John Ford crafted iconic westerns like The Searchers, Stagecoach, and in a way, The Grapes of Wrath. However, John Ford's best western doesn't have a ride into the sunset, a big shootout, or much of anything dealing with travel, be it coach or car. His best western is slow-moving, political, and perfect. It is known by the name The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.
In 1962, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance was the bottom half of a double bill. The film stars Jim Stewart, John Wayne, and Vera Miles, which is a top-notch cast for a bottom half. Was the film too boring, perhaps? Less than 10 shots are fired in the whole movie, and John Wayne was a supporting actor, not a lead. Perhaps the film defied 'the myth of the Old West'.
1956 brought The Searchers, a movie synonymous with the Old West. It was technicolor, VistaVision, and glorious. The Man who Shot Liberty Valance was black and white, and spent most of its time in a town named Shinbone. Shinbone is dominated by the cynical Liberty Valance, the sheriff is constantly drunk, and most everyone is illiterate. A bone is typically strong, but Shinbone isn't.
This film isn't your typical western. It begins with a flashback, with presidential nominee Ransom Stodard visiting Shinbone for the funeral of a mysterious marksman Tom Doaphin, played by the iconic John Wayne. Ransom is accompanied by his wife Hallie. Journalists from Shinbone ask why Ransom is going to this funeral. He starts his story and the past swims onto the screen.
A newly-graduated law student crosses paths with Shinbone. This man is Ransom Stodard, played by superb Jimmy Stewart. Ransom's stagecoach is ravaged by Liberty, and he is left severely injured. Ransom is fortunately nursed back to health by Tom and Hallie. Hallie is illiterate, and Ransom is inspired to open a school and bring law to Shinbone.
Tom questions Ransom, and tells Ransom to get a gun. Ransom is reluctant, he abides by the law. All while this is going on, there is an election for representatives of the region, and Liberty Valance returns.
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance is a title granted to Ransom after he breaks his own anti-gun beliefs and enters a gunfight with the talented Liberty Valance. There is only one better marksman in the old west, and that is Tom Donaphin. However, Ransom and Liberty get into a gunfight, and Ransom wins. Yet, the real man who shot (and killed) Liberty Valance is Tom Donaphin himself. The name granted to Ransom is a myth. A myth of the old west.
Something about the ending is what makes this film different from other westerns. It doesn't end happily ever after, a ride in the sunset. The Man who Shot Liberty Valance broke the boundaries of the west, and refined films forever.