Frontier myth likes to show wagon trains full of pioneers heading west across the plains and mountains, but not the ones coming back the other way, and there were plenty who found that the West wasn’t what they expected. Some – who knows how many – weren’t cut out for it in the first place. Dorothy Johnson’s story “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1949) tells of the multiple ironies wrapped up in that simple fact.
In her story, an all around top cowboy, perfectly at home on the range, saves the life of a lawyer newly arrived from the East, who wants to practice law in a land where law is chiefly administered at the point of a gun. Despite his admirable intentions, there is hardly a good thing you can say about the lawyer. Full of self-pity, he lacks nearly every quality you might attribute to an honorable man, let alone a hero.
In attempting to bring the outlaw Liberty Valance to justice, he is drawn into a shootout that the more experienced gunfighter is sure to win. Surprisingly, the reverse happens, and years later the young lawyer rises to prominence as a politician on his reputation as “the man who shot Liberty Valance.” Meanwhile, the cowboy becomes a has-been, having outlived his time. He also loses his girl to the lawyer.
Director John Ford made this story into a film in 1962 with James Stewart as the lawyer and John Wayne as the cowboy. Stewart’s character was transformed into an admirable man reasonably frustrated by the absence of law and order in the small western town where he has fetched up. Wayne is his congenial self until he loses the girl and then goes off the deep end. Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance delivers yet another of his wonderful portrayals of villains doomed to die spectacularly.
As Sue Schrems points out in her blog post on Dorothy Johnson, the changes to the story reflect Hollywood’s willful romanticizing of the Old West. Instead of showing that it was a harsh and unforgiving world – arbitrary in its bestowing of fortunes – we get the familiar portrayal of an individual with intelligence and strength of character overcoming all obstacles. It doesn’t let fact stand in the way of a good story. “Print the legend,” the newspaper editor says at the film's end, which was Hollywood’s way of forgiving itself for misrepresenting history.
All that aside, a problem with the film for me is that Stewart and Wayne are far too old for their parts. Each should be at least 20 years younger to faithfully play the young men who appear in Johnson's story. Also, the film was shot in large part at the studio, either on the back lot or on a sound stage. It's easy to miss the grand landscapes that usually accompany a John Ford film, even though he liked to choose unlikely picturesque locations like Monument Valley in Utah, which is forbidding desert and not your typical cattle ranching country. He also moved the story from Johnson’s Montana to somewhere in the Southwest, apparently to include Mexicans for local color.
Maybe the best way to watch the film is as a historical document of the time when it was made - the Kennedy years, before the disillusionments of assassination and Vietnam led to Hollywood’s shift to “revisionist” westerns.