Oldies but goldies: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Director:  John FordMain Cast: James StewartJohn WayneVera MilesLee MarvinEdmond O’Brien;


“A James Stewart picture must have two vital ingredients: it will be clean and it will involve the triumph of the underdog over the bully” is what the man himself once said and it is a very apt description of this classic film directed by John Ford. Although, canonically, this feature has always been considered a western, it doesn’t have any of its typical trademarks: no shots of the landscape, lack of horse rides, lack of proper gunfights and not a real bar scene. The movie opens with one lead as an old man, even if arrived and very well-respected, and the other one dead, just a pinewood box, also quite atypical. It has more of a post-western vibe: a bleak, claustrophobic black and white tale, with so many enclosed sets and no open range scenery. Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) is a State senator who comes back, with his wife Hallie (Miles), to Shinbone for the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon (Wayne). 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 a flashback, Stoddard tells them the tale of how he came to town and met Tom. It is the story of a young lawyer full of hope in the progress of the nation and its laws, who goes west to be part of this civilization’s process, reminding me a quote from Dances With Wolves: “You wish to see the frontier? Yes sir, before it’s gone”. Unfortunately he has to face the hard truth: there the law of the gun is the only one truly respected. This lesson is taught right away by Liberty Valance (Marvin), ruthless gunslinger, who robs the stagecoach and beats him to a pulp for trying to defend a woman. Ransom is rescued by Tom and then he finds help and shelter at the Ericsons’ restaurant, where he meets Hallie. Not having a penny to his name but being a resourceful man, Ransom works in the kitchen of the restaurant to pay for bed and board and later starts also working for the local newspaper and teaching children and adults alike to read and write. Ransom is very vocal about upholding the law and fighting the local ruffians by arresting them and not settling matters with a gun but the town’s marshal is not a coeur-de-lion and Tom has a different opinion. In the midst of all this there is also a political issue: the territory is vying for statehood and Ransom ends up as town’s representative, instead of Valance. The latter keeps terrorising the community, he destroys the local newspaper office and brutally attacks the editor (O’Brien). Ransom calls him out, though the conclusion is not quite as straightforward as legend would have it. One very interesting thing about this film is Ford’s approach to violence. The most gruesome acts are never shown directly, the camera is pointed to the perpetrator and the audience sees only the result afterwards. It is a deliberate choice and an effective one, which increases the senselessness of it all. Everything considered, the movie is well acted (special kudos to Marvin and O’Brien), skillfully written and provides a complex and multi-layered analysis of legends and facts: is living a lie as a successful man better or worse than quietly dying as a hero? “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. It is noteworthy to consider that for most of the film Ransom is a man in his late twenties/early thirties while Stewart at the time was in his mid-fifties (and Wayne as well), not exactly a spring chicken, but still he is quite believable in his role. Remarkable and riveting —8.5/10

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This post is part of the James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. You can view the complete blogathon schedule here:

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Filed under Oldies but goldies, Seen at home

14 responses to “Oldies but goldies: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

  1. I obtained a DVD of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance free with a Sunday News paper and was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it. The fabulous cast, the frame story, and especially the ending, really did it for me. Give me some melancholy with my feel-good, and I’m happy.

  2. classicfilmtvcafe

    I’m so glad you picked this film for a James Stewart Blogathon. I know some people that consider it a John Wayne movie, but that’s kinda odd. Actually, the Duke has a supporting role here since the film is really about the growth of Stewart’s character, the realization that his fame is built on a lie, and the lingering thought that his career accomplishments are still not tainted (well, that’s my take on the film, though others may disagree). I think it may be Ford’s best film and it was one of Stewart’s last performances (he marvelous in the later FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX and very good in FOOLS’ PARADE). I love your very apt description of it having a “post-Western vibe.”

  3. The story of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” gives much to consider about the nature of truth, lies and politics. The emotional performances of James Stewart and John Wayne are complimentary to each other and the script. A film that seems to get better with time.

  4. Toto

    I agree with you about the unconventional elements of John Ford’s work. Even the title isn’t specific and leads the viewer into a very different Western experience. It’s quite thought provoking and clever. Excellent film. Insightful post!

  5. Such a fabulous cast. In fact, I’d overlooked this a a ‘Stewart’ movie, because somehow it’s always Wayne and Marvin I remember – probably because it’s a genre I associate with them. I remember re-watching this last year and being surprised at how different I read the characters from my first viewing – it’s certainly one that gets better every time!

  6. I’m trying to convert my husband into a classic movie fan, and this film was one of my successes:). Such a well-written, thoughtful take on the film. Thank you for sharing it. Leah

  7. Le

    Now that you mentioned it, this film is indeed an uncommon western. But it’s still a very good one, with the incrdible idea that, if th legend is better than the truth, print the legend.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

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