What made the western Hollywood’s blockbuster staple in the middle of the 20th century? In the years after World War II, perhaps American audiences were taking solace in a historical setting that celebrated the young country’s position as a newly minted superpower. I don’t know. But The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance makes me sure it was something more than just a fad.
At the end of the 19th century, the town of Shinbone is manifesting destiny, embracing democracy and voting in favour of statehood. Leading the movement is James Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard – a freshly graduated lawyer rooted to Shinbone by a debt to John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon. Sharing the screen, there’s a weird but beautiful energy between them. Stoddard: a man out of place, but suited to the period. Doniphon: a man right at home in the wild, unfortunately out of time. An uncertain but bright future and a tried but tough past – together, they characterise the era perfectly.
I’m yet to see a western that so accurately captures this feeling of transition that the entire genre is built on.
The western chronicles a wonderful time in the USA’s history – a wild, romantic and exciting genre that celebrates the country’s foundation of industrial, social and political pioneering. But it seems that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is less a celebration and more a lamentation for good men who, as America found its place in the world, sort of lost their own. And I think that makes it the most authentic western I’ve seen.