The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [retro review]

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

The Scoop: 1962 NR, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Vera Miles

Tagline: Together For The First Time – James Stewart – John Wayne – in the masterpiece of four-time Academy Award winner John Ford

Summary Capsule: A sodbuster and a cowpoke lock horns over the best way to 86 a desperado, with the heart of a filly at stake.

Drew’s Rating: Lee Marvin. John Wayne. Lee Van Cleef. Jimmy Stewart. Which of these things is not like the others?

Drew’s Review: It would be fair to say that being a lawyer is not the most studly of jobs. (Unless you’re my father-in-law, in which case you’re the man, sir!) Ladies, we all know how you feel about Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, but be honest: how many brash, hotshot young barristers make you quiver in your girl parts? Exactly… only one or two. The fact is that attorneys will never replace secret agents and superheroes as our favorite fantasy professions. And yet, would it be fair to say that their actions have had more of an impact on the world we live in than all of the six-shooters ever created? Not so fast… maybe you should watch this film before answering.

Young, idealistic lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) has taken Horace Greeley’s famous advice to heart — “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.” But on his way to the town of Shinbone to bring law and justice to the frontier, Rance is ambushed, robbed, and left for dead by Liberty Valance (Marvin), the most feared outlaw in the territory. Tom Doniphon (Wayne), the only man who isn’t afraid of Valance, finds and rescues Rance but scoffs at his desire to arrest Valance, explaining that the only law in the west comes from the barrel of a gun. Unwilling to accept this “might makes right” mentality, Rance settles in Shinbone and becomes close to Hallie, a waitress whom it’s common knowledge Doniphon plans to marry someday. But when Rance rallies the territory to lobby for statehood, Valance is hired by cattle ranchers to prevent it, and things finally come to a head. Challenged to a showdown he hasn’t a prayer of winning, Rance nonetheless somehow survives the duel, while Valance lies dead. Suddenly Rance is the town idol, able to do no wrong… except perhaps in his own mind, where he wrestles with the tactics he had to embrace to get to where he is. And when Doniphon becomes aware of Hallie’s feelings for the new hero, what will the final outcome be for the man who shot Liberty Valance?

Perhaps it goes without saying for an acknowledged classic like Valance, but both the casting and writing are outstanding. You don’t expect a movie like this to be particularly amusing, but damned if there aren’t some really funny lines. The supporting cast is great, from the cowardly Sheriff Appleyard to the drunk, slovenly editor Peabody, and Vera Miles as Hallie conveys appropriate regret in both her older and younger incarnations. Liberty Valance isn’t a particularly fleshed-out villain – he’s evil, that’s pretty much it – but Marvin plays up his character’s sadism with abandon, bringing a cruel swagger to all of his actions. Still, at the end of the day it comes down to the leads, and when you cast two veteran character actors like Stewart and Wayne and let them play off each other, only good things can happen. The scenes Rance and Doniphon have together fairly crackle with underlying but readily apparent emotions – Rance’s envy of Doniphon’s ease and confidence even as he despises the violence that backs it up, and in turn Doniphon’s distaste for Rance’s “tenderfoot” mentality but reluctant admiration for his ultimate goals. Neither of them particularly likes the other, but there’s a grudging respect mixed in with their clashing ideologies.

And that’s really the greatest thing about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — you have two protagonists, each of whom could realistically be seen as the hero of the story. Stewart is the true lead – it’s his tale, and he gets the most screen time. Certainly a good portion of the audience will walk away empathizing most with him; after all, his methods ultimately prevail in taming the west. He’s also by far the more likable of the two, and it’s hard not to see the Duke as a bully in comparison. And yet… in his own admittedly rough manner, it can be argued that Doniphon is looking out for Rance every step of the way. He does what he thinks Hallie will like most, even when it’s the farthest thing from what he wants, and damn the consequences. Honestly I think that when the credits roll, at least as many viewers will consider Doniphon the true champion of the film, blemishes and all. As the denouement makes clear, both characters compromise their values for what they see as the greater good… which one you think is the better man may well come down to who you think gave up the most.

