By Bennett Owen
I know, I know, I’ve said it about ‘Lonesome Dove’ and ‘High Plains Drifter’ and ‘Red River’ and ‘Magnificent Seven’ and both versions of 3:10 to Yuma … hell I probably even said it about ‘Silvarado’. But after yet another viewing last night I am now unequivocally stating that ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ truly is the best western movie of them all. Take a look:
There is so much going on in this movie and at so many levels it’s hard to keep track of it all. At the very least it features the colossal personas of John Wayne, James Stewart and the incomparable Lee Marvin.
Marvin as Liberty Valance embodies one of the most malevolent and wholly irredeemable creatures in motion pictures, a loathsome miscreant who thrives on fear and violence.
He finds a pigeon in Stewart’s Rance Stoddard, an adventurous, idealistic eastern lawyer seeking his fortune out west … and bringing with him notions of civilization that the town of Shinebone is nowhere near ready for. Feisty and short-tempered in his own right, Rance is by no means a coward … yet what he fears most is the quick erosion of his principles.
And of course, John Wayne. As Tom Doniphon, he’s the pioneer archetype, a man for whom the law is a matter of steady nerves and a quick draw. And yet with his essential decency, he and those like him pave the way for justice and democratic rule.
But at the bottom of this story remains one essential truth. The action here is motivated less by good and evil…less by the endeavor to bring a fearsome criminal to justice and a measure of order to a lawless land ... than by a jealousy-fueled rivalry for a woman’s love.
Realizing he has lost her heart, Wayne’s Doniphon loses his own too, bitter and increasingly self-destructive … until at the very end, he settles things the only way he sees fit … and in doing so saves the life of the very man who robbed him of his true love. The scene was heart-stopping when I was 10 years old … it was heart-stopping last night.
The admission is also a selfless act and yet we all know their shared secret will haunt Stoddard for the rest of his life. For he’ll be living a lie, a legend, not for his legal brilliance but as, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
By the way, this was both Wayne’s first picture with James Stewart and his last Western with legendary director John Ford.
When legend becomes fact print the legend. So there you have it. The best Western movie of all time. At least until my next viewing of “The Professionals.”