John Ford: The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)



Perhaps the most famous line in John Ford’s classic film The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was: “when the legend becomes fact, keep the legend.” I try in my now extensive memoirs, though, not to create some legend, some extraordinary tale. I try to stick to facts, but in a quasi-poetic idiom and essayistic style and content. This Ford film is now regarded as one of the most complex Westerns that has ever been made. My memoiristic life-narrative is also complex, but the complexity derives from the analytical approach I have taken to my autobiography.

Liberty Valence was a film quite unlike the others made by John Ford. Ford made his living telling tall and exciting tales of the American West in as grand a fashion as possible. This film was no tall-tale of bad guys, of Indians getting slaughered amidst candy-wrappers at Saturday afternoon matinees for kids like me and heros riding off into the sunset. Well acted, very well written, it is one of the most rewarding Westerns for replay value in the history of the genre, so stated one reviewer. The film was released just before my 18th birthday, the beginning of my travelling-pioneering for and in the Canadian Baha’i community. I was about to enter grade 13 in the Ontario education system, arguably the most demanding year of all my 18 years of formal education. My parents had just retired from their long years of nose-to-the-grindstone employment. It would be many years later, though, before I saw this film.

Forty-five years after the release of this film when I was 63 and in 2007, just three years ago, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry due to its being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film dramatizes, among other things, the difficulties inherent in establishing a political order based on the rule of law. Liberty Valance and his gang were men believed that to live according to nature was to live in a manner that gave full vent to their appetites and passions. A person’s reason and strength when properly employed, so men like Valence believe, is in the service of satisfying human appetites whatever these appetites may be.

Liberty Valance cannot be shamed into compliance with moral standards. He is, as the Greek philosopher Aristotle indicated, one of those who “do not by nature obey some innate sense of shame, but only the sense of fear.” Such men do not abstain from bad acts because of a sense of their baseness, but only through a fear of punishment. What argument would remould such people?” asked Aristotle 2300 years ago.1 -Ron Price with thanks to 1Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.

What is noble is not always identical with
what is good. Spiritedness is the power by
which we love. Love & defend justice and
its principles-this will be attractive to others.
It is important that you are motivated by a set
of principles that transcend any particular item.
Perhaps spiritedness demands that what is good
also appears to be beautiful. This may be part of
the function of a type of philosophic poetry, that
is to beautify the good thereby making it an object
of longing. The legend at the end may also be an
example of this poetry, argues David Livingstone.1

I’m not sure, David, I got all of what you say here
from this film. But I will say that the sense of shame
seems, as Baha’u’llah has written, confined to a few.
I have often wondered as a teacher and as a man why
this is the case. Perhaps it is, in my case, both a sense
of shame and a fear of consequences. And thirty years
later, in 1992, I saw the Law of God for this age, a basis
for the rule of law which you write of here, David. It is
no mere code of laws but, rather, a choice Wine and the
weightiest testimony unto all the people of the world!!!2

1 David W. Livingstone, “Spiritedness, Reason, and the Rule of Law: John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:” Prepared for delivery at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, August 30th- September 2nd, 2007.
2 The Universal House of Justice, Introduction to The Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha’i World Centre, Haifa, 1992, p.3.

Ron Price
1 June 2010
married for 48 years, a teacher for 32, a student for 18, a writer and editor for 16, and a Baha'i for 56(in 2015)

Perhaps the most famous line in John Ford’s classic film The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was: “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Thanks for the succinct responses, folks.-Ron