Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The (United States, 1962)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

That single quote, uttered by newspaperman Maxwell Scott (Carlton Young), encapsulates the primary theme of John Ford's last great Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Truth is only meaningful as long as it agrees with what the public wants to hear. When heroes don't exist, it is necessary to invent them. And, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. A clear-eyed deconstruction would likely reveal that what most of us accept as "history" is a patchwork of real events, exaggerations, and tales so tall that Paul Bunyan would likely blink in amazement.

What many Americans know about the Old West, they learned through movies directed by John Ford starring John Wayne. Over a period of more than three decades, these two men collaborated on about twenty features, many of which not only fell under the umbrella of, but helped to define, the Western genre. Indeed, every Western made after Ford's era (which ended in 1964 with Cheyenne Autumn) was inspired or impacted, in one way or another, by Ford's contributions. Sergio Leone was as influenced by Ford as by Kurosawa; Peckinpah's films include nods to Ford; and even the best of the "revisionist" Westerns exist in large part to rebut Ford's canon.

1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was the last Western made by Wayne and Ford together. By the time the movie was committed to celluloid, Ford had moved away from the gung-ho attitude that marked many of his earlier efforts. Wayne would go on to star in more Westerns, including The Shootist, which he made during the twilight of his life (like the lead character, the actor was dying of cancer at the time) and which represented his most thoughtful and accomplished performance.

In its examination of how history mythologizes its great figures, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance hearkens back to the 1948 Wayne/Ford collaboration, Fort Apache. A more traditional Western than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Fort Apache nevertheless has something to say about the reality of heroes versus the legends that grow up around them. With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford brings the subject to the forefront. The film's point is simple: history is as much legend as fact. Shocking as it may sound, George Washington could tell a lie. And there never was an address for "Camelot" on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with the return of Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles, as the generic "love interest"), to the small frontier town of Shinbone. Stoddard is an influential and well-liked political figure, but nowhere is he more revered than in Shinbone, the place where his career started. On this sad day, however, Ransom has returned to pay tribute to an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who has died. Initially, he intends to slip in and out of Shinbone with little fanfare, but, when a newspaper reporter corners him, he decides to reveal the true story about how his life in politics began and why his most famous appellation, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," is unearned.

We see events unfold in flashback. Years earlier, Ransom arrives in Shinbone broken, bruised, and bloodied after being robbed and beaten by the notorious outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, dripping malice in a virtuoso performance that put him on the Hollywood map). With the help of various locals, he recovers his health and vows to bring Valance to justice. For Ransom, a book-learned attorney with little knowledge of the real world, "justice" means "jail." But in Shinbone, where the marshal (Andy Devine) is spineless, the path to justice coincides with the trajectory of a bullet. This is a lesson that Tom impresses upon Ransom soon after they meet. Shinbone's Law requires a gun, not a book. Tom is one of the most respected men in Shinbone because of his prowess with his firearm. In time, the two become rivals for Hallie's affections, but each earns the other's grudging respect. And, in the matter of Valance, they are agreed.

In the film's pivotal scene, Ransom confronts Liberty in a duel. Inept with a gun, Ransom is badly overmatched. Yet, almost inexplicably, he manages to get off a shot that seemingly strikes with deadly accuracy. He is hailed by everyone as a hero, with one exception: Tom, who watched the encounter from a secluded spot, then used a rifle to bring down Valance before the outlaw could kill Ransom. By timing his own accurate shot to coincide with Ransom's misdirected one, Tom was able to create the illusion that Ransom triumphed. He accepts no glory then or later, and when he dies, only a handful of people know the secret. Now, Ransom decides to disclose it to newspaper writer Scott. But that man, mindful of the importance of Ransom's reputation, declines to print the truth.

One could argue that there's nearly as much going on in the subtext of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as in the text. Ford's casting choices are the first place where this is evident. Neither James Stewart nor John Wayne is cast against type. Stewart plays the bumbling-but-earnest Everyman in a manner that evokes memories of George Bailey and Mr. Smith. Wayne brings Tom to the screen in much the same way he did for all of his bigger-than-life characters – an imposing figure whose heart of gold belies his gruff, tough exterior. In the normal course of things, Wayne would be playing the hero, and, in a sense, he is. After all, Tom is the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But the glory and the girl go to Ransom. So, the epitome of Cowboy Masculinity dies in obscurity while the Everyman rises to prominence and prosperity. Stewart and Wayne therefore engage in a strange role-reversal by being themselves.

By 1962, most films were routinely made in color. Yet, despite having a substantial budget, Ford chose to film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in black-and-white. This was not a case of a director resisting "progress" – for more than a decade preceding The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he had been working primarily in color. In fact, his most recent black-and-white Western before The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was 1950's Rio Grande. So, the decision to shoot this movie in black-and-white was obviously an artistic one. One can surmise that Ford's intention was to evoke a sense of nostalgia. To an extent, this movie is about the passing of the old ways. The West is changing. The frontier is dwindling. The present is dissipating not into history, but into legend. And, in the midst of all this, the politician is rendering the gunslinger obsolete. Tom's final, heroic act goes unsung. Ford understood that an audience's recollections of older, less thematically complex Westerns would add a layer of poignancy to the viewing experience. Black-and-white helps him achieve this. Also, its starkness works better with the somber material than the lushness of Technicolor.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance probably could not be made today. In the pre-Watergate era, it was still possible to believe that the press would "do the right thing" and cover up a scoop of this magnitude. Today, the only thing the media delights in more than building a legend is tearing one down. The truth about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is something no one would sit on. We still have legends today, but they have to be carefully nurtured and jealously guarded lest someone find a flaw to exploit. A modern-day remake of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would center not on Ransom or Tom, but on the reporter who must struggle with the ethics of using this information to sully a man's reputation.

I have never been a huge fan of Westerns. I guess it's the general apathy of my generation towards the genre that is partially responsible for its virtual disappearance from multiplexes. But, in part because it does not conform to the mold, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has an appeal that extends beyond the category into which it has been pigeonholed. This is a smart, thoughtful motion picture that uses an engrossing, character-driven story to emphasize an insightful theme. Along with The Searchers, it represents John Ford at his most accomplished. And it is one of the best Westerns Hollywood has ever produced.

Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The (United States, 1962)

Director: John Ford
Cast: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Andy Devine
Screenplay: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Music: Cyril Mockridge
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Ranked #54 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1