“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was John Ford’s final great work, though he continued to work and made a few more films; none had the intensity nor reached the level of art his previous films achieved. The film is based on a short story by western author Dorothy M. Johnson, who also wrote “A Man Called Horse” and “The Hanging Tree”, both of which were adapted to the screen.
The story begins with the return of Ransom “Rance” Stoddard (James Stewart) a well-known and respected senator, of an unnamed western state who along with his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles) comes back to the town of Shinbone for the funeral of small time ranch owner Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The town’s newspaper editor is curious to know why the famed senator renown for being “The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance” (Lee Marvin) would make the long trip from Washington to pay his respects to this local unknown. Stoddard tells him the story ….
Rance is a young attorney who believes in law and order though he refuses to carry a gun. On his way to the town of Shinbone, he is attacked and beaten during a stagecoach robbery by the outlaw Liberty Valance and his gang. Rance is found by rancher Tom Doniphon and taken to the home of some friends who take care of the tenderfoot and nurse him back to health. Doniphon believes that in these parts “a man needs a gun.” Despite their philosophical differences, the two men become friends and rivals for the young and beautiful Hallie (Vera Miles). Valance continues to terrorize the town and Rance until one day the tenderfoot lawyer is forced into a showdown with the gunfighter. Though wounded during the gunfight, Rance shoots and kills Valance. Hallie’s true feelings come out for Rance driving Doniphon off in a drunken rage. Rance finds himself a hero as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He is selected to be a delegate as the territory applies for statehood. Feeling unworthy and guilty for becoming a hero based on killing a man, Doniphon reveals to him what really happened. Rance, relieved to know he is not riding on the coattails of a dead man, becomes the delegate, goes on to marry Hallie, and become the State’s first Governor and a three time Senator. While the death of Liberty Valance triggered a brilliant career for Rance Stoddard, for Tom Doniphon it led to a life of drinking, loneliness, and alienation.
After the Senator finishes telling his story to the paper’s editor and the truth about how Valance was killed, the editor tears up his notes and throws them into the stove to burn. Stoddard asks him why isn’t he going to use the story. The editor replies, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”
When I recently compiled my list of the best films of the 1960’s for the Wonders in the Dark blog, I inexplicitly did not include this John Ford masterpiece. This is one reason I hate making lists and I should be horsewhipped the same way Liberty Valance horsewhips James Stewart in the film for this omission. “Liberty Valance” is a classic western that stands up against the best of John Ford’s work. It is a work of an elder statement taking a darker, morose look at a period in America he had glorified in earlier times. It is a turning point in the history of the American west, Statehood was on the horizon; the law and civilization were coming. Tom Doniphon knew his days were over and that Stoddard and his breed represented the future.
John Wayne is an actor that I have always had mixed feelings about. When used correctly, mostly by Ford, his persona and the role merge into a “perfect storm” as they do in “The Searchers”, “Rio Bravo” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. Wayne was never much of a real actor though he played ‘John Wayne’ better than anyone could. Moreover, rarely has a Wayne character displayed the vulnerability that he does here. I always enjoyed James Stewart as an actor more than Wayne, however here I find his character, Rance Stoddard, a bit annoying, somewhat stubborn and naïve. While Wayne and Stewart are the stars of the film, it is Lee Marvin’s menacing performance that ‘stirs the drink.’ Marvin has portrayed many violent and evil characters in his wonderful career but Liberty Valance has to be at or near the top. He is brutal, intimidating and just plain evil. Reese (Lee Van Cleef), one of his gang members, twice has to stop him from whipping his victims to death. Vera Miles is the woman in the middle, in love with Doniphon, and as the film goes on, she develops a growing fondness for Stoddard and marries him. At the end of the film as they ride the railroad back to Washington, Ford subtly tells us, though she has been married to Stoddard for many decades her true love is left behind in a wooden box. “Liberty Valance” is not just Wayne, Stewart and Marvin, the film is rich in terrific performances with character actors like Edmond O’Brien as the newspaper editor, Andy Devine as the cowardly sheriff, Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin as Valance’s two thugs in crime. The wonderful Woody Strode as Pompey. Also in the cast are John Carradine and Denver Pyle. All these colorful characters make the film interesting, giving it depth and making up for the less than expected gunplay you would assume to see in a western. The film is also filled with rich black and white photography courtesy of cinematographer William Clothier who had photographed many western, “The Horse Soldiers”, “The Comancheros” and “McLintock.” Other works include “Merrill’s Marauders” and “Donavan’s Reef.”
Finally, this is the film where John Wayne imitators latched on to the phrase “pilgrim.” Doniphon constantly refers to Stoddard by that name.