Directed by John Ford
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
A lot of people begin their comments about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with the quote above. While it may be applicable to the theme of the movie, I’m using it in relation to director John Ford, of whom I’m sure a number of biographies have been written – but who cares? The legend is better and if there is any truth in it, well that’s nice too.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is considered by many to be one of the great American westerns and who could seriously argue with that? Still, the same claim could reasonably be made for many of Ford’s movies, from Stagecoach to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to The Searchers.
They’re all good and they’re all informed by what I would call Ford’s rugged, masculine romanticism. While he’s known as a kind of “tough guy” due to his legend and the films he made, to me the defining characteristic of his movies is romance. I don’t mean this in terms of love stories, but in terms of a stoic sentimentalism – and I don’t use that word in its negative sense. But it’s clear that Ford loved these kinds of stories, these kinds of landscapes and this kind of life.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we get one of Ford’s best considered, best structured and most thoughtful, resonating western films.
Shinbone has a problem. A man named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who has no regard for the law or anything other than his own interests and whims, is terrorizing the town with his uncontrolled violence. He represents a capricious, dangerous chaos.
Into the town on a stagecoach rides Ransom Stoddard, a young, naive lawyer (Jimmy Stewart). Even before arriving in the town he meets Liberty and encounters his lawless violence.
The young attorney is appalled and immediately determines Shinbone needs the rule of law to restore order – it doesn’t need guns and a perpetuation of the violence. There is one man in the town, however, who is willing to stand up to Liberty on Liberty’s terms – meaning guns – and that’s Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Tom doesn’t believe the law can help situations such as this. Right will prevail only in terms of the western code, man to man, gun to gun.
So while Ransom and Tom are united in the sense that both would like to see Liberty dealt with, they aren’t united as to how. Tom’s way is almost barbaric to Ransom and the young lawyer’s way is all but useless to Tom.
They also have a growing conflict in their relationship with the young woman who works in the town’s eatery, Hallie (Vera Miles). When the movie begins, she’s pretty much “Tom’s girl” and it seems only a matter of time before the two will marry. But Ransom’s arrival represents something Hallie hasn’t had before – opportunities, education and the kind of order that allows for families to flourish.
As the movie progresses, Hallie comes to represent the town’s growing desire for order and increasing detachment from the old western ways, embodied by Tom.
The story is told in flashback, beginning as it does with Ransom and Hallie arriving in Shinbone as husband and wife for Tom’s funeral. Ransom is a senator now and what this opening shows us is life after the old west has vanished and the new world is in place.
There’s a certain superficiality to Senator Stoddard, a false note to most of what he says, until he focuses on Tom and their shared story. When the movie is seen as a whole, the opening comes to suggest a certain loss of integrity due to the change that has come to the west. The ending, however, suggests that what has been gained is a degree of prosperity, even beauty.
It all adds up to an elegiac film. It was one of the first of many westerns from the sixties that addressed the dying out of the old western ways and the arrival of the modern world. (See movies like The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.)
Ford is too good of a director to make it a simple black and white equation, though. If he mourns the passing of the old, he also celebrates the arrival of the new, though not without some equivocating. (While Stewart carries a kind of wide-eyed, innocent moral background through the film, his life as a senator appears to have somewhat compromised this with politics.)
The ending (spoiler)
The movie’s denouement, the shooting of Liberty Valance, is also equivocal – deliberately so. Everyone, including the audience, believes the lawyer has shot Liberty, that the law has won out. And it has won. But as we learn, Ransom didn’t kill Liberty.
It’s Tom, the old west, violence meeting violence. Against such an opponent, the law can’t win. The law requires that everyone buy into it. When someone such as Liberty refuses to, the recourse is to meet his violence on the same terms.
However, while it’s required to defeat Liberty, it can’t survive. The reason it can’t is because Hallie, the representative of the town, ultimately does not choose it (Tom). She chooses Ransom (the law). It’s the collective will that prevails, and it’s the collective will that informs and supports the law.
In the face of this, Liberty is just a passing trouble that is finally eliminated. Tom, who actually saves the town from Liberty, is also eliminated. He can’t ultimately win because he can’t provide what Ransom (the law) can: peace and stability. (Hence, the home he is trying to build burns to the ground – and by his own violence.)
While none of these thoughts occurred to me when I first saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (which must have been around the time I was twelve), and they don’t really register as I watch the film play out – it’s too engrossing dramatically for that – they do come to mind afterwards as I think about what I’ve seen and consider how it all adds up.
While I don’t know what movie I would call “the greatest western,” I would definitely be among those who place The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance among the best ever. And it’s no surprise it’s a John Ford film, the man who in many ways defined what westerns were and where they would go.
Westerns are morality plays and Ford did them better than anyone because, while his westerns always have a strong moral centre, they are never black and white. Sometimes they appear that way, but when you really look at them you see they aren’t that simple.
- If you have ever wondered why John Wayne impersonations always have him referring to people as “Pilgrim,” you need to watch this movie. This is the film it comes from, as in, “Whoa, take ‘er easy there, Pilgrim.”
- Lee Marvin’s naturalism, his evocation of a sadistic, violent criminal, is frighteningly good – similar to the nasty guy he plays in The Big Heat.
- And what about that Gene Pitney song, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valanace? Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, it was meant as the movie’s theme song but due to some snafu was never used. They actually used music from the 1938 film, Young Mr. Lincoln. And it’s all too bad. I always liked the song: “When Liberty Valance rode to town the women folk would hide, they’d hide …”
Other John Ford movies:
- The Searchers (1956)
- The Treasure of the Sierre Madre (1948)
- The Hurricane (1937)
- The Quiet Man (1952)
Four stars out of four.
(Originally posted 2004.)
HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE THIS MOVIE TO “SHANE”?
Great review pal but near the bottom of it under “Other John Ford movies” is listed the Humphrey Bogart classic THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRE MADRE which wasn’t directed by John Ford at all but by that other gifted and larger-than-life helmer Mr. John Huston.
Thanks! I can’t believe I made that mistake. I’ll adjust that little “oops!”
I just kove this movie. I think I have seen almost 30 times! It is the same way I feel about “High Noon” which I’ve seen many times also.
This movie makes me so tense, especially when Valance and his henchmen are waiting in the dark to get Mr. Peabody. It’s so scary. I keep thinkin’ it’s the Devil, an imp, and a Leperchaun. You put togeher which one is which.
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This is a admirable website. I am impressed by your effort. Thanks for raising awareness of this. I have loved looking over your post.
Thank you for the comment! I love watching and writing about these movies.
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I always felt it was in parts statement about WWII and Hitler. There are times when lawbooks are worthless. There times when it takes might to make right. This had meaning to a generation on 1962, in the middle of the cold war and before vietnam.