Matchup of the Day: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance vs. John Wick
It’s a matchup about rightin’ wrongs, whether through legal or extralegal means – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance vs. John Wick.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance stars James Stewart as the idealistic lawyer Ransom Stoddard. He travels from the eastern United States out west to the lawless town of Shinbone. Before reaching his destination, his stagecoach is robbed by the downright evil Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin. Valance beats Stoddard severely and rips up his law books. When Stoddard makes it to town he is determined to see that Valence is brought to justice. Shinbone, however, is under the protection of a no account marshal who fears Valance’s wrath. The only man in town tough enough to take on Valance is Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne. He tells Stoddard that the barrel of a gun, not the law, is the only way to put an end to Valance’s criminal activity. This doesn’t sit well with Stoddard, who is a firm believer in the legal system and civilized behavior.
Keanu Reeves plays the title character in John Wick, a retired hitman with a prodigious list of kills under his belt. At the beginning of the film, his wife dies from an undisclosed illness. The only thing he has to remember her, and the decent life he once had, is a puppy she left him. When Wick encounters a group of thugs at the gas station they offer to buy his vintage car. He turns them down. Later that night, they break into his house, ambush him and steal his vehicle. And, most unforgivably, kill the puppy. As it turns out, one of the assailants is the son of a crime boss Wick once worked for. He hears about what his son has done, knowing that Wick will be coming to unleash bloody vengeance.
Valance is told mostly in flashback. Stoddard is a Senator at the beginning of the film who has already had an illustrious career. He is credited with bringing order to Shinbone. Also, before he arrived in the town, the territory Shinbone resided in was run by violent cattle ranchers. They resisted allowing the territory to be granted statehood because it would weaken their control. Liberty Valance worked as an enforcer for the cattle ranchers, intimidating anyone who attempted to oppose their tyranny. Stoddard stands up to him, initially through legal means, despite being warned by Doniphon that Valence will surely send him to his grave. The conflict comes to a head when Valance trashes the local newspaper office. Stoddard agrees to face Valance in an armed showdown even though he is clearly overmatched. Valance sadistically toys with him until Stoddard gets off a lethal shot. With Valance dead, Stoddard’s political star rises. The door is opened for positive change.
John Wick’s legendary killing prowess is already well-known in the criminal underworld. The only person who isn’t aware of his death-dealing capability is the son of the crime boss. In fact, John Wick’s skill as a hired gun paved the way for the crime boss to rise to prominence. Most of the criminals follow a code of conduct that maintains a semblance of civility. The senseless attack on John Wick is considered a breach of this code. So, while Wick is not really a good guy, he is acting within the ethical boundaries of his profession.
There is a comparison to be made between the son of the crime boss and Liberty Valance. Both characters are witless louts who bring about their own demise by messing with someone who possesses greater conviction than they do. Once offended, both Stoddard and Wick are relentless in their goal to set things right. It could even be said that the two protagonists are upholding the law in their own way. The difference being that Stoddard walks into a situation where there is no established code of conduct. He has to convince the townsfolk to organize and challenge the lawless cattle ranchers. Wick’s world is based on certain standards. There is an “Honor Among Thieves”.
John Wick immediately intends to use violence to rectify the wrong committed against him. The crime boss does suggest that they resolve the problem in a more civilized manner, but Wick is out for blood. The body count that follows accumulates into the stratosphere. Wick ends up destroying the world he helped build. Stoddard in Valance resorts to violence only after being left no other recourse. He wants to handle the issue in a civilized manner. Ultimately, law and order does prevail, but only after Stoddard makes a name for himself by killing Valance. This allows him to build a better world for the people of Shinbone, and the whole territory.
What makes Valance a truly interesting film is that John Wayne’s character, Doniphon, was correct that the law of the gun was the only way to bring about order. Not only that, but it is revealed that Doniphon was the person who actually shot Liberty Valance from the shadows with a rifle. Stoddard at one point intends to back out of his political career because he feels guilty about violating his standards and killing Valance. When Doniphon tells him what really happened, Stoddard’s conscience is clear. He admits at the end of the movie, after recounting the story to a news reporter, that his whole career (and, consequently, all the good that came out of it) was based on a lie. The reporter decides not to print the truth, saying “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”