I caught the last part of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” the other day and it caused me to reflect on that as a different kind of role for John Wayne. Not of him as a rough-tough-don’t-mess-with-me cowboy, but also not as the unequivocal good guy in the white hat. I’m not certain that I saw every single John Wayne movie, but certainly many of them whether he played cowboy, military man, or detective. Even though there weren’t too many comedies along the way in his career, I still get a chuckle from “McClintock” and “Eldorado” is sprinkled with humorous segments.
I don’t know enough about the background of the movie to know how Wayne was approached about the role. Perhaps the fact the true “guy in the white hat” (Jimmy Stewart) was unable to adequately cope with the brutish Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) appealed to Wayne. I also don’t recall why Wayne’s character was willing to let Valance bully people since there were a number of tough-guy roles in Wayne’s movies where he would always plan to take on the bad guy and simply had to find a way to bring about the bad guy’s demise. Not “getting the girl” was another deviation from so many of this movies. The sacrifice Wayne makes to allow the woman he has loved and planned to marry was a powerful theme of how love triangles play out with little chance of all three individuals coming away happy.
The broader theme of how force can sometimes only be met with greater force was artfully done. Despite the fact Stewart made the decision to confront Valance in the violent way he had declared he wouldn’t do, he was able to believe somehow he had miraculously prevailed. Having thought he had actually killed Valance caused him guilt which he then wrestled with. Wayne’s choice in revealing the truth to Stewart was initially rejected and then Stewart accepted perpetuating the lie of the killing was the correct thing to do under the circumstances. The complexities of the movie can still generate philosophical discussions.