June 24, 2010
Review - " The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) "
(on DVD) By Roland Hansen
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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Directed by: John Ford
Starring: James Stewart, John Wayne, lee Marvin, Vera Miles, lee Van
Cleef, Woody Strode, Denver Pyle, John Carradine, Strother Martin,
Andy Devine, Dutton Peabody
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was John Ford’s final great work,
though he continued to work and made a few more films; none had the
intensity nor reached the level of art his previous films achieved. The
film is based on a short story by western author Dorothy M. Johnson,
who also wrote “A Man Called Horse” and “The Hanging Tree”, both of
which were adapted to the screen.
A harshly poetic study of the gulf between myth and reality, John Ford's
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the finest films ever made
in America. Nominally a Western, it's actually a thoughtful study of
history; both the passing of the old into the new and the process by
which legend becomes translated into fact. All of the themes which
obsessed Ford throughout his career are blended here into a pure and
deeply moving elegy to a time long gone, complemented by iconic
performances from the leads and some brief but equisitely tense action
One thing that I remember being refreshing was that this wasn't a tale of
white expansionist cowboys vs. red (or gray if filmed in black and white)
savage Indians. It didn't end with a shootout between rifles and bows.
This was a conflict of Law vs. Lawlessnes or Society vs. The Wild. The
lawless West was established, now it had to struggle in order to become
a cultured society.
The movie is told in flashback from the perspective of Senator Ransom Stoddard (old Jimmy Stewart). He tells the story after
arriving in Shinbone by train to go to a funeral of a man no one in town seems to recall - a man named Tom Doniphon (John
Wayne). The newspaper men extract historical details from the veteran Senator about the way things used to be before the
railroad (railroad=civilization). The flashback begins with a young idealist lawyer Ransom Stoddard (still played by an old 50-
year old looking Stewart) who follows Horace Greely's advice to go west and gets a rude awakening when his carriage gets
ambushed by outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). To Valance, "law" is relatively equal to a horse whip across the face and
law books make fun pistol targets.
A beaten up Stewart is found in the wild and
brought to Shinbone, a town with a cowardly
lion Marshall (Andy Devine), a drunken
newspaper man (Dutton Peabody), and a
restaurant run by illiterate desert beauty Hallie
(Vera Miles) that serves steaks the size of a
10-gallon hat. Shinbone is a town settled but
not yet civilized. There is a main street with a
group of roughly built buildings and people
with jobs, but no signs of prosperity, wealth,
or promise. Everyone just sort of gets by and
there isn't even a sense of law - at least
officially. When Liberty Valance and his
cronies ride into town the Marshall runs and
hides (and drinks). The only one keeping the
peace is Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who
usually steps up in time for Valance to step
down. Apparently the pecking order of
"toughness" is thoroughly communicated to
everyone in and around Shinbone and Valance knows that he's only number two.
Stoddard's ultimate goal (post healing) is to get back on his feet, practice, law, and throw Liberty Valance in jail. The idea of
using a gun to control Valance disgusts the promising lawyer who sees the potential statehood of the area as the goal for
total protection from people like Valance. He also has side goals of trying to educate the town's people and teach all (men,
women, and children) how to read and how to stand up for themselves without using violence.
end of the flashback and his death, Doniphon is forgotten (his funeral is largely unattended) and it is assumed he retreated
to his ranch on the outskirts after he lost the girl and his status in town all to Stoddard.
Of course Doniphon's grand purpose is that he finally does take down Valance and does so, under the guise that the shaky
handed Stoddard is the one shooting the gun. Hense, the saying that sums up the film, "When the legend becomes fact, print
the legend." This is as much an admission by Ford that the West is often glorified by legend and fun-to-tell stories that re-
write the gritty truth. But darn-it all those legends make for much better movies! In the film, it means the legend (Stoddard
shooting Liberty Valance) meant more for Shinbone because it helped Stoddard (a well read leader) rise to popularity in town
and around the surrounding area where Valance harassed countless cattle ranchers. It meant a more prosperous future for
Shinbone as well as Stoddard and Hallie.
