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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962

A man named Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) gets caught up in a violent stagecoach robbery attempting to defend a widow. Badly beaten by an outlaw named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), Stoddard is shocked to learn when he gets to town that Valance is basically allowed free range of behavior outside the town limits. As Stoddard, a lawyer, tries to come up with legal ways to justify trying Valance for his crimes, he attracts the attention of local woman Hallie (Vera Miles). His blossoming relationship with Hallie brings him into conflict with Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a local man.

This was a delightfully complex, interesting film.

I really enjoy stories that examine what it means to be a good and honorable person in different situations. I think that Westerns are often a great medium to explore this question, as the "wild west" existed for a while in a liminal state between untamed and unregulated communities and the encroachment of more traditional "civilization".

In the case of this film, you have Ransom and Tom existing on two different sides of the "good man" coin. Ransom is a lawyer by trade. He believes in law and order, but he also believes in the ideals if his country. When he learns that Hallie cannot read, he offers to teach her, which turns into teaching a whole crew of locals to read and write. Not insignificantly, in addition to some local men, his students include women, immigrants, and a free Black man. Reading, writing, the law, and rights are not just for a select group. And despite his bookish status, Ransom is no coward. Despite not having the skills or athleticism of a fighter, he repeatedly stands up to Liberty, even at gunpoint.

Tom, on the other hand, is much more of a traditional "man's man." He's quick with a gun. He's building a home for himself and Hallie. He also believes in doing what's right. For example, when Liberty comes after Ransom at a local restaurant, Tom inserts himself between Liberty and Ransom to avoid bloodshed.

What I maybe found most interesting about this film was the way that it doesn't really take sides between the two men. Each have their strengths and their shortcomings. Really, it's the combination of their skills and inclinations that are what is needed to help the town survive and flourish. For Tom, his shortcoming is maybe being a little too old fashioned. For example, he has decided that he's going to marry Hallie---without a tremendous amount of care as to whether that's what she actually wants. For Ransom, his shortcoming is the fact that he has to trade on someone else's accomplishments to make a name for himself. In the end, I don't think it's really a strike against either man. They are complimentary of each other.

Stewart and Wayne are pretty perfect in their roles. Stewart has such a gift for portraying men who are idealists and willing to put their lives on the line for them. He seems incredibly genuine about wanting to improve the lives of the community members. He shows a respect for Hallie. Wayne, in contrast, carries himself with the quiet confidence of someone who knows his own abilities. Despite his conflict with Ransom over Hallie, he is willing to teach Ransom to shoot and gives him good advice about dealing with Liberty.

If I had one tiny criticism, it would maybe be that I'd have liked a little more explicit thoughts from Hallie. Especially in the last third of the film, I really wanted to know what she was thinking.

Overall, one of those films that more than earns its reputation as a classic.