The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Directed by John Ford
Cinematography William H. Clothier

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a 1962 American Western film directed by John Ford starring James Stewart and John Wayne. The black-and-white film was released by Paramount Pictures. The screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck was adapted from a short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson. The supporting cast features Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, and Lee Van Cleef.


In 2007, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

In contrast to prior John Ford westerns, such as The Searchers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Liberty Valance was shot in black and white on Paramount‘s sound stages. Multiple stories and speculations exist to explain this decision. Ford claimed to prefer the black and white medium over color: “In black and white, you’ve got to be very careful. You’ve got to know your job, lay your shadows in properly, get your perspective right, but in color, there it is,” he said. “You might say I’m old fashioned, but black and white is real photography.” Ford also reportedly argued that the climactic shoot-out between Valance and Stoddard would not have worked in color. Others have interpreted the absence of the magnificent outdoor vistas so prevalent in earlier Ford westerns as “a fundamental reimagining [by Ford] of his mythic West” – a grittier, less romantic, more realistic portrayal of frontier life.


A more pragmatic interpretation cites the fact that Wayne and Stewart – two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, working together for the first time – were considerably older (54 and 53, respectively) than the characters they were playing. Filming in black and white helped ease the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept that disparity. According to cinematographer William H. Clothier, however, “There was one reason and one reason only … Paramount was cutting costs. Otherwise we would have been in Monument Valley or Brackettville and we would have had color stock. Ford had to accept those terms or not make the film.

Who’s The Better Man Here? Answer: Neither.

22 June 2007 | by jvincent1 (United States) – See all my reviews

I just read the comments of someone from August 30, 2004, who had reached the conclusion that John Wayne’s character had stepped aside “for the better man,” played by Jimmy Stewart. From my view, nothing could be farther from the truth. For all Ransom Stoddard’s disdain for frontier violence, in the end, he was left with no choice but to pick-up a gun to finally silence Liberty Valance, something Valance knew better than to do with Wayne’s Tom Doniphon.


Call Stoddard the idealist and Doniphon the realist, but don’t call him the better man. In 1946, John Ford directed My Darling Clementine, perfectly blending Wayne and Henry Fonda with his usual cast of characters to create a masterwork. Sixteen years later, he put Wayne together with Stewart (plus all the ol’ gang) and made another peerless film. There was a time I didn’t really “get” John Ford and John Wayne. One day, I awoke and now, the greatness of these two giants of the cinema is undeniable.

“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

Author: mattyholmes2004 from United Kingdom
2 August 2007

“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. – Maxwell Scott, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance In John Ford’s most mournful tale, the legendary director asks the question “How did this present come to be? Just how did an inferior race of men whose only weapon was that of law and books defeat the old gunslingers of the great West? Just what exactly happened to the Western heroes portrayed by John Wayne when law and order came to town? How did the wilderness turn into a garden? In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford depicts a world where everyone has got everything they wanted, but nobody seems happy with it… sound familiar to anyone?


Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) arrives to Shinbone on a train with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to visit the funeral of an old friend named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne, remarkably the film opens where this iconic star is dead). The newspaper men have never heard of him, so why would such a powerful political figure visit the town to attend this funeral of a “nobody”? Through the use of a flashback, Stoddard tells us the tale of how he came to the town as a young lawyer but was immediately attacked by the psychotic villain Liberty Valance (terrifyingly played by Lee Marvin) who teaches him “Western law”. The rest of the film tells the tale of how the man of books eventually defeated the race of the gunslinger and what sacrifices had to be made for that to happen.

In truth, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is more of a melodrama than a Western. Gone are the vibrant landscapes of Ford’s landmark movie The Searchers six years earlier, which was so proudly promoted as being in VISTAVISION WIDESCREEN COLOR and instead the film has given way to a bleak, claustrophobic black and white tale, with so many enclosed sets and not one shot of Monument Valley.


There’s a lack of a real bar scene, lack of shots of the landscape, lack of horses, lack of gunfights. It’s a psychological Western, probably unlike anything ever filmed until maybe Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

Why is this movie so good then? In basic terms, it’s about the sadness of progression and without giving way too much away the film tells a remarkable tale which truly does examine what Ford’s view of the West as promoted in his earlier work truly meant. It’s a tragic and pessimistic movie but it’s a rewarding one, with huge replay value and one that leaves you with so many more questions than it does answers.