There’s a distinct sadness here and yet a begrudging
acceptance of the inevitability of change. Liberty
Valance is as much an optimistic film as an elegaic
one, there is hope for the future all around in
Shinbone; in the dreams for a better life of the
immigrant owners of the eating house, in the proud
attempts of Hallie and the townspeople to learn
reading and writing, in the developing democracy of
the public meeting to elect a representative to the
Territorial Convention. It's as if Ford has come to terms
with the past and is acknowledging how the forces of
change can be kind as well as cruel. Somehow, the
past, present and future have become interdependent
- the past being known as much through myth, legend
and tradition as through what actually happened.
That's what seems to me to be meant by the famous line "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend", a comment which
would apply to the genre as much as it does to Stoddard, Doniphon and Valance.
This was the first film to match John Wayne with James Stewart and it's fascinating to see their different personas on screen
together. In some ways, these are archetypal roles for the pair of screen icons and they play them for all they are worth.
Stewart dithers delightfully while Wayne is a solid rock of heroism and courage. But then Ford deliberately subverts
expectations by revealing the bravery behind Stewart's insistence on using the law rather than a gun and by revealing the
apprehension and sadness within Wayne's familiar image. Wayne's performance is particularly good at this gentle sadness,
especially in his scenes with Vera Miles, and I love the way his famous walk seems to be slightly bowed with the weight of
experience. We do tend to project our own image of Wayne's screen history onto every character the actor played and I think
John Wayne can act and is not just the subject of parody, though he uses the term Pilgrim enough to Stewart that it would
stick in everyone’s impersonations. Marvin is particularly menacing as Valance and this film would lead to bigger and better
things for the actor. The film has a pessimistic tone and a “print the legend attitude” regarding past heroes.
Instead of disseminating the truth about him in the world of the film, the press allows the legend to flourish. I guess you can
argue that this probably isn’t the right thing to do, but it would sully Senator Stoddard’s good works to find out that he’s been
living the life that should’ve been afforded to the better man, Doniphon.
I guess I could argue with myself about the need to reveal the truth about Stoddard, but let’s just print the legend. The film is
a classic in all sense of the word and is one of Ford’s greatest westerns.
Ford's direction is relaxed but with his usual relish for character - such as the Shakespeare quoting newspaper editor - and
for small historical details - references to sodbusters and bushwhackers will perplex some viewers but are entirely appropriate
for the period. There are few of his expansive landscapes in this largely interior film since it was largely shot in the studio but
it never feels enclosed or claustrophobic. The monochrome photography has a harsh beauty which is also just right for this
sad, reflective film. It's hard to imagine a
reason to criticise The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance. It takes the best of Ford's westerns
and points forward to the elegaic westerns of
Peckinpah and Eastwood, managing to be
entertaining and genuinely thought provoking
in the process. It's certainly slow moving and
perhaps a little too sentimental for some
viewers, but Ford's vision of the West comes
through with immense grace and power.
Unreservedly recommended, this is essential
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of
my favorite Ford films. If you’re a fan then you
can’t go wrong picking up this release.
Ford loves the stark contrasts between good
and evil, but in Liberty Valance there is a
Good A (Stoddard) and a Good B
(Doniphon), although the order can be
easily disputed. For the purposes of this
film, Doniphon?s character (lawless, but at
the same time good in the sense that he
police's Liberty Valance) is a necessary to
component. Without Doniphon, the gangly,
defenseless Stoddard would have been
killed five times over. Of course there is the
question of, if Doniphon is so tough why
doesn't he kill Valance sooner? The reason
lies in between what happens to Doniphon
between the end of the flashback and from
when the flashback was told. After Valance
is killed Doniphon and his old West ways
cease to be relevant. He needs Valance
around to give his kind (rough and tumble,
law-keeper) some purpose. Between the
this is a process which Ford appreciated.
Ford was as intelligent and genre-savvy a
director as America ever produced and his
handling of Wayne's image in his films
demonstrates this perfectly. Stewart is also
extremely good, although I could do with a
little less of his trademark drawling,
especially in the last half hour of the film.
That's a minor niggle though; I can't think of
another actor who could do this part justice.
The supporting cast is a gallery of Ford's
favourites and there can't be many viewers
who can miss the affection he holds for his
actors. I particularly relish Andy Devine's
hopelessly incompetent marshal and John
Carradine's irrepressibly windy politician.
This film is another where we realize that