It’s cliché to say so, but that doesn’t make it any less true: this is a movie that transcends its genre. If you’re a fan of westerns, by all means, check it out… it’s a good one. But if you’re someone who disdains the genre, who’s never felt the slightest interest in Wayne’s drawl or Eastwood’s stoicism, see it anyway. Valance isn’t so much a western as it is a film about the end of westerns, the demise of lawlessness and the rise of order in the American frontier. Obviously that was largely a good thing, but this film examines all that it entails, both the reputations that were built on it and the dreams that died with it. In the final analysis, it serves as both a shining example of and an elegy for the western; and who knows? You just might walk away feeling a twinge of regret yourself for the passing of a bygone era.

This is why it's unwise to insult the cook.

Intermission!

  • Every John Wayne impersonation makes liberal use of the word “pilgrim.” Ironically, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the only film in which Wayne uses the word regularly, as a patronizing nickname for Jimmy Stewart’s character. The lone other movie in which Wayne calls someone “pilgrim” is McClintock!, and then only once.
  • The final hand Liberty Valance plays before his showdown with Rance is two pair, aces and eights. Poker players call this the Dead Man’s Hand, named for allegedly being the cards held by Wild Bill Hickok when he was gunned down in Deadwood, South Dakota.
  • Lee Van Cleef plays one of Valance’s flunkies. Van Cleef would go on to star in many westerns, both as hero (For A Few Dollars More) and villain (The Good, The Bad And The Ugly).
  • John Ford directed numerous other westerns that are also considered among the best in the genre, including The Searchers, Stagecoach, and My Darling Clementine.
  • Both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart were considerably older than the characters they were playing, particularly Stewart, who was 53 at the time the film was made (Wayne was 54). It’s been theorized that this is one of the reasons the movie was shot in black-and-white rather than color, to make it less noticeable. Others suggest it was a cost-saving measure, or that Ford thought black-and-white would heighten tension.

Groovy Quotes

Doniphon: Pompey, go find Doc Willoughby. If he’s sober, bring ‘im back.

Rance: Gun? I, I don’t want a gun, I don’t want a gun. I don’t want to kill him, I want to put him in jail!
Doniphon: Oh… well, I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.

Sheriff Appleyard: Now, now you folks all know that, well, the jail’s only got one cell and the lock’s broke, and I sleep in it.

Pompey: It begun with the words, uh… “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that, uh, that…”
Rance: “That all men are created equal.” That’s fine, Pompey.
Pompey: I knew that, Mr. Rance, but I just plumb forgot it.
Rance: That’s all right, Pompey. A lot of people forget that part of it.

Doniphon: The bar is closed, Mr. Editor, during voting. You can blame your lawyer friend – he says that’s one of the fundamental laws of democracy. No exceptions.
Peabody: No exceptions for the working press? Well, uh, that’s carrying democracy much too far!

Peabody: Give me a drink!
Doniphon: Bar’s closed.
Peabody: Just a beer!
Doniphon: The bar’s-
Peabody: A beer’s not drinking!

Valance: You lookin’ for trouble, Doniphon?
Doniphon: You aim to help me find some?

Valance: You sodbusters are a brave bunch when you’re together… but don’t vote any way now that you’ll regret later, when you’re alone.

Rance: Isn’t it enough to kill a man, without trying to build a life out of it?

Rance: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Scott: No, sir. This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Jason: You think nothing of it. Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:
  • Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
  • The Searchers
  • Once Upon A Time In The West
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4 Comments

  1. Probably the most interesting Western to feature Jimmy Stewart was a short-lived radio series called The Six Shooter, in which Stewart portrayed easy-going frontier drifter Britt Ponsett. While it may not have been the grittiest Western, it more than made up for it with being incredibly surreal. The episodes The New Sheriff and Crisis at Eastercreek particularly emphasize that.

  2. I always loved the names Ransom Stoddard and Liberty Valance. It seems like names in the 1800s were more colorful than in the 20th century. Did people really have names like Ransom and Liberty? Or was there some subtle symbolism going on that I’m not clued into?

    I’m one of those who sees John Wayne as the greater hero of this story. Ransom Stoddard gained what Tom Doniphon lost. Doniphon knew that would be the case, but he did what he knew was right (or necessary) despite the consequences. Both heroes were like that. There were great performances all around in a truly classic movie.

  3. Pingback: It’s A Wonderful Life [Retro Review] « Mutant Reviewers From Hell

  4. Pingback: Pale Rider | Mutant Reviewers From Hell

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