The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Movie Information

In Brief: Few films are as deeply flawed yet so wonderful or so essential to a great director’s filmography as John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). I suppose Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman (1935) runs a close second, and for a lot of the same reasons. Both films contain all the trademarks of their creators — maybe too much so. In the case of Ford’s film — his last great Western — one has to add that it’s a film out of its own time. This tale of the passing of the Old West was old-fashioned and out of date even in 1962. It contains all the elements of films of 20 years earlier — the broad comedy, the stereotypes (Woody Strode in Uncle Remus makeup being given “pork chop money” by James Stewart!), the tendency to simplify and glorify the past. But it’s deliberately, even defiantly out of step. It’s an aging filmmaker accepting the fact that time has moved on, but he’s accepting it on his own terms.
Genre: Western
Director: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Woody Strode
Rated: NR



I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when it came out, meaning I’d have been seven. That doesn’t make it my earliest movie memory — however, that also belongs to John Ford, since it was the final shot of The Searchers, when I was two or three — but it was a pretty vivid one. I clearly remember characters ordering steaks “well-burnt,” and the the big reveal near the end was etched forever in my memory. At the same time, I went for years swearing that when I first saw Liberty Valance it was in color. It even seemed a not entirely untenable possibility, since a few films in that era were shot in color and released in black and white. It wasn’t impossible that a color print might have been mistakenly shipped, but…all you have to do is look at the film to realize it was lit and used filters for black and white. So much for the strength of my youthful memory.




Ford’s stars — John Wayne and James Stewart — are impossibly old for their roles (especially the 54-year-old Stewart as an idealistic lawyer fresh out of law school), but they’re Ford’s stars and that’s that. And that’s partly the point — Ford spends the entire film debunking a myth, only to turn around and decide that the myth and the power of myth are essential (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”). Its very unreality consciously mythologizes the film and its genre. It’s surprisingly similar to a real life incident director William A. Wellman once cited, concerning his 1944 biopic Buffalo Bill. As conceived, Wellman and his writers debunked the myth of “Buffalo Bill” Cody — laid bare the unlovely truth about the man and his life — but at the last minute decided that they just couldn’t go through with shattering the illusions of millions of children. So they filmed the legend. Ford is shrewder in that he gives us both the truth and the legend, and then opts for the legend — sort of. After all, we’ve clearly been told that the legend is false, so the choice becomes ours.

The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Sunday, Aug. 2, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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4 thoughts on “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

  1. clayton moore

    Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?

    Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

  2. Peter Moss

    So, if you had been the director of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, who would you have cast as Ransom Stoddard and Tom Doniphon, from the pool of actors working at that time?

    • Ken Hanke

      I have no quibble with the casting of Wayne — his age is immaterial. I’d have to give the other part of that some thought — which is hard to do effectively, since Stewart is now so ingrained in the role that it’s hard to imagine anyone else.

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