins to question the Senator’s reason for visiting, forcing him to revisit his past. From then on, a flashback of events in the Old West begins.
In John Ford’s decision to film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in black and white, as opposed to the latest innovation of colored production, he suggests a sense of nostalgia. As Ransom Stoddard reflects on his past, he is reminded of the changes that the Old West has undergone. Through John Ford’s cinematography and various plot devices, one could argue that his perception of the changing West was optimistic. One way John Ford presents the history of the West as a history of progress is the notion that established law is better than vigilante law.
As the West became more civilized and Ransom Stoddard began to prosper, vigilante law faded out in to obscurity just as Tom Doniphon did. One can assume that John Ford meant that the overall progress of the West towards a more established law was the main goal, although it was done at the heroic figure Tom Doniphon’s expense. Another approach John Ford uses in this film to suggest progression in the West is to bequeath the idea that the West was not won in violence, but in transformation of morals. Politicians served as substitutes for gunmen and government practices began to thrive.
By implementing democratic politics into the West, Ransom Stoddard raised the idea of claiming statehood. At the time, Shinbone was a territory, a designated region that does not have the rights of a state. In order for a territory to be granted statehood, the region must raise its population. The only way for a territory to increase its inhabitants in the Old West was to establish railroads; the journey was far too dangerous to travel by horse and buggy. A natural born politician such as Ransom Stoddard was just what Shinbone needed to get this process of statehood underway.
With the population of Shinbone rising, the region would be allotted new businesses and schools, which were essential if they wanted to compete with the East. Besides the dichotomy of established law and vigilante law, another theme in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the vagueness between myth and reality in the American West. “When legend becomes fact, print the legend,” one of the most memorable lines of the movie, presents us with the uncertainty between myth and reality.
This quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance unveils the focal point: history is as much legend as it is fact. Throughout history, stories are passed down from generation to generation; some of which are printed in the textbooks we learn from today. With that being said, we do not know if the “facts” we are reading in our books are actually facts at all. It is very possible that the materials we absorb are mere legends. The actual event often differs from what the legend tells us; it gets misconstrued as the years progress.
Each character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance symbolizes different ideas of the West being portrayed throughout the film. For example, Ransom Stoddard epitomizes the law and order that the New West would bring. Tom Doniphon, on the other hand, represents the “every man for himself” view of the old western ways. The chaotic nature of the Old West is depicted by Liberty Valance. Finally, Hallie embodies the growing desire for order and the increasing detachment from old western ways when she begins to favor Ransom Stoddard’s affection over Tom Doniphon’s.
In addition to the symbols portrayed in the film, there is a strong parallel between the characters and the idea that law and order betters a society. For instance, Tom Doniphon is madly in love with Hallie and once had hopes to marry her. Despite his undying love, he realizes that she is better off with Ransom Stoddard. Taking a closer look at this situation, one will notice that although Tom Doniphon stands for vigilante law, deep down he knows that the West and Hallie will prosper under the principles of established law that Ransom Stoddard embodies.
As the film comes to an end, Senator Stoddard and Hallie begin their journey back to Washington by train. With Shinbone becoming more and more civilized, Stoddard decides that it would be a good idea to give up politics and set up a law firm at the place where it all started. Getting anxious to arrive in Washington, Stoddard asks a conductor how long the remainder of ride will be. The conductor proceeds to tell him that the train is traveling very fast and that they are holding the express train for him because “nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance. ”
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