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, movies like Stagecoach (1939). The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a deeply reflective, pensive, and even pessimistic film. The all black-and-white story takes place at a turning point for the old west –the age of the cowboy is coming to a close and the rule of arms is giving way to the rule of law. Farmers are learning to read, people are becoming more civilized, and law and order is taking root –the territory is on the verge of statehood.

Based on a short story of the same name 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 justice is the advantage of the stronger, 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 –which tamed the west? The tone in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the opposite of his earlier films. Whereas Stagecoach offers a hopeful metaphor for a unified America, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance presents a solemn movie that is, perhaps, uncertain about the power of the rule of law.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a framed narrative. It begins with the elder statesman, Ranse Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), stepping off the train in an 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, and the voice of Friar Tuck in Disney’s Robin Hood). Shinbone is a safe and established community –quiet and prosperous. We get the sense that it has a mysterious past. Shortly his arrival, 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, an unknown and forgotten man. The local press begs Ranse for the story. Thus begins our flashback

Ranse Stoddard begins his tale some 25 years prior, when he first arrived in Shinbone via stagecoach. In those days, Shinbone was a tiny dustbowl town –long before the train 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 simply laughs at such a proposition –laws carry little weight in this far-flung region. The only man tougher than Liberty Valance is Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). 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. It is a powerful reminder of the hope inspired by the American project.

However, a series of escalating disputes occurs until concluding in a final showdown between Ranse and 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. At a regional meeting to discuss 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 secretly 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.”

As we exit this flashback, as if from a dream, Ranse has been captivating a small group of listeners. When the newspapermen hear his whole story, they decide not to run the story (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.”

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