Two Concepts of Liberty Valance : John Ford, Isaiah Berlin, and Tragic Choice on the Frontier

Publication year2022
CitationVol. 37


Creighton Law Review

Vol. 37


"If as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict - and of tragedy - can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition."

- Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty" in Isaiah Berlin: The Proper Study of Mankind

"We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss."

- Isaiah Berlin, "The Pursuit of the Ideal"in The Crooked Timber of Humanity

"Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance."

- Railroad Conductor to Senator Ransom Stoddardin John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance


1962 was a good year for movies. In fact, two years ago a theater in Los Angeles held a retrospective of 1962 films called "The Greatest Year in Motion Picture History."(fn1) That year saw Ingmar Bergman release Through a Glass Darkly. Luis Bunuel countered with Viridiana. Alain Resnais produced Last Year At Marienbad. David Lean made Lawrence of Arabia. Francois Truffaut topped this with not one, but two classics: Jules and Jim and Shoot The Piano Player. Tony Richardson matched this with two of his own: A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

And that was just Europe. America was represented by Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker, Sidney Lumet's Long Day's Journey Into Night, Richard Brooks' Sweet Bird of Youth, Blake Edwards' Days of Wine and Roses, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country, John Huston's Freud, Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird, and John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate.

John Ford, perhaps America's greatest director of Westerns,(fn2) also released a film in 1962, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Bucking the Technicolor trend, it was an old-fashioned-looking Western filmed in black-and-white. It marked the first time James Stewart and John Wayne - stars of some of the greatest Westerns ever made - appeared together on screen.

Critics were dismissive of this work by the sixty-eight year-old Ford. The New York Times called it "creaky," Daily Variety said it lacked "sophistication," and the New Yorker called it "a parody of Mr. Ford's best work."(fn3) Although the star power of Stewart and Wayne enabled the film to show a slight profit,(fn4) it was generally considered both a critical and commercial disappointment.

Yet over the last forty years film scholars have come to recognize Liberty Valance as an American masterpiece, certainly one of the greatest Westerns ever made. They began to look past the stagy, almost claustrophobic feel of this black-and-white Western. They came to realize, in the words of Joseph McBride, author of the magisterial biography Searching For John Ford, that "Liberty Valance is not a film about landscapes or scenery, it is a film about ideas, an allegory of American history."(fn5) Andrew Sarris called Liberty Valance one of Ford's "major works."(fn6) Critic-director Peter Bogdanovich described it as "perhaps [Ford's] most deeply felt personal statement."(fn7) Other critics have more recently described it as "timeless," "an American clas-sic," "one of the crucial films of the Western genre," "[Ford's] greatest film," and "the Citizen Kane of Westerns."(fn8)

Why the critical change of heart? Perhaps because Liberty Valance's retelling of the story of the West was light-years beyond the American sensibility of 1962. Moviemakers had consistently framed the Western genre in simple dualities: "good guys vs. bad guys," "white hats vs. black hats," "cowboys vs. Indians." True, in the 1950s directors such as Budd Boetticher(fn9) and Anthony Mann(fn10) had begun to take the Western into more complex psychological territory. Yet consider that in 1962, the same year Liberty Valance was released, the most successful Western was simply titled How The West Was Won.(fn11) This is the title that reflected the prevailing American attitude in 1962: the story of the American West was the story of "law and order" imposing itself on a wild, unruly land. "Good guys defeating bad guys," "white hats defeating black hats," "cowboys defeating Indians" - like football, business, or war, it was all about "winning."

Americans in 1962 wanted to see How The West Was Won; but what Liberty Valanceshowed was How The West Was Changed. It tells a remarkably nuanced story emphasizing that any change invariably results in both gains and losses. It sees the settling of the West as a zero-sum game, rather than a story of continuous progress. It views the story of the American West as, in the truest sense of the word, "tragic."

My pairing of John Ford, an Irish-American film director, with Isaiah Berlin, a Russian-English-Jewish historian of ideas, may appear odd. I have no reason to believe that Ford ever heard of Berlin; I have no reason to believe that Berlin ever saw a Ford film. Yet around the time Ford was making a film quite literally about the "death of Liberty," Berlin delivered his now classic lecture "Two Concepts of Liberty" at Oxford.(fn12) As this essay will demonstrate, Berlin's concept of "negative liberty" actually provides a lens through which Ford's theme of the tragic choices involved in the settling of the American frontier can be brought into focus. For the death of one concept of "liberty" - Liberty Valance - undoubtedly brought forth a new concept of "liberty" in the West. As we shall see, the choice to replace the evil, sadistic Liberty Valance with another kind of "liberty" produced many benefits. But, as Isaiah Berlin reminded us, "every choice may entail an irreparable loss."(fn13) The West, through the eyes of John Ford and filtered through the work of Isaiah Berlin, was about "choosing." And, as Liberty Valance reminds us, every choice comes with a price.

Moreover, Berlin's use of the philosophical distinction between "monism" and "pluralism" sheds additional light on the issues posed in Liberty Valance. Monism can be defined as the belief that there is ultimately only one true answer to any problem, from "What is the best philosophy?" to "What is the best form of government?" A monist might subscribe to the concept that the American West was indeed "won" - that the one true answer ultimately prevailed. But Berlin, using Machiavelli's work as an example, contends that two (or three, or more) answers can exist that are equally valid, yet totally incompatible.(fn14) Pluralism, Berlin argues, forces men to choose between valid yet incompatible values, and this kind of choice often entails tragedy.(fn15) Berlin's insights help us see the tragic choice that is at the center of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Although Berlin's work helps to clarify Ford's ideas in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the relationship is not at all one-sided. For Ford's work in its own way offers a concrete exposition of some of Berlin's ideas. In "Two Concepts of Liberty," Berlin refers to a figurative "frontier" at least a dozen times. For example, in defining "negative liberty" - the extent to which an individual is free from outside control - Berlin writes that "[i]t follows that a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority."(fn16) The literal American "frontier" - not quite state-of-nature, not quite civilized - offers a very real battleground where the borders between public authority and private life are disputed. Ford's version of the American frontier offers Berlin a cinematic arena for his ideas to play out.


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valancewas originally a short story that appeared in the July 1949 issue of Cosmopolitan. Dorothy M. Johnson, a prominent author of both Western fiction and non-fiction, wrote it.(fn17) Even people who never saw the film may know the basic plot from having listened to Gene Pitney's(fn18) 1962 hit recording "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,"(fn19) which Burt Bacharach and Hal David composed.(fn20)

The film opens with a striking image: the camera lingers on a train belching smoke, fouling an otherwise pristine Western vista. The train then pulls into a small Western town called Shinbone. Among the train's passengers are Ransom "Ranse" Stoddard (James Stewart)(fn21) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles).(fn22) Stoddard represents Shinbone in the U.S. Senate. Stoddard and his wife are recognized immediately, and Senator Stoddard agrees to give an interview to the town's newspaper, the Shinbone Star. In the course of the interview, Stoddard reveals that he and Hallie have returned to Shinbone to attend the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).(fn23) The newspapermen are surprised, because none of them have ever heard of Doniphon. Encouraged by Hallie, Stoddard then proceeds to tell them how he and Hallie once knew Doniphon.

The film then begins a long flashback showing Stoddard as a young man fresh out of law school making his way west. The stagecoach he is on is stopped and robbed by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin)(fn24) and his gang. When Valance robs a woman passenger, Stoddard indignantly informs Valance that he is a lawyer and that he will make sure that Valance...

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