Sunday 23 June 2019

Movie Review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

A western about the frontier's evolution towards civility, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance  thoughtfully reflects on the people and events that shaped an emerging nation.

Respected Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) make an unexpected visit to the town of Shinbone. The Senator reveals to the gathering journalists he is in town to attend the funeral of a man called Tom Doniphon and proceeds to recount their history together.

Decades earlier Ransom arrives in Shinbone as an idealistic young lawyer, and is quickly introduced to the ways of the wild west by vicious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who robs Ransom and violently beats him up. The lawyer is rescued by rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the only man with the courage and gun skills to stand up to Liberty.

Tom's presumed bride-to-be Hallie runs the local eatery and helps Ransom recuperate while he teaches her to read and write, and an attraction develops between them. The rugged Tom pragmatically believes in the the ways of the gun, but Ransom wants to use education and the law to help bring outlaws to justice. With tensions in the territories rising, Ransom, Tom and Liberty are drawn into a raucous political conflict over statehood.

A western rich in narrative threads, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance offers a quest for a new form of justice, a tense friendship, a romantic triangle, and the messy birth of political process as an alternative to individual score settling. John Ford directs with a intimate focus on characters and personal events rather than large-scale action, and the film uses individual stories to evoke a mood of inevitable change.

The overarching theme is creeping progress, for better or for worse. Happy to help out in the kitchen and serve at tables, Ransom Stoddard idealistically stands for education (for all), due process, and judgment in a courtroom rather than through the barrel of a gun. And yet he is forced to pick up a weapon and (haplessly) practice his shooting skills in a town still deciding whether to join the future.

Although John Wayne is first billed on the screen and his Tom Doniphon is the hinge around which the film rotates, James Stewart's Ransom Stoddard is the main character and the change agent pushing back against the west's more primitive tendencies to help create a more rational society. Together with Lee Marvin as an excellent title villain, the three men create a strong central triangle representing the past, present and future.

The capable supporting cast also includes Andy Devine as the cowardly and less than useless Marshal Appleyard, Edmond O'Brien as the newspaper editor Peabody, Woody Strode as Tom's loyal ranch hand Pompey, and Lee Van Cleef as one of Liberty's thugs.

Ford's tendencies towards rowdy excess emerge on a few occasions. The film meanders to over two hours, and some of the democracy-in-the-making crowd scenes, first in Shinbone and later at the Capitol City, go on for longer than needed with plenty of Capraesque speechifying.

And yet The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance finds its way to a most ironic and yet fully suitable denouement. The honest man of peace and order is a worthy political representative for the town that adopted him, even if his achievements are obscured by history's mythology.

Newspaper editor to Senator Stoddard: This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.


  1. I watched this for the first time a couple years ago and came away feeling about the same as you. The beauty of it for me is that even if you don't get what it's going for metaphorically, it works really well on a surface level, too. Good review.

    1. Thank you, and yes, this is one of the more thoughtful and story-rich westerns while still offering great characters and entertainment.


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