Legends are only as strong as the facts behind them, as Ford reveals in his classic film. By exploring the legend stereotype, he exposes the emptiness of idealistic human success through the life of Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart).
What begins as the return of a town’s hero, Senator Stoddard, becomes an examination of his rise to fame when he is interviewed about the nature of his friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).
As portrayed in one of their first scenes together, Stoddard and Doniphon are stark contrasts—one the embodiment of western vigilante justice; the other representing the visionary frailty of law and educated ideals. Both the men and their methodologies clash in conflict with the town tyrant, Liberty Valance.
Stoddard is depicted as a lawyer with passionate ideas but no means of enforcing them; he professes to use the law to bring Valance to justice. Doniphon, on the other hand, has a more pragmatic and less interventionist approach, harshly revealing the weakness of principles without a gun to back them up.
In the end, both Stoddard’s justice-based passion and Doniphon’s vigilantism are needed to defeat Valance and gain statehood in an archetypal western conflict between democracy and lawless tyranny. Valance’s death makes Stoddard’s career, but at a price.
The success of his idealism is built upon Doniphon’s deeds—not his own. Through this, Ford communicates a cynical view of human fame and progressivism. Each succeeds at another’s expense.
Ford’s careful use of dialogue, music, transitions, and other material keeps the film taut and purposeful. The dialogue, as in most Ford films, is simple but key. For instance, Doniphon’s label for Stoddard, “Pilgrim,” indicates Stoddard’s displaced character.
Although at times Stewart’s acting is typical of his other film roles, he still manages to communicate Stoddard’s struggles. One of the most significant features of this film, though, is its lighting.
An excellent demonstration of low-key lighting appears when Dutton Peabody (an impressive Edmond O’Brien), the newspaper editor and Stoddard’s close associate, is nearly beaten to death by Valance and his henchmen. Returning to his office in a drunken state, Peabody is framed by the narrow natural lighting from the doorway and surrounded by darkness. The shot captures his shadow on the wall and communicates a sense of anticipation without changing angles.
Ford’s director of photography, William Clothier, exhibits another key use of framing and lighting when Stoddard, on his way to meet Valance, pauses before the wrecked newspaper office. Silhouetted against the shattered and lit window, he gazes inside in a moment that illustrates the powerlessness that drove him to abandon his law-based ideals. However, the simple use of imagery in the film’s closing scene truly draws the film together. A train attendant assures Senator Stoddard that “nothing is too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” and as the statement dawns on Stoddard, he hesitates in lighting a cigarette, and then blows the match out. The shot communicates an emptiness in the face of achievement—a tarnish on victory and legend’s allure, because the facts that stand behind them are merely flawed humans.