The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

A senator, who became famous for killing a notorious outlaw, returns for the funeral of an old friend and tells the truth about his deed.

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.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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.

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