The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

One of John Ford's last films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an exploration of some of the myths and mythologising of the old West and the relationship between historical fact and legend. 

Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is a respected US Senator who, together with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles), arrives unexpectedly one day in the small western town of Shinbone, the place where he had first made his name. When the local newspaper editor learns he is there, he senses a story. Stoddard explains that he is in town for the funeral of an old friend, Tom Donophin (John Wayne). When pressed further, Stoddard reluctantly decides that it's time to finally tell the tale of his friendship with Donophin and the true story behind his famed shootout with outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).

When Stoddard first arrived in Shinbone as a young lawyer, the local area was being terrorised by Valance and his men. Stoddard himself was on a stagecoach held up by the gang on his first trip into Shinbone. The town marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is cowardly and ineffectual and little or nothing is done about Valance's reign. Only Tom Donophin showed any will to resist him.

Edmond O'Brien, Lee Marvin and James Stewart
Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, centre) with Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) and Stoddard (James Stewart)

Valance's paymasters were local cattle barons, who opposed the territory's forthcoming bid for statehood. As part of their plan, Valance was intended to be selected as one of the territory's two delegates for the territorial convention. When Stoddard and local newspaper editor Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) were selected instead, Valance beat up Peabody and tried to run Stoddard out of town. 

But instead of leaving, Stoddard took his chances against Valance in a shootout and the bandit was killed. This transformed Stoddard's image from a hapless tenderfoot into a man of action and, presumably, helped his political ascent to eventually become a senator. But who really shot Liberty Valance?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was directed by John Ford, Hollywood's great western maestro. Although he made other notable films, including the thriller The Informer (1935), Best Picture Oscar winner How Green Was My Valley (1941), World War II drama They Were Expendable (1945) and the comedy The Quiet Man (1952), it is with the western genre that he will always be associated. Ford played a major role in shaping the genre in its peak "classic" years of the 1940s and 1950s in a series of westerns, including Stagecoach (1939), Mr Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956). 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance uses the star of most of those films, John Wayne, an actor who could certainly lay claim to being Hollywood's pre-eminent western star. It teamed him with James Stewart, an actor who had put aside his more genial image of the 1930s and '40s in a series of psychological westerns directed by Anthony Mann, beginning with Winchester '73 in 1950.

Neither star is at all stretched by the material they are given in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but that is precisely why they have been cast. Both Wayne and Stewart are relying on the audience's familiarity with their established screen personas - respectively, Wayne's outlaw western hero and Stewart's mild, likeable man of integrity.

James Stewart, Edmond O'Brien and John Wayne
James Stewart and Edmond O'Brien with Tom Donophin (John Wayne)

The film's screenplay was written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck (who also produced the film) and based on a 1953 story by Dorothy M. Johnson. James Warner Bellah's own stories had provided the basis for several previous John Ford films, including his "cavalry trilogy" - Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) - and for 1960's Sergeant Rutledge, for which Bellah and Goldbeck had written the script. Ford's signature star John Wayne was apparently foisted on him at Paramount's insistence, with Ford taking his displeasure out on Wayne, which caused considerable ill-feeling on the set.

Opinions differ on why the film was made in black and white, with some citing cost issues or technical or aesthetic questions. Others have suggested that it was to cover the stars' age and any ageing make-up required for the film's framing sequence.

John Wayne was in many ways the ideal actor to portray the "old" West in this film, the west of outlaws, loner heroes, gunslingers and shootouts, and the settlement of disputes with confrontation and violence. Unfortunately, by 1962 he was too old for the part he is required to play here and, even more obviously, so too was his co-star James Stewart. 

John Wayne's character Tom Donophin is hoping to get married and settle down with Hallie, while James Stewart's Stoddard is a young man making his way in the world and hoping to set himself up as a lawyer. Although why he chose this particular out-of-the-way town is unclear. Both actors were in their fifties at the time the film was made.

Vera Miles as Hallie Stoddard
Vera Miles as Hallie Stoddard

The film is much more limited in its settings than the typical Ford western and filmed in stark and serious-looking black and white instead of the vibrant Technicolor of The Searchers or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. There are no spectacular locations in Ford's familiar Monument Valley here. In fact, there are few locations at all. Instead, the settings are mostly interiors and studio sets, including the generic main street of a frontier town and a small studio canyon where the stagecoach hold-up takes place. The studio scenes, filmed at Paramount, are augmented by very limited exterior locations. This gives the film a noticeably darker, more enclosed feel than is usual for a Ford western.

There are still some familiar Ford elements, including the usual colourful supporting characters - albeit more subdued than usual. The supporting cast includes Andy Devine as the cowardly Marshall Link Appleyard, who is most interested in his stomach, and Edmond O'Brien as the boozy but righteous newspaperman Dutton Peabody. Liberty Valance's sidekicks, one crazed and one sinister, are played by Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef, the latter before he became a spaghetti western star. 

