- Directed by John Ford
- April 22, 1962
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
An aging senator returns to the Western town of Shinbone for the funeral of an old friend and finally tells the story of who really shot notorious outlaw Liberty Valance.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the great Westerns. It is not about shootouts or cowboys fighting Indians or a cattle baron trying to get more land for cattle or any of the usual stuff. It is about a fateful confrontation between two individuals that would have lasting consequences for all connected. It is also about how sometimes going with the myth is more important than going with the fact.
Some have viewed this film as a reimaging of the mythic West by Ford, and I can see their point. The title of this movie alludes to the myth surrounding the aging Sen. Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (James Stewart). Ford often portrayed the mythic West in his movies. Here in this story he was aiming at the creation of those myths and why they are important to us and that sometimes a myth can be a good thing.
John Wayne stars as Tom Doniphon who is the deceased friend that brings Ranse and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) back to town. In the story Tom is a bit of a jerk, but he is a jerk with principles that he sticks to and is it in his own jerky way he is looking out for Ranse. Interestingly, despite being played by John Wayne who was a huge star at the time, Doniphon is not the central character of the story. That honor goes to Ranse and his journey is the focus.
Ranse is an idealistic lawyer new to the West who in the beginning of the story is on a stagecoach that gets robbed by Liberty. And Valance does not just rob the stagecoach but also humiliates Ranse in the process and this eats at him. He is not a confrontational person who sees the law as the only viable way to bring down the outlaw. The world of the West at that time does not work like that and Tom Doniphon knows it. He pushes and teases and torments Ranse in a milder version of what he believes Liberty will to dissuade or just prepare him for the inevitable confrontation.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great story with an all-star cast headed by James Stewart and John Wayne with Lee Marvin in the mix playing the very dangerous outlaw Liberty Valance. Along with those names there is a long list of familiar faces in this movie. We have Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Woody Strode, Denver “Uncle Jesse” Pyle, Strother Martin, and Lee Van Cleef. A very solid cast for any western.
Valance is able to do as he pleases around the town of Shinbone because of the ineffective Marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) and a generally fearful population. He along with the two other members of his gang, Floyd (Strother Martin) and Reese (Lee Van Cleef), bully and terrorize the population to the point they are too afraid to do anything. Doniphon is the only person that commands minimal respect from the outlaw but even he seems unwilling to do anything permanent about Liberty and his men despite the incident in the restaurant. The only one not too frightened of Liberty to do nothing in the area is Ranse but that could be because of his lack of experience with the man.
In the story that Ranse tells he and Doniphon both vie for the heart of local waitress Hallie. Interestingly this is one time when John Wayne’s manly charms do not win out. He is by far the more traditionally masculine of the two male characters here but that is not what Hallie needs or deep down wants. Ranse treats Hallie as an equal. He is concerned for her and desires to help her to grow by teaching her to read and write. Doniphon treats her more as a possession or prize to be at obtained. He cares for her in his own way but how he is pushes her away.
The question central to the story is “Who really is the man that shot Liberty Valance?” The film builds to an inevitable confrontation between Ranse and Liberty as Ranse just will not let the incident at the stagecoach go as those he encounters think he should.
Ranse begins practicing with a gun despite a dislike for firearms so he can take on Liberty. It alludes to the character slowly coming to the conclusion that the ways of civilization that he holds to will not help him. Ranse and local newspaper editor Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) are elected to represent the territory at the statehood convention despite Liberty trying to bully his way into the position to represent the cattle barons. This rebuke by the people of Liberty in favor of what he views as the weaker person enrages Liberty. Valance trashes Peabody’s office and nearly beats the editor to death. Ranse challenges Valance to a gunfight and in that fight manages to kill the outlaw-or so he believes.
At the statehood convention as Ranse is about to stepdown because he feels unworthy of the position due to killing the outlaw, Doniphon reveals he and his ranch hand Pompey (Woody Strode) had been in the shadows and that it was he who fired the killing shot. He also encourages Ranse to run with that myth because he has lost Hallie to him and Ranse can make Hallie happy and proud.
Ranse and Doniphon could be called reluctant friends by the end. Eventually they have respect for one another and Doniphon in his own way admits that Ranse is the better man. Ranse understands that Doniphon is a good if not flawed individual and was only trying to do what he felt was right.
This is not a shoot ‘em up western or an adventure yarn as one might expect from Ford or Wayne. This is a drama about myth versus fact and that sometimes the myth being better and how by extension the myth gave people a positive hero to look up towards. In the 25 years since the shooting Ranse has done a lot of good for himself and others with the reputation the confrontation afforded him. Doniphon certainly would not have been that. Heck, after seeing how close Hallie and Ranse were in a drunken rage he burnt down his house that he was prepping for what he thought would be an eventual marriage.
John Ford was a master of the Western. Few other directors could do it better. He could create interesting characters and themes. This is a deep and sophisticated drama not so much about what is right and wrong but what is the best. The myth is the best thing for all as is Hallie going off with Ranse despite her feelings for Doniphon.
At the end of the film you see a blooming cactus placed on Doniphon’s pine box which is revealed to have been placed there by Hallie. It is clear she still cares for him because at the beginning of the film when she goes out to his place to look at the desert roses that are blooming. I was left with the feeling Ranse understood that he was Hallie’s second choice and that if Doniphon could have channeled some of Ranse’s better qualities she would have stayed with him.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great Western with an all-star cast helmed by one of the great directors of that genre. It is a fantastic drama that says sometimes myth is better than fact. This is definitely a watch it!