Edited by Dorrin Gingerich
The young attorney Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) rides westward in a stagecoach, but the wagon is robbed by the notorious Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang. Battered and bruised, Stoddard makes it to the town of Shinbone where the lovely Hallie (Vera Miles) nurses him back to health. Valance continues to cause trouble in town, though. His gang is in the pay of several wealthy ranchers, and they bully the town to force them to vote against their territory becoming a state in the coming election. Statehood would mean many advantages for Shinbone, like better schools, transportation, and the rule of law. Stoddard, although new to the situation, stands up to Valance and begins to organize the town to send delegates in favor of statehood. He can offer no protection, however, against Valance’s threat of force. Once Shinbone’s tough-talking Tom Doniphan (John Wayne) throws his weight behind Stoddard, the two can finally face Valance’s gang. Due to his fame as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stoddard rises to political prominence, first as a town delegate, then as a senator. Indeed, he soon discovers that the legend surrounding the event may even be more important than what actually happened.
What Works - Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, in the same movie for the first time, play the pair of protagonists in this Western directed by the prolific John Ford near the end of his career. The film has a common subtext for Westerns, but the subtext is executed uncommonly well. Although usually fighting on the same side, Stoddard and Doniphan obviously stand at different ends of a spectrum. Stoddard, the educated man from the East, anxiously avoids violence whenever possible. In one scene, he even dons an apron and helps scrub plates in the saloon kitchen to earn his keep in the new town. On the other hand, Doniphan is, well, he’s John Wayne. He never backs down from a challenge; he’s a good marksman; he’s friendly enough, but his arrogance is barely contained. The two men compete for Hallie’s affections, but they unite to confront Valance, both of them ultimately indispensable. The two protagonists represent competing ideals, but the movie implies that both are necessary for a just society.
Embedded within this familiar tale, moments of self-denial and genuine emotion set this film apart from lesser Westerns. Liberty Valance uses his strength to take what he wants, and Tom Doniphan must overcome this same temptation when threatened with losing what he treasures most. Doniphan may have to sacrifice in order to allow Stoddard to make a difference for Shinbone. That’s right, John Wayne actually does some acting! Well… More on that later.
The side-characters add some spice to this movie. The cringing but comical Marshal of Shinbone (Andy Devine) does little besides stuff his face and wring his hands, but he’s fun to watch onscreen. The untested lawman blithely and routinely shrinks from his duty, saying, “The jail's only got one cell,... the lock's broke, and I sleep in it.” Also, Edmond O’Brien’s broad performance as the town’s eloquent newspaperman, Dutton Peabody, really steals the show.
What Doesn’t Work - John Wayne really tries,…and his character does generate some empathy here, but most of it happens at a script level, perhaps a bit with his physical demeanor. His face just doesn’t really change expression; when he tries to emote, he just talks louder. Nonetheless, the scene in which Wayne plays angry and vulnerable succeeds overall. By that point, I cared about him enough to feel genuinely sorry for him. So his acting only warrants a minor complaint.
The classic Western showdown always bothers me a little. If a no-good outlaw-type wants to kill someone, why would he challenge him to a gunfight one-on-one in the middle of the street? Why not hide in the shadows? Why not poison his whiskey? Why not bring a few friends? Thankfully, this movie doesn’t include the trope as much as Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, but it does appear briefly at the film’s climax.
Overall - One of the more nuanced of John Ford’s Westerns. Yes, there are white hats vs. black hats, but there’s a lot more going on too. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is now preserved in the Library of Congress, deemed “culturally and aesthetically significant.” I couldn’t agree more. I would recommend it to anyone, especially fans of the genre. If you’re not sure about older Westerns, it’s very representative of its type, so it’s a good way to get started.
A quote from the movie -
Maxwell Scott - This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
So what do you think?