Vera Miles (The Searchers) and Jeanette Nolan (Two Rode Together) were both on their second John Ford film and Woody Strode his third, after Two Rode Together and the title role in Sergeant Rutledge. Some more Ford regulars appear in the film, including John Carradine, Willis Bouchey, Carleton Young, Anna Lee, John Qualen, O. Z. Whitehead, Shug Fisher and Denver Pyle.

The film finds John Ford in a more serious and sombre mood than usual and there is none of the heavy-handed comedy sometimes seen in his westerns and no bar room brawls or punch ups played for laughs. While there are comic touches in the film, they are more subdued than is often the case with this director.

Although Ford allows the political meeting scene to go on a little too long, there is humour there from a beer-drinking horse and from John Carradine's self-important delegate. The latter dramatically screws up his supposed prepared speech, only for it to be picked up by a member of the audience who discovers that it's just a piece of blank paper.

James Stewart, Lee Marvin and John Wayne
Stoddard (James Stewart), Valance (Lee Marvin) and Donophin (John Wayne)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is less supple at times than the best of Ford's westerns and the story a little contrived. Some plot elements feel unlikely or under-developed, as when Liberty Valance puts himself up as the candidate for the territorial convention on statehood. He is the preferred man of the (unseen) cattle barons, but it seems unlikely that voters would vote willingly for such a notorious outlaw to represent them. It would be more believable if a "front" candidate was proffered instead, with Valance standing behind him to deal out violence to those who vote the wrong way.

The duel between Stoddard and Valance is also a little contrived, with Donophin's presence nearby conveniently unnoticed. Fortunately, Valance helpfully falls backwards, in line with Stoddard's own shot, rather than sideways as he would if he were shot from Donophin's position.

Like some other westerns of its time, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance explores the myths and mythologising of the West. It also examines the conflict and contrast between the rule of the gun and the rule of law, the wild and the civilised and, by way of that, with the "End of the West". The latter was a recurrent theme in 1960s and early 1970s westerns, and one that seemed to prophecy and parallel the western's own decline as a popular film genre. 

This element of the film is indicated by probably the most famous line from any John Ford film, when the newspaperman learns the truth about Ransom Stoddard's duel with Liberty Valance, and declares emphatically:

"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Woody Strode and John Wayne
Pompey (Woody Strode) with Donophin

Like many of Ford's westerns and others of this genre, this is a film that takes place more in the mythical West than in the historical one. On screen and in fiction, the West was where America was forged - rather than in the revolution of the original thirteen colonies or in the Civil War or in the industrialisation and European mass immigration of the late nineteenth century.

In the 20th century it was the West that came to be seen as the place where the American spirit was most embodied. Films that deal with the "taming" of the West and the closing of the frontier tend to have a bittersweet character, an element captured particularly well in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The transformation and development of the West means a loss as well as a gain. In this case, it's a particular type of American manhood and American character that has been lost, or at least eclipsed, by the coming of schools and railroads and by the arrival of smart guys from out East, with their laws and their rule books. 

The film is not unaware of some of the iniquities of 19th and 20th century American history. When Stoddard is teaching some of the locals in a civics lesson, Donophin's black friend Pompey (Woody Strode) tries to recite from memory the beginning of the Declaration of Independence - in particular, the part where it states that "all men are created equal". He loses his way and says that he can't remember the line, to which Stoddard replies that it's alright, a lot of people forget about that part.

As Tom Donophin, John Wayne is playing on his established persona as the screen's foremost and most archetypal western star. He is unambiguously masculine and ever-ready to defend himself with a gun if need be, fully understanding of the need to sometimes resort to violence to defend himself and others.

John Wayne, with James Stewart shooting a gun
Tom Donophin teaching Stoddard to shoot

James Stewart's character, Ransom Stoddard, on the other hand, is a man of the East, at least spiritually. While Donophin rides on horseback, Stoddard travels around in a girly carriage, like the typical tenderfoot that he is. When he is waylaid and beaten up by Liberty Valance and his thugs, he doesn't want to shoot him in revenge, as Donophin initially assumes. He just wants to put him in jail. He believes in the rule of law; he is, after all, a lawyer. He is prepared to reluctantly take a stand and defend himself physically if necessary but, crucially, he is not very good at it. He would much rather use the law against his enemies.

Quite apart from his attachment to his law books, Stoddard is often presented as domesticated, even feminised, in the film. He agrees to help out at the local cafĂ© and wait on the tables, to the horror of some. And he does the washing up and wears an apron, which he even wears to his shootout with Valance. What could be more feminised than this, the film asks. You wouldn't catch John Wayne wearing a pinny and doing the dishes.

The town of Shinbone and the surrounding locality, and by extension the wider West, is a world with a degree of ambiguity in its relation to the law. Technically the law exists but, as with the Marshal of Shinbone, it may not be very effective. People should abide by the law, but they also need to be prepared to take it into their own hands and defend themselves if necessary. 

