by Shubhajit Lahiri
John Ford reveled in the making of Westerns, for what is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence if not an expression of his love affair with the genre? With its overarching themes of nostalgia and melancholia concerning the slow but sure demise of the iconic landscape, the movie remains a heartfelt and elegiac tone-poem to it. A number of films have in fact eulogized about the death of the West – the slow but inevitable disappearance of an era and a way of life. A key motif for most such films has been the juxtaposition between the Old West and the advent of law and civilization – and the two were seemingly irreconcilable and diametrically divergent. Ford’s 134th film (he would make just 6 more over the next decade) might just be the finest from that point of view.
A popular US senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), to the immense surprise of the local journalists, has made an unlikely stop at a dusty, godforsaken town, with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles), in order to attend the funeral of one Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Understandably no one knows why he’s here, except some old-timers, and they are all curious as hell to find out the reason for his inexplicable decision. And more importantly, who the hell is Tom Doniphon? Upon the press-men’s insistence, Stoddard recounts his unlikely stopover in this town, through sheer circumstances, many years back. And thus begins his love-hate friendship with Doniphon, one of the last true symbols for everything that the West stood for – ruggedness, courage, machismo and honour. His recapitulation ends with the events leading to and following the creation of a legend, that of the shooting down of the notorious outlaw Liberty Valence – an act that sealed the fates for both men.
The tales of the two principal characters have been exceptionally juxtaposed to provide a sense to the direction America took at the turn of the 20th century. Doniphon, for all his machismo, charisma and larger-than-life persona, slowly disappears into anonymity and obscurity, and has now become a relic from the past – someone who’s neither relevant nor worth remembering anymore. Stoddard, on the other hand, despite being so out of place, even anachronistic, as a pacifist and law-abiding citizen in the frontier town, goes on to become an all-American poster boy. Though not without its share of over-dramatizations and some clichéd tropes, this elegantly-paced and well-acted film, featuring two of Hollywood’s biggest superstars, has stood the test of time as a superb Western, and more importantly, as a wry, affecting and inward looking commentary on the genre itself.