Who shot Liberty Valance?
April 24, 2012
Today, let’s take a departure from writing and think about the movie classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
I love that flick. Released in1962, it starred James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles and Lee Marvin, as the outlaw gunslinger Liberty Valance.
A grainy black and white movie, it draws its power from misdirection and teaches us that even a flawed cornerstone can support a life of greatness.
One of the reasons I think about this movie so often is that it was the movie my father loved more than any other. Whenever it played at the Crim theater in Kilgore, Texas, he and I would be in the audience.
Daddy didn’t like any movie unless it had bad guys that were really bad, bad to the bone. Liberty Valance fit the bill. He was the sort of guy that would shoot his mother and leave her for the buzzards.
Daddy also wanted the good guys to be good. It was okay if they had flaws if their hearts were pure. He could forgive a guy for being a horse’s rear end if he killed the bad guy in the final shoot out.
In the movie, James Stewart’s character plays a small town lawyer in a western territory that is about to become a state in the United States. Stewart encounters Liberty Valance, a villain that has run rough shod over the citizens of the town and lived by his own cruel rules. The conflict drives Stewart to an inevitable showdown in the dirt streets of that frontier town.
I’m not going to give away the big twist that drives the movie because I don’t want to spoil it for you.
As writers there is much we can learn from this tale about universal themes that touch people and make them pull for our characters. We know the Titanic is going to sink. We know the villain will receive his comeuppance.
Maybe it is the allegiance to those universal truths in story-telling that accounts for the resurgence of Westerns, both movies and books.
It’s all about how we tell the story. And a little surprise every now and then doesn’t hurt.