“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.
Excellent piece, John. Maybe because I love this movie, John Ford, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, and everything else involved with this movie!
However, I think that Stewart overacts in this one–but look what he’s up against! As you write, Wayne is low key and manly, Marvin is his usual riveting, menacing self, and then there’s that collection of great character actors. I don’t know if Stewart was just trying to steal scenes, but his bellowing is the weak link of all these performances. According to the Wayne bio JOHN WAYNE: AMERICAN, the Duke was ill at ease with the Doniphon character, seing himself as not the hero and not a villain, Wayne wasn’t sure how to play it, and yet he turns in another brilliant performance. I’ll defend John Wayne’s ability any day of the week, and he could eat most other actors in any scene…including Stewart.
P.S. Speaking of protein, those steaks were HUGE!!!
While I agree with you that Wayne was a, or had, a great screen presence and could over shadow many other actors, it was his “star quality’ and not his talent as an actor, which was limited. He mostly plays John Wayne. One reason I like his performance here is that it not the usual role. He is vulnerable and and he shows it, something he generally did not do. That is probably what made him uncomfortable.
And you’re right those steaks were killers!
Great review… I too recently revisited this one while I was compiling my own 1960s Top 25 list for the Wonders in the Dark countdown. I had it at #8 for the decade and every easily could have moved it a slot or two higher. I slightly prefer The Searchers as my favorite John Ford and John Wayne performance, but this one is right on the heels. I have to chime in and agree that Wayne did indeed have incredible acting chops. Maybe he did play similar characters in various films, but there was always something distinctive about each of them — Doniphon was different from Ethan Edwards who was different from John T. Chance. But all were quite memorable.
I’ll disagree somewhat about the criticism of Stewart in this film. The “annoying, somewhat stubborn and naïve” description of Rance Stoddard is spot on, but I think that portrayal works very well for the character. It serves as a great contrast to Doniphon.
And _finally_ somebody else besides me is blown away by the size of those steaks!
Great blog… I’m a recent follower and think your writing is outstanding.
I agree with you about ranking “The Searchers” above “Liberty Valance.” Ford, a master, put it altogether in that film and Wayne was at his best. A masterpiece! I also happen to love “Rio Bravo”, another of my high ranking favorite westerns.
Good point about Stewart’s character contrasting well against Doniphon. I did not think of that.
Thanks much for your kind comments, I appreciate it. I will be checking out your blog!
Oh, John, I don’t want to hijack your post here with talk about Rio Bravo because I don’t want to detract from thoughts on the great Liberty Valance… but Rio Bravo is among my favorite films of all-time. It’s one of those films that I think is almost too daunting for me to try and write about!
That’s why I think this was an outstanding review — you’re tackling a film that is legendary, that has been dissected so many times, but you don’t tread over the same old stuff. Most people instantly go to the Wayne-Stewart collaboration, which is great, but I like that you point out how ultimately it is guys like Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, and Andy Devine among others that really make the town of Shinbone come alive.
As I said, great stuff and I look forward to future work.
Dave, – no problem talking about Rio Bravo, one of my all-time favorites too. Also, a film I some day would like to write about.
I appreciate the many kind words and look forward to your own writing on your excellent blog!
Again, I am completely dumfounded that your blog has eluded me this long, even while you were making much-appreciated contributions over a fair period of time. But now I realize that you are the same “John” that has been contributing regularly at R. D. Finch’s wonderful THE MOVIE PROJECTOR site! I am becoming more and more senile as I approach my mid 50’s.
In any case, yes this is indeed Ford’s last great film, and one of the seminal westerns of the period, even if it isn’t quite in a league with the likes of masterworks such as THE SEARCHERS, HIGH NOON, STAGECOACH, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE and RED RIVER. You make a very good point saying that the stars are ably supporting by the supporting performances here, even if the headliners are exceptional. Wayne is indeed an acting enigma, but he’s near his best here, even if his existential Ethan Edwards in the aforementioned THE SEARCHERS remains his greatest (and most iconic) portrayal.
Again, terrific stuff here, and thanks to both you and Dave for mentioning Wonders in the Dark in your discussion here.
Indeed Ethan Edwards is Wayne’s greatest amd iconic role. I am a big Lee Marvin fan and he was at his best her…just plain evil. I like your selection of western masterworks only I would add “Rio Bravo” to the list.
People like you and your respomdents historicly bring up the pre and post history of this movie…..But why not watch it like a movie goer…It’s the present (1962) and ever since Ricky Nelson appeared with the Duke in Rio Bravo, I became a john Wayne fan…I saw the movie as an all inclusive event. In the movie theater 5 rows back, dead center. With all these classic actors, what a treat.Like Jimmy Stewart playing off Audie murphy in Night Passage…I enjoyed the movie for what it was….a great western movie !!
C.A. – Thanks for you input. indeed, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great movie. Knowing the history only make the watching of the movie that much richer.