Alphabetical Movie – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
I’ll be doing some spoilers about major plot points so if that bothers you, don’t read on.
I’m not sure what The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has to say about guns solving problems.
Jimmy Stewart is a hero because he killed a man who, based on all evidence, would have killed him first. It was never his goal to kill Liberty Valance but he was pushed to do so because he knew he couldn’t run away.
It complicates things when we learn that Stewart did not, in fact, kill Valance. Given that fact, is the killing of Valance self-defense, murder, or something else?
Valance was shot to save someone’s life. Unlike other Westerns where everyone is a crack shot, the reason Valance is dead is because his killer aimed at the easiest part of the body to hit. Makes sense. He only had one shot.
So where does that leave us? How do we feel about the whole situation? We know that Stewart is conflicted about it. He doesn’t want to be a hero for killing a man. Yet, it is also true that he may be able to do more good for others if he accepts that he is a hero.
To me, Stewart is far more heroic than he believes because he went to face Valance with the knowledge that he was going to be shot to death. Had John Wayne failed to act, the outcome of the duel was unquestionable. Everyone knew that.
The old west that we see in classic films doesn’t exist with the same standards of morality as our world does. Stand your ground laws notwithstanding.
In old west films, problems are solved with guns. Even when you have someone like Jimmy Stewart, who is trying to come up with a different way to solve problems, he is eventually faced with the fact that the only way to solve his particular problem is with a gun.
It may not have been his gun but the fact someone was forced to shoot Liberty represents a failure of Stewart’s ideology.
Side note: I’m referring to Liberty (Lee Marvin) by character name and Stewart and Wayne by actor name because why would anyone refer to Stewart and Wayne as anything else but Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne?
So what is the movie’s position on all of this? Does it side with Stewart’s lofty ideological position or does it think that sometimes the only way to solve a problem is from the muzzle of a gun?
I would imagine the reason that this movie is such a classic is because it doesn’t take a position. Certainly we are to understand that Stewart is better off alive. Many others are better off as well. So from that we could logically conclude that frontier justice is an acceptable action.
But Stewart and Wayne both lose something in the dispensation of that justice. They are changed and damaged by the act. Yes, Liberty Valance had to be killed if Stewart wanted to live. Both seem haunted by the idea that there must have been another way.
The movie is surprisingly neutral on the subject, letting the characters and their situation speak for themselves. Like most divisive issues we face every day, the answer is rarely as easy as it first appears.