The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: A Lesson in Manhood

I had just turned nine when my mom married my step dad Blair, and I couldn’t have been happier. Growing up with just my mom and a father figure I didn’t really identify with, I loved Blair, got along with him really well, and was pleased that he was willing to break my mother’s rule about no sword fighting with the curtain rods. I knew from early on that Blair was a quality man of impeccable character. Looking back now I see the great gift he gave to me. He is the only man I call my father, my dad.

Blair taught me how to be a man. Not just a male, but a man. A man who keeps his word, who works hard, and who protects his family and puts them first. Being a lover of movies, he wasted no time in showing me classic films. Growing up I knew actors like Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Humphrey Bogart before I knew common household names like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise or Charlie Sheen. Through the films my dad showed me, I learned important lessons about life and manhood and I have no doubt that he planned it this way.

The first film I can remember watching with him was the 1962 James Stewart/John Wayne western classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, directed by legendary director John Ford. This one sticks out in my mind because I watched it at my grandfathers house with my dad and grandpa together. Three generations of Martin men: grandpa in the rocking chair with his hands resting folded on his cane, Dad on the couch, the Elkhart Truth folded on his lap, and me, sprawled out on the floor amidst my grandpas old metal toys I had been playing with. Thinking back, it must have been quite the sight to see.

My dad, my grandpa, and me at my grandpa’s 90th birthday party (2012)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance tells the story of a big city lawyer, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), who heads out to the lawless wild west in his suit and tie, toting a case full of law books. Along the way, his coach is robbed and he is badly beaten by the notorious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Left for dead on the side of the road, Ransom is rescued by cowboy for hire and all around tough guy, Tom Donovan (John Wayne), who takes Ransom under his wing and nurtures him back to health.

The outlaw Liberty Valance beats Ransom Stoddard for trying to defend a woman during the stagecoach robbery.

After he’s fully healed, the learned Ransom cracks open his law books and pours over them, looking for a way to defeat Liberty Valance using the power of the law as his weapon. Meanwhile, Donovan assures him that the only weapon effective against characters like the bandit outlaw is a well-aimed gun. Ransom however is appalled by violence and determines to use his learning and the law to defend what is right. Meanwhile, Donovan rides of to put down a group of cattle rustlers in the area.

Tom Donovan assures Stoddard that the only way to protect himself from Liberty Valance is with a gun.

As the credits rolled by, I remember my father and grandpa asking me how I liked the film. I told them I liked it but I didn’t like that James Stewart was such a pansy who couldn’t even shoot a gun. It was then that both my father and my grandfather taught me a lesson that I never forgot. They explained to me that James Stewart’s character was no coward. In fact, he was just as much a hero as John Wayne. Both men had stood up for what was right, for what they believed in. They may have had different ways of doing it, but both were fine examples of integrity and character.

This wasn’t just a one-time discussion with my dad. He lived this lesson out daily. I grew up around rough, blue-collar men. Men who worked on the land, drove big trucks, and hunted. Men whose hands were bigger than my head, whose skin was rough and weathered from wind and sun. Yet I knew that these men, for all their perceived masculinity and toughness, weren’t half the man my dad is. My dad grew up on a farm and helped my grandpa build a cabin in southern Missouri. He spent his summers hauling heavy boxes of canned goods at a grocery store and pounding fence posts by hand through rocky Missouri soil. He also went on to earn his Doctorate in music education. He’s taught at the collegiate level for many years, and is the most well read, intelligent man I know. He’s the partial owner of a training school for insurance agents after being an agent for only a few years. It seems that no matter what he does, he’s successful at. He has a mind for music and business and a quick wit that can leave you in the dust. Yet, none of of these things are what makes my father a man.

My dad and grandad taught me years ago that a man is defined by his character. Not his successes. Not how much he can lift or how accurately he can shoot a gun. Not even by what books he’s read or how much he knows. A man is a man when you can shake his hand, look him in the eye, and know that what you’re getting is real. A man is a man when what he says he’ll do gets done, when he’ll do whatever it takes to provide and care for his family. And most importantly, when he’ll put away his pride and humble himself before God. It’s not about abilities or accomplishments, it’s about character.

I remembered that lesson throughout my childhood, and now, being of age myself, I still remember it. At all of 5’4, I’m not an imposing character. I’m not very athletic and actually move rather awkwardly. I’m not a rough cowboy. I’m a writer, a filmmaker, an artist. I learned that day that you don’t need to be rough or physically imposing to prove you’re a man, that real manhood comes from strength of character. Being a man is about your morality and your integrity. I try to live my life with the very same character and that my dad, my grandfather, and of the men of Liberty Valance, showed me with their lives.

Tim Martin

Tim Martin is from central Kansas where he briefly attended film school before coming to CCM. He grew up watching mostly silent films, classical cinema, and researching film history, Tim has a unique perspective on film for someone only 21 years of age, one that lends itself well to his roles as a writer and producer. When he’s not working, Tim enjoys reading, taking walks in the wood, and watching horror films.

1 comment

  1. Brian Goodspeed 3 May, 2016 at 12:22 Reply

    Nice story. I work in a school and was looking for lessons “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” might have. I know it’s a great movie. My kids and I have watched it many times (although my daughters like “happy” movies and are bothered by the somberness) :-). Thanks again for writing this. Keep it up young man.

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