Who would shoot Liberty Valance?
I know who shot Liberty Valance, so the mystery element is lost on me. John Wayne shot Liberty Valance. He shot Liberty Valance in the back, no warning and no mercy, just cold-blooded killing of a man who had no chance to protect himself, not a chance to beg forgiveness, no hope of a brief moment to look his killer in the eye and realise the wrongs of a wrong life he might repent, nothing other than death at the hands of the man who sneaked up from behind and killed him. Most of us would never do that, thinking of such an action as cowardly murder. It would disgust us to kill a man at all, and to shoot a man in the back would make us sick of our lives for the duration, I venture. For a man of principle, for a moral and honorable man to do so, to violate all the good of his own character, regardless of reasons and ya ya, such a shameful act is impossible to stand in the face of. It is an eternal condemnation without hope of forgiveness. A good man could never forgive himself. And yet John Wayne deliberately violated all his conscious character to murder Liberty Valance. Shot him in the back in the dark.
This is how I recall the movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The lead-up to John Wayne shooting Lee Marvin in the back arises from Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance terrorising a town full of cowards who do nothing to rein in Liberty's outrages. I can't begin to recall what Liberty Valance did to the cowards of the town, but whatever it was, one man felt the need to make him stop, that man being the more or less otherwise timid Jimmy Stewart, married to a nice girl who wanted, as was wont in those old days now seemingly past, a husband, a home, a family, a stable and ordinary private life. Jimmy Stewart somehow confronts Liberty Valance and ends up committed to a gunfight with a professional killer. Stewart's wife begs him to swallow his pride and run away and start over somewhere else to live the calm and boring life she and he both desire as the good. But Jimmy Stewart cannot run away, not to save his own life, not to save his marriage once his wife tells him she will leave him rather than watch him die on the street like a dog. Still Jimmy Stewart stays and says he cannot run, that he must die. Jimmy Stewart could not, any more than the average man could, stand his own existence if he were to run away to save his life and to save his marriage when to do so would mean he had surrendered to evil that he had a chance to stand against, even if it means no other effect than to die resistant. A futile and pointless gesture lost in the instant next, a dirty and bloody body lying on the street dead and useless, the life of a common and decent man finished eternally for the sake of a principle that hardly means anything to those outside the view of his death if only they have sympathy for his gesture, which most would not given the problem of his death being a visible proof of their deeper cowardice in not standing in his place as the man to lose. Jimmy Stewart stands alone, then, in the middle of a 19th century street facing Liberty Valance, and he waits to be killed. His wife is gone. He must then die and be nothing no more, forever dead. So he stands.
As I recall this, I recall this thus: that John Wayne cannot intervene to save Jimmy Stewart because Jimmy Stewart's battle is not John Wayne's battle. John Wayne cannot provoke a fight and gun down Liberty Valance face to face in a fair fight because to do so would still be murder, gratuitous in the greater scheme of violence between men. Jimmy Stewart got himself into this fight, and it is his to fight. He must inevitably lose to Liberty Valance, but right and wrong are not decided by justice handing victory to the moral. There is a battle because there is a battle. There is evil. One might fight it. Or one might not. The moral doesn't decide who wins.
A man who finds his courage and stands against evil, knowing he will lose even his own life in the struggle is a man who certainly proves his good character. But the struggle against evil isn't about proving ones good character. It is a by-product one doesn't live to enjoy. The point of battling evil is to conquer evil, to at least a minimal degree, regardless of ones character. It's not at all about being a moral man. It's only about conquering. So John Wayne shoots Liberty Valance in the back.
There was a time, for me not so long ago, that a theatre full of adults would go dead quiet when they realised that John Wayne had just shot Lee Marvin in the back and killed him. Everyone in the audience would know that it was a dirty and terrible thing to do and a thing a man like John Wayne would never do. But he did, and we saw it, and we knew.
We knew then and immediately that John Wayne shot Liberty Valance in the back so Liberty didn't gun down Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart had proven his worth as a man, and it was then up to a greater man to save his life by sacrificing his own. As Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart drew their guns and fired, so too did John Wayne, hiding in the darkness, pull the trigger of his rifle and he killed Liberty Valance so it would appear Jimmy Stewart had done the deed. No one would ever know, except that John Wayne would know. Others might forgive, and some might applaud such an act; but John Wayne, and the average kid in a movie theatre, would know that such a heinous act by such a heroic man is a condemnation one cannot survive. One must forever live with shame and self-disgust. Regardless of the reason, no matter the greater purpose, to do such evil in the name of such good is to be evil; and to be so evil when one is good, when one is demonstrably good, when ones life is only the good to such a degree that good is what one is; to be evil for the sake of it is ones own eternal destruction and damnation. Then one continues to live with it.
It matters not a whit that God or the Pope or Reverend Billy Bob will automatically forgive John Wayne for shooting Lee Marvin in the back. The only judge who matters, the only judge who can deliver absolution for this terrible deed, is John Wayne, and John Wayne, because he is moral, cannot forgive such a crime. And he knew all that beforehand. And he did it anyway. We in the audience knew this instantly. As an oversensitive kid I suspect I left that theatre in tears. I suspect other men of stronger will than I left in stunned silence. I'm sure that even the densest fool in the theatre understood the story clearly.
Today I fear that the president of my nation could watch the very same movie I refer to above and come away from it without the slightest sense of what it means and why John Wayne shot Liberty Valance in the back and killed him unfairly. I fear that my own president would find the movie a boring exercise about not much of anything, though the subtext of encroaching capitalism in the frontier West might intrigue him briefly. I fear that my president would not even think of shooting Liberty Valance in the back. I life in fear that my nation is doomed.
But I live my private life in a state of joy because I know that:
The man who shot. Liberty Valance. He was the bravest of them all.
A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:
Occasional-Walker-D-W/dp/ 0987761501/ref=sr_1_1?s=books& ie=UTF8&qid=1331063095&sr=1-1
And here are some reviews and comments on said book: