As a showdown between Stoddard and Valance Ford begins to seem inevitable, Ford creates considerable tension. I will not go into details because the suspense should not be spoiled. Look instead at a debate that continues between the lawyer and the farmer about guns. Ransom Stoddard believes in the U. S. Constitution, the rule by law, the trust in government. Tom Doniphon tells him that without a gun in his hand and the experience to use it, he will sooner or later certainly be killed by Valance. Stoddard believes so firmly in the law that he is willing to lose his life for his principles. The drunken marshal won’t protect him. The newspaper editor prints the truth about Valance, and for his pains has his office trashed and is whipped nearly dead.
This is fascism against democracy: the tyranny of the strongman over the ordinary people. Everyone in Shinbone hates Liberty Valance, but they’re powerless against him and his two sidekicks, one of them a giggling fool. Tom could stand up to Valance, but it would suit him to have Stoddard out of the way so that he could bring Hallie home to that porch with its rocking chair.
There is a purity to the John Ford style. His composition is classical. He arranges his characters within the frame to reflect power dynamics–or sometimes to suggest a balance is changing. His magnificent Western landscapes are always there, but as environment, not travelogue. He films mostly on sets, but we’re not particularly aware. In a film with Lee Marvin’s snarl, Andy Devine’s squeaky voice and the accent of the Swedes, John Wayne as usual provides the calm center, never trying for an effect. (One stylistic touch: In this film, he habitually calls Stoddard “Pilgrim,” which expresses an insight into the lawyer’s character.)
Ford’s view of women is interesting. Shinbone is the only Western town I’ve seen in a movie with no prostitutes. Indeed Hallie and Nora Ericson (Jeanette Nolan) are the only two noticeable women in town; little wonder Tom’s love for Hallie is intense. As played by Jimmy Stewart, Stoddard spends much of the film wearing an apron and washing dishes in the restaurant, sending a hardly ambiguous message about a man who doesn’t wear a gun.
The way Ford employs the African-American Pompey is observant. The tall, confident Woody Strode appeared in five Ford pictures, all the way from “Stagecoach” to Ford’s final film, “7 Women” (1966). It is made clear in “Liberty Valance” that segregation was the practice in the territory. When a meeting is held to vote on statehood, Pompey sits outside on the porch. When he walks into a bar to fetch Tom, the bartender won’t serve him, and Tom slams hard on the bar: “Give him a drink.” But Pompey won’t drink. He is Tom’s farmhand and seems to be his only confidant, a protective presence; he always has Tom’s back. Ford isn’t making an anachronistic statement on racism, but he’s being sure we notice it.