The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
What a cast! Scroll on past the marquee names of Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin, and you will find that this features … well, everybody! Just about everybody who ever played a supporting role in a classic western movie, anyway. Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Jeannette Nolan, John “Yumpin’ Yimini’!” Qualen, Woody Strode, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef … they’re all there. It is John Ford’s last black and white western, and was shot largely on sound stages, which wasn’t his usual style. In some scenes you can see painted backdrops through windows and doors.
I’ve always been a little puzzled by one thing, and that is, what is the message here? Ransom Stoddard deeply believes that the law is supreme, and he abhors violence and guns. And yet, when the chips are down, as the song says (and I never realized it was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David!), “a law book was no good.” The fact is, laws are not written to protect people, except in the sense that they act as a deterrent. They are a means of recompense, and of punishment. Just as the main function of police is not really to protect people, either, but to catch criminals after they have committed a crime. When up against a man like Liberty Valence, who just doesn’t care and who has a whole town buffaloed, about the only use for law books is to sew them into your jacket and hope they are thick enough to stop a bullet. Sad, but true. (It doesn’t help that the Marshal, good old Andy Devine, is a total coward.) If John Wayne hadn’t been there to cut the varmint down with his rifle, ol’ Ranse would have been buried on Boot Hill.
Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree that it took brave men like him to bring law and order to the frontier, and I admire them. But don’t tell me the law will save you. It won’t. Sometimes you have to have a gun, because even in today’s world, in the words of Loren Visser in Blood Simple, sometimes you’re on your own.