Do we prefer the legendary tale of our heroes or the truth? Are tales of people such as ‘The Man With No Name’ just more interesting than Wyatt Earp? Is living a lie as a successful guy better or worse than quietly dying as a hero? The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the most complex Westerns that has ever been put on film and is a remarkable film when you consider it was directed by a guy who made his living telling grandeur tales of the American West. Well acted, very well written and is one of the most rewarding Westerns for replay value in the history of the genre.

Matt Holmes


Ford’s Last Big One

Author: Robert J. Maxwell ( from Deming, New Mexico, USA
28 July 2003

It’s a sad movie in many ways. Ford is closing the book on his meditations on progress here. The black and white photography itself is rather depressing — most of the scenes, including all the important ones, seem to take place at night, in the dark. And what do they show us? As Edmund O’Brien puts it, the West began with Indians and buffalo and the only law was survival. Then the cattlemen moved in and took the land over and the law was that of the hired gun. Now the West has been settled by hard-working farmers and turns into a garden, once the power brokers are out of the way. But it’s a wistful garden. The cactus roses have disappeared and been replaced by turnips. And the rowdy, raucous, plain-speaking heroes and villains have been replaced by pretentious blowhard politicians of th e sort that Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) has become.


The framing story begins with Senator Stewart and his wife, Vera Miles, coming back to Shinbone for the funeral of the uknown Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). “Where are his boots?,” Stewart asks upon seeing Wayne’s body laid out, “Put his boots on.” (Ford claimed this incident was borrowed from Tom Mix’s funeral.) A few of the old crowd are still around but the streets of Shinbone are empty and are a tired gray. Everyone is now old. Stewart patronizes Wayne’s old retainer, Pompey (Woody Strode), giving him a handful of bills and saying, “Pork chop money.” Some “garden”!

Ford could be a sadistic director. He asked Stewart what he thought of Woody Strode’s old-age makeup: the white fringe of hair, the overalls, the slouch hat. Stewart said it looked okay, but Ford prompted him for criticism until Stewart finally admitted that, “Wahhll, it’s a little Uncle Remus, isn’t it?” It’s what Ford was waiting for. “I designed that outfit myself, and that’s exactly what I had in mind.” He called everyone over — cast and crew alike — and said, “Mister Stewart here thinks there’s something wrong with Woody’s wardrobe. Maybe he doesn’t like Woody’s wardrobe. Maybe he doesn’t like Negroes!”


Well, if the present is filled with nostalgia, the past is lively enough, and the flashback, which is to say most of the film, is full of action and gusto. People just don’t eat in John Qualen’s restaurant. They eat huge platters of steaks, beans, potatoes, and deep dish apple pie. The steaks come sizzling from the vast greasy grill and are large enough to hang over the edges of the over-sized platters. Lee Marvin and his henchmen (Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin) enact their villainy with relish. John Wayne is, of course, the hero of the tale. You can tell because, in addition to his John Wayneness, he wears the only black and white outfit in the cast, which draws attention to his figure whenever it is on screen. In fact, though, Wayne does a reasonably decent job of playing Doniphon after his fall. When he enters the political meeting toward the end, banging open the swinging doors, staggering slightly, bearded, shabby, his magnificent white hat replaced by a battered gray one, slightly bleary, he looks and acts like a man who has been defeated but has not yet died, putting up a brave front with nothing left behind to prop it up. He’s not bad in this scene. For the most part, though, he plays John Wayne, the resolute, proud man of principle. Edmund O’Brien is the comic town drunk and editor, the Thomas Mitchell part, and is given some amusing lines, including quotes from Henry V. (Actually O’Brien was pretty good in MGM’s “Julius Caesar,” as Casca, making Shakepeare’s lines believable enough.)


The principle Doniphon represents, however, is O’Brien’s second stage of the West’s development. He’s not only a rancher but a gunman, soon to be replaced by farmers and lawyers, but it’s only at the final shootout that he realizes it. He saves Stewart’s life the old-fashioned way, then gives up any plans of marriage to Vera Miles, gets drunk, and drives himself and Pompey back to the ranch he’d planned as a home. He burns the ranch down. He and Strode had a problem shooting the arrival at the ranch. Wayne lost control of the horses and Strode reached over to help. Wayne pushed him brusquely out of the way and Strode fell from the wagon. Angry, he threatened Wayne, and Wayne responded the way Wayne would respond. Strode, a former fullback, was several years younger than Wayne and in good shape. Ford stopped the altercation by shouting that the movie needed Wayne’s face in one piece.


