The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Review

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Director: John Ford

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact…print the legend.”



The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance carries with it all the triumph, wonder, and depth of earlier John Ford-John Wayne Westerns, like Stagecoach (1939). The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a deeply reflective, pensive, and even pessimistic film. The story takes place at the turning point for the old west: the rule of arms is giving way to the rule of law; Farmers are learning to read; and the territory is on the verge of statehood.

The plot is based on a short story by American Western writer, Dorothy M. Johnson. At the center of the story is a contrast between two characters: a western cowboy ruffian named Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne) and a slender, educated, lawyer named Ranse Stoddard (played Jimmy Stewart). The former represents the old rule of force, while the latter represents the new rule of law. With the film, John Ford enters into the age old debate between the superiority of arms versus letters. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is John Ford’s lugubrious view of the rule of law.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a framed narrative told through a flashback. It begins with the elder statesman, Ranse Stoddard, getting off the train in old western town called ‘Shinbone.’ He is with his wife, Halle Stoddard (played by Vera Miles), and they are met by their old friend Marshal Link (played by Andy Devine – famous for his roles in Stagecoach, How the West Was Won, as well as the voice of Friar Tuck in Disney’s Robin Hood). Ranse is tracked down and hounded by the local press for an interview, and Ranse reluctantly agrees. He says he has arrived in the town of shinbone to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon, a man none of them have heard of. They beg him for his story.

Ranse Stoddard begins his tale some 25 years prior when he first arrived in Shinbone via stagecoach. In those days Shinbone was a tiny dusty town -before the trains arrived. Immediately upon arrival, Ranse is mocked for his urban and educated ways. He is attacked and robbed by a local thug named Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin). Ranse threatens to take legal action, but everyone in the community laughs at such a proposition. The law has no force behind it. The only man tougher than Liberty Valance is Tom Doniphon. Meanwhile, Ranse offers a series of classes for citizens of Shinbone who would like to learn how to read -one particularly memorable scene is when Tom Doniphon’s black companion, Pompey (played by Wood Strode) attempts to recite from memory the opening words of the Declaration of Independence.

A series of escalating disputes occurs until a final showdown between Ranse Liberty Valance, but it is clear that Liberty Valance is the superior gunslinger, but somehow Ranse shoots and kills Liberty! For this he is praised, and at a regional meeting on voting and the idea of statehood (i.e. joining the United States) Ranse is nominated to represent the Arizona territory -he is praised as the “man who shot Liberty Valance.” However, we soon discover that it was actually Tom Doniphon who shot Liberty Valance from the shadows. Ranse, the man of the law, nevertheless takes the public credit for it and he goes on to serve both in the Senate and as Governor, with people all over the state praising him as “the man who shot Liberty Valance.”

When the newspaper hears his whole story, they decide not to run it (the newspaper editor tears up his notes). Sometimes the legend is better than the truth.

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact…print the legend.”

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was uniquely shot all in black and white, and the huge sweeping vistas of Ford’s earlier Westerns are all absent in this darker, more intimate and reflective story of the old West.

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