I initially wasn't too enthused about the idea of sitting down with this film. While I certainly admire John Ford, I had grown accustomed to the more coarse view of human nature on display in the spaghetti westerns of Leone, Corbucci, and Petroni. However, I was in for quite a pleasant surprise with this film.
The film centers on the life of Rance Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) and his return to the Western town where he came of age. In a series of flashbacks, we follow the exploits of Stoddard and his brush with the town's hero Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), and the town menace Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Yet, while this seems to have all the makings of a classic good vs. evil confrontation, Ford plays around with the idea of justice.
As if representing two adverse parts of the brain, Wayne and Stewart are ardent about fighting their own fights in their own ways. For Wayne, justice can be achieved with old-school heroism, a little gunpowder, and a dash of wit. For Stewart, the law of the land is sufficient and he is intent on reshaping the town's attitudes in such a way. Both men mock the avenues taken by their counterpart and blindly follow what they know to be true. They are two opposing forces, both immensely powerful in their own right. However, influence eventually leaks in on both sides and both men seem to come to at least some sort of understanding regarding the importance of their separate ways.
This sense of duality is strongly diffused throughout the picture and Ford highlights this visually by his expert use of shadows. In most shots, the characters shadows are projected on the wall behind them as if to showcase the dual nature that lurks in the hearts of these men. Yet, rather than casting judgement, it seems as though Ford wants to illuminate and understand these two opposing ways of life, and to lament the passing of western way.
Being one of Ford's last films, the viewer gets a sense that he knew the rule of the Western was coming to an end. Although Wayne is just in his own way, his character seems to know that the times are changing. No longer does having the fastest draw bring virtue and success and Wayne's character goes through a heartbreaking acceptance that Stewart's generation is taking over. In one shot in particular, Ford has Stewart's character standing in front of an old stage coach covered in dust and cobwebs. It is an homage to the old west that is both understanding and mournful.
While Clint Eastwood's "The Unforgiven" has long be touted as the definitive eulogy of the western, I would argue that Ford's film is a much more fitting tribute to such a wonderful genre of film.