Somewhere along the way the central narrative of the American Western switched from a triumphal celebration of Manifest Destiny to a lament over the closing of the frontier. Of course, there was no moment where one narrative simply stopped and the other began. Both strands—the mythology of the bringers of civilization, as well as an elegy for their passing—were woven into the fabric of the Western from the beginning. It’s fair to say, however, that in the sixties, the balance tipped. The Western, which had already shaded into film noir darkness in the late-forties and into the fifties, fundamentally changed in the turbulent 1960s.
This isn’t surprising given the extent to which films are a product of their time and place. We tend to think of genre films as being set entities—a Western is a Western, and we all know what that means—but these forms and formulas are no more immune to influence than anything else. Though it was born in the earliest days of cinema in the late 1800s, and descended from the pulp fictions than preceded them, the Western is an essentially early-Twentieth Century film genre. It took shape in the midst of the formulation of Hollywood itself, during the same period that saw the rise of American nationalism. (And during a period, not incidentally, where patriarchy and white supremacy were the law of the land.) It achieved its greatest success—at least in terms of ubiquity—in the 1950s. A Western from 1955 just looks and sounds like a Western from 1955—and it probably has more to tell us about 1955 than the old west.
What we see in the sixties, though, is a deepening unease with the mythology of the Western itself. We can see this with painful clarity in John Ford’s last great Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It tells the story of an aging senator named Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), who made his name as a young man for killing an outlaw named Liberty Valance (played with gleeful menace by Lee Marvin). Recalling his youth for a pushy newspaper editor, though, Stoddard confesses that his reputation is built on a lie. It turns out that Stoddard owes his life to a tough rancher named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who has been forgotten by history.
John Ford made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when he was sixty-eight, and, truth be told, at times it has the stodginess of an old man’s film. Jimmy Stewart, fifty-four when the film was released, spends the majority of the film playing a man who’s supposed to be in his early twenties. And despite being about the taming of the West, most of the action unfolds on sound stages that feel, at all times, like sound stages.
To point this out, however, isn’t to diminish the film so much as to describe it. Ford was an old man, looking back on a mythology that he, as much as anyone else in America, helped to create. This was a man who’d been directing Westerns since 19-freaking-17, a man who’d made what many considered the most formally perfect Western ever with 1939’s Stagecoach, the man who’d personally bumped up a Poverty Row B-actor-nobody named John Wayne and turned him into the biggest star in the history of American cinema. Yet, by 1962, Ford’s take on the Western was dark and melancholy. To say that this is an old man’s film is to say, at least in part, that it is haunted by an old man’s sense of mortality.
Unlike most Westerns by this time, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is black and white. Many of its most important passages unfold at night, with darkness shrouding the truth of what’s going on. If it feels stagey, that’s because it is. It’s not an outdoor Western like The Searchers or She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. It’s a play, a meditation on age and artifice, on mythology and loss.
Of course, one can’t talk about the film without talking about John Wayne. In 1962, he was 55 years old, leathery and fat. Too old to be romancing Liberty Valance’s leading lady Vera Miles (who was young enough to be his daughter), he was on the verge of abandoning sex altogether—onscreen, anyway—and transitioning into playing authoritarian figures whose masculinity was so rigid it seemed to preclude sexuality altogether as something intrinsically feminine. Interestingly, this transition coincided with the tumult of the sixties, the rise of the counterculture, and the national hell of Vietnam. Wayne (like Stewart and Ford) was a hawk on the war and an outspoken critic of the counterculture. If the twenties and thirties made Wayne an actor, and the forties and fifties made him a superstar, the sixties and seventies made him an icon. By the time he passed away in 1979, he was the swaggering embodiment of a particular strain of American thought.
Which all makes it interesting to see him here in 1962, just before his ascension to political lightening rod and cherished/loathed national symbol. With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Wayne made his last appearance in a Ford Western. While some of their previous work had plumbed dark depths (most notably in The Searchers) Wayne had never played a figure of tragedy quite like Tom Doniphon. For much of the film, he is effortlessly charismatic—rough and acid tongued, but with a core innate decency. That was always the key to the Wayne persona, really. He was too strong not to be feared, but his strength was matched by his integrity.
By the end of the film, however, Doniphon recedes into history. The last shot of Wayne here is a mournful capstone to his work with Ford. After watching Stoddard go off to claim both the love of Vera Miles and the title of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Doniphon retreats, alone, history’s forgotten man.
Some viewers greeted The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a relic when it first appeared. Some still do. And in some ways it is a relic—but it also a meditation by a filmmaker who had established myths only to live long enough to see those myths begin to die.