Sacrificing Everything for the Greater Good

John Wayne is a film icon. He still shows up on the list of best actors more than 30 years after his death. A Harris Poll, released January 2011, placed Wayne third among America’s favorite film stars, the only deceased star ever to appear on the list and the only one who has appeared on the poll every year since it first began in 1994.

Not all of his films were great, but the ones that were are memorable. One of my all-time favorites is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance(1962). It stars Vera Miles, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance), Edmund O’Brien (almost unrecognizable under his beard), Andy Devine, the understated Woody Strode, and an ensemble of other actors that only an ardent film buff my age would recognize.

In 2007 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” This was the first time that Steward and Wayne appeared together in a film. Wayne and Stewart appeared again in The Shootist (1976), which was Wayne’s last film. He died in 1979.

What is it about the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that makes it so significant? The following was written by John Nolte for

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – John Ford’s final masterpiece always surprises me by how poignant it is. After a screening, as time passes, my takeaway is John Wayne’s confrontation with Lee Marvin: “That was my steak, Liberty.” and of course Jimmy Stewart’s. What I forget, though is that Wayne’s Tom Doniphon is the real hero of the story, and not just because he saves Ransom Stoddard’s (Stewart) life.

By killing Liberty Valance (the awesome Lee Marvin), Doniphon effectively kills off his own way of life along with it. He not only loses the love of his life (Vera Miles) to Ransom but also elevates the man into a political force who will help end the frontier in favor of civilization. Effectively, through his selfless act, Doniphon sacrifices everything that made him who he was and, in the process, creates a safer world that no longer wants any part of men like him.

Whenever I put the DVD in, it’s with the expectation of a good, ole-fashioned “town” Western. When it’s over, though, I’m blindsided by how profoundly sad and moving the story is, and it stays with me for days afterward.

I have to agree. Liberty Valance is a man of force and violence. Giving him the name “Liberty” seems counterintuitive, kind of like calling Marxists and Liberals “Progressives.” Ransom Stoddard is a man of high principle and the rule of law. Tom Doniphon, Wayne’s character, is also a man of principle who knows a lot about force and violence and how sometimes it has to be dealt with.

If you haven’t seen it, sit your family down, pop some popcorn, and enjoy a film that has a lot to say about our day. It’s a great piece of social commentary. In the end, as you will see, some things are destined to pass away. They cannot produce a new world. There’s no room for them. Tom Doniphon understood that.

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