The clear suggestion in the film is that it takes violence to defeat violence, not law and books and feminised men in aprons. But what comes next? Ironically, the men of violence tame the West and defeat the lawless types like Valance, while making it safe for women and tenderfoots like Stoddard. But ultimately, it's Stoddard who prospers - although only because Donophin brought peace through violent action, something that he was unable to do.

Lee Marvin, James Stewart and John Wayne
Valance confronts Donophin, while Stoddard stands by in his apron

Just to make the film's message clear, when the outlaw Valance holds up the stagecoach near the beginning of the film and finds Stoddard's law books, he literally tears them up. There's no law here. And it's the film's outlaw villain, rather than the hero, who is given the suggestive name of Liberty Valance. The character's name almost insists on an interpretation that he represents freedom, as well as lawlessness.

Shinbone has liberty (and Liberty), but not the rule of law. The coming of civilization means law and order, but it also means losing some of the freedom and self-reliance that originally created the world of the West. 

As Stoddard's wife Hallie says to him, when they return to Shinbone decades later:

"It was once a wilderness, now it's a garden. Aren't you proud?" 

This is a question that the film deliberately leaves hanging, with no answer proffered or implied.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a box office success, although the contemporary critical reaction was mixed, with many critics complaining that the film was anti-climactic. More recent commentary has been much more positive and the film is now usually considered to be one of the classic westerns and the last great film of John Ford's career. It was inducted into the US National Film Registry in 2007. 

After this film, Ford's directorial career would wind down. He contributed a brief section of the Cinerama epic How the West Was Won (1962), which he followed with the broad comedy Donovan's Reef (1963), the unsatisfactory western Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and the female-led non-western Seven Women (1966). Both John Wayne and James Stewart appeared in How the West Was Won, although only Wayne was in the Ford-directed sequence. Wayne also starred in Donovan's Reef, while Stewart appeared in Cheyenne Autumn. The two stars were reunited for John Wayne's final film The Shootist in 1976, directed by Don Siegel.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Year: 1962
Genre: Western
Country: USA
Director: John Ford

Cast John Wayne (Tom Doniphon), James Stewart (Ransom Stoddard), Vera Miles (Hallie Stoddard), Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance), Edmond O'Brien (Dutton Peabody), Andy Devine (Marshall Link Appleyard), Ken Murray (Doc Willoughby), John Carradine (Major Cassius Starbuckle), Jeanette Nolan (Nora Ericson), John Qualen (Peter Ericson), Willis Bouchey (Jason Tully), Carleton Young (Maxwell Scott), Woody Strode (Pompey), Denver Pyle (Amos Carruthers), Strother Martin (Floyd), Lee Van Cleef (Reese), Robert F. Simon (Handy Strong), O. Z. Whitehead (Herbert Carruthers), Paul Birch (Mayor Winder), Joseph Hoover (Hasbrouck)

Screenplay James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson  Producer Willis Goldbeck  Cinematography William H. Clothier  Art directors Eddie Imazu, Hal Pereira  Editor Otho Lovering  Music Cyril J. Mockridge  Costume designer Edith Head

Running time 123 mins (black & white)

Production company John Ford Productions  Distributor Paramount Pictures


  1. Ford is certainly in my top 5 list of directors (if I believed in lists, which I don't :) ).

    If I had to put a label on the movie, I'd call it a psychological Western (an overused term if there ever was one). We could almost call it a melodrama. As you pointed out, almost none of Ford's hallmarks can be found in the movie. No vibrant landscapes with sweeping vistas, no spectacular shootouts, no Monument Valley.
    Instead we get a chamber piece with enclosed sets, a bleak and claustrophobic black and white tale that mourns the passing of the West elegiacally.

    You're quite right to say the West - or better the Myth of the West - was for a good part forged in fiction and on screen.
    Ford doesn’t destroy the legend with this film (though I've seen some reviews claiming that), but he does reappraise it. Without cynicism he comes to the conclusion in the end that peaceful ideals are all well and good but it needs more than idealism to overcome evil. Occasionally brute force has to be countered by brute force.

    1. I think it's almost more political than psychological. The characters aren't there to be psycho-analysed, but to represent something - outlaws, law enforcers, heroes, villains, womanhood, minorities, etc.

      While only violence can counter-act violence, the film suggests that the violence is only there because people have freedom. It's the old conflict between freedom and security, because you can't truly have both, one must always compromise the other.

      Although the film is mercifully free of the type of broad physical comedy that lets down some of Ford's other westerns, it's all almost a little too obvious. It gives you plenty to talk about, but not so much to think about, as the film makers' intentions seem all too clear.

  2. I love the film. It's simple yet brilliantly profound. My only issue is Jimmy Stewart-- he is WAY WAY too old for the role of a tenderfoot lawyer. In my opinion, the role should have gone to Jeffrey Hunter, another Ford favorite. Other than that, a great movie.

    1. It is a problem. I think replacing Stewart would mean a general re-casting though, and no younger actor would carry the same weight of associations as John Wayne. So the film would gain something and lose something. I agree a younger actor would be preferable though, even someone in their early '40s might get away with. Fiftysomething actors is a stretch though.


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