For all its darkness, however, the movie reflects some of Ford’s prejudices in his comic way. A pompous orator at the political meeting (John Carradine) announces in his stentorian public voice that he came here with “a carefully prepared speech” but is going to disregard it and speak the truth. Here he crinkles up the speech and throws it contemptuously to the floor. Someone picks the page up and uncrumples it to find it blank on both sides. The rhetoric is extremely funny — “The bullet-riddled body of an honest citizen?” — recalling Donald Meek in “Young Mister Lincoln.” During a carefully choreographed spontaneous demonstration after the cattlemen’s candidate has been nominated, a band plays, a cowboy rides up onto the speaker’s platform and twirls a lasso, and there is a brief shot of the Chairman staring appalled at the cowboy’s horse lapping water out of the chairman’s pitcher.


But it’s still a sad comment from Ford. His earlier work brimmed with hope for the future. Here, the future has arrived and it makes one long for the past. It’s the way an old man might feel about life in general.

One of the great westerns of all time

Author: tjackson from Boston. MA
5 February 2004
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is an ode to the end of the classic western. It is a satiric look at the civilizing of the once wild American west where Ford deliberately uses stereotypical characters and situations to undermine and reexamine the very myths that he helped create. Ford’s world is one of moral certainty and untamed villainy where legends are born and cowboy heroes ride free amidst the broad natural landscapes of America’s West. In the west of Liberty Valance, the hero is not made nor born, but manufactured by the media. As the editor of the Shinbone Star says; “This is the West. When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.”


The legend concerns lawyer Ransom Stoddard, played in typical earnest aw-shucks fashion by Jimmy Stewart. Stoddard has been brought, bruised and beaten, to the western town of Shinbone following an altercation with a gang of stagecoach highwaymen, led by arch-villain Liberty Valance. As played by Lee Marvin, Valance is deadpan and over-the top evil. His uncompromising performance is one of the pleasures of the film. With his lethal black whip and his giggling and glowering henchmen (played by Strother Martin and Lee VanCleef), Marvin is unabashedly nasty and taunting at every turn. His nemesis is that stalwart icon of the heroic west, John Wayne as Tom Doniphan. His code of honor is as solid as his skill with a six-gun. Doniphan knows that might rules the west, and will inevitably vanquish evil. But Stoddard’s mission is to see that justice is done through the more civilized rule of law. Of his nemesis Valance, Stoddard says; ‘I don’t want to kill him, I just want to put him in jail!’ Not likely, in John Ford’s west.



Into the mix come a parade of character actors whose vivid stereotypes have enlivened westerns for decades: Edmond O’Brien as the drunken but noble newspaper editor; Andy Devine as the whimpering, good-hearted, but cowardly sheriff; Woody Strode as the silent, noble black man, backbone of the west; and last and most essential is Vera Miles as Hallie, for whose heart our heroes compete. It is in that romantic triangle that the real heart of west may be won. In this way the Hallie, like the cactus rose she carries to Doniphan’s funeral, becomes a bittersweet symbol for the loss and the hope of the new west.

Ford makes Liberty Valance into a western that seems to examine itself as a western. He removes the window dressing to focus on the intricate play of characters and symbols. Gone is the Technicolor of the Searchers. This is in stark black and white. Gone are the outdoor landscapes of Ford’s west. Most of the film looks like it was on the back lot, and many scenes take place indoors. He moves his camera in on faces not vistas. The world of 1960’s America was changing and beginning to reexamine the usefulness of certain cultural mythologies.


The new decade was about people; the grand ideals of postwar America were being reexamined and were about to become even dimmer with the assassination of President Kennedy. America was beginning to be about recognizing unique individualities, about embracing change, about individual rights, strong women, sensitive men. Ford didn’t like that much, I imagine. The film’s characters are flawed and cartoonish. I suspect his film was a wry satire on his own mythology and a critique of what he viewed as a softening of American society. Some critics didn’t get it, while others consider this one of his more remarkable films. There is no doubt that it is nothing short of brilliant the ability to balance the elements of satire and seriousness, comedy and melodrama.


As the train leaves Shinbone, the truth forever gives way to the legend. The conductor leans over to light Stoddard’s cigar saying; ‘Nothing is too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.’ In that moment we are incredibly moved. This is, after all, about the creation of stories. But in those stories there live truths about human nature that are universal and forever.


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