Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)


     If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that back in March I talked about a movie called “The Quiet Man” by a Catholic filmmaker named John Ford. “The Quiet Man” was set in Ireland about a boxer who comes back from America to his Irish birthplace and starts his life anew. That was a more romantic movie. But Ford wasn’t known for making a lot of romantic movies as he was known for making a lot of Westerns. With “Stagecoach” in 1939, he made the Western a serious movie genre, kind of like how I feel Christopher Nolan made the comic-book movie genre serious with “The Dark Knight”. But probably the darkest of Ford’s Westerns that I’ve ever seen is “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. On the surface, this film seems like a simple tale of good versus evil. But John Ford won’t settle for that.

     James Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, an attorney on his way through the woods one night when suddenly his carriage is robbed. The culprit is Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who I feel is one of the most dislikable characters I’ve ever seen in a film. When Ransom stands up for himself, Valance beats him and leaves him for dead. However, he is found and brought in to town by Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, a regular actor in John Ford’s films. Tom brings Ransom into the town of Shinbone, where the Ericson family, a poorer family who makes a living from their small restaurant, brings him in. Once Ransom is brought back to health, he starts helping out at the restaurant and getting to know the Ericson’s—particularly their daughter Hallie (Vera Miles), who he eventually teaches to read and write. But he also starts looking into his law books to determine whether or not Valance’s robbery in the woods happened in Shinbone’s jurisdiction, giving the cowardly marshal Link Appleyard (played by a hilarious Andy Devine) a legal reason to put Liberty Valance in jail.

     But when Liberty Valance starts losing his reputation as a tough outlaw once Ransom Stoddard starts blasting his name in the newspapers and becoming a political leader in Shinbone, Liberty calls Ransom out to a gunfight outside the local tavern. Ransom, who at first was totally against violence, and who can’t even fire a gun right—as Tom humiliates him for at his ranch, decides that the only way to fight violence is with violence. So he meets Liberty outside the saloon, Liberty shoots him in the arm, and Ransom shoots Liberty and kills him. The town celebrates, Liberty’s corpse is carried out of Shinbone—as are Liberty’s henchmen, and Ransom and Hallie fall in love… much to the dismay of Tom Doniphon, who was building an exterior part onto his house for him and his future wife, who he intended to be Hallie.

     Some time after Liberty’s death, the territory is having elections for its representative in Congress, and Ransom Stoddard is nominated. And one of the main reasons that his supporters want him elected is because he is the man responsible for ridding Shinbone of Liberty Valance. But an opposing statesman, Cassius Starbuckle (John Carradine), calls Stoddard and one of his endorsers, Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) out for this nomination:

STARBUCKLE: Well… I see this demonstration, but I can’t believe my eyes. Is it possible that such a representative body of honest, hard-working Americans can endorse a candidate for the Congress of our beloved country whose only claim to the office is that he killed a man?

PEABODY: Do you call Liberty Valance a man?!

STARBUCKLE: Hear me out! Who is this Ransom Stoddard? And what qualifications has he that entitle him to aspire to such great office? We are told he’s a lawyer. An attorney at law. An officer of the court. Yes, but what kind of lawyer? A man who usurps the function of both judge and jury and takes the law into his own hands! …What other qualifications has he then? The blood on his hands? The hidden gun beneath his coat? The bullet-riddled body of a honest citizen? … I tell you, the mark of Cain is on this man!

     After this accusation, Ransom decides to go back east. But once Tom convinces him to stay—while revealing a secret that gives the film its twist ending—Ransom stays in Shinbone, becomes a senator, marries Hallie, and years later goes back to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. But even decades after Liberty Valance’s death, Ransom still feels guilty about it.

     When I saw this movie again recently, it reminded me a lot of what happened on May 2. I had taken my first semester final that morning, and when I went back to my college dorm room, I turned on my computer and looked at the news headlines. The first thing that I saw was that Osama bin Laden had been killed the night before. And sure enough, dozens of my friends posted about it on Facebook. There were some that praised his death, but many others (Christians, I should add) who said that even though a terrorist leader was dead, he was still made in God’s image, and therefore his death shouldn’t be praised. It was hard for me to decide which side to be on.

     But I remembered what Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5:43-46: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” I know it’s a lot easier for me to think of Osama bin Laden as another child of God (though I’m sure he wasn’t a Christian) when I haven’t lost a friend or family member to his terrorist movements. But whether or not I have doesn’t matter to me: I still need to pray for people like Osama bin Laden. And loving your enemies isn’t as general as not praising a terrorist’s death: that can be as simple as praying for a bully at school, or a co-worker who gets on your nerves. Jesus says that if you only love people who love you back, that’s nothing; non-believers do that. But one thing that separates a believer from a non-believer is their ability (or attempts) to love those who hate them.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will find opportunities today to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

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