The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Movie Information

Genre: Western
Director: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien
Rated: NR

Few films are as deeply flawed yet 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This tale of the passing of the Old West was old-fashioned and out of date even in 1962.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 (this is even more obvious in his next film, Donovan’s Reef, released the following year), but he’s accepting it on his own terms.

His 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.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

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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2 thoughts on “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

  1. Dennis

    Can’t people ever enjoy a movie for what it is, entertainment? People like you must stay awake at night thinking of things to complain about! Let me guess: you’re in your 30’s, live in your parent’s basement, were never in the military and haven’t had a date in over 5 years.

  2. Ken Hanke

    So many guesses — and the only right one is that I was never in the military.

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