“This is the west, sir,” a reporter tells Senator Ransom Stoddard. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Director John Ford’s cinematic rendition of Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” is nothing short of brilliant. Released in 1962, the movie starred Hollywood giants John Wayne and James Stewart. Lee Marvin performs the role of the title character Liberty Valance. When the movie came out into theaters, audiences and critics praised the film. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a story about the power of perception and myth.
The movie begins with U.S. Senator Stoddard, performed by Stewart, and his wife Hallie returning to the fictional town, Shinbone, to attend their friend Tom Doniphon’s funeral. Naturally the people on Shinbone are surprised to see a U.S. Senator show up in their small town for a funeral of one of their locals. Stoddard is a true hero to the residents of Shinbone because in the past he shot the infamous bad guy, Liberty Valance. So upon Stoddard’s return to Shinbone the town’s reporter wants to get the story. In a somber and resolute tone, Stoddard then tells the story about Tom Doniphon and the man who shot Liberty Valance.
Stoddard’s story flashes back twenty-five years earlier, when he was a young, optimistic attorney looking to make a life for himself in the West. His coach is hijacked by a group of robbers led by Liberty Valance. When Stoddard tries to stand his ground, Valance brutally beats him. Stoddard is rescued and nursed back to health, but his troubles are not over with Valance. Tom Doniphon (Wayne) warns Stoddard that he is now in Valance’s cross hairs. Stoddard thinks that he can use reason and the law to handle Valance, but Doniphon argues that Valance is beyond reasoning. Though Stoddard is afraid of Valance, he refuses to capitulate to the bandit’s threats. Doniphon’s point is proven true when the tension escalates between the two men and Valance challenges Stoddard to a gunfight.
Valance is a threat to the entire town. Even though his attention is on Stoddard, he and his gang have no qualms using violence on anyone who gets in their way. Even Marshal Appleyard (Andy Devine) is terrified of the robbers. The only one who is able to stand up to Valance is Doniphon, who is waiting for the right time to take action. In the midst of all the violence, a love triangle develops between Stoddard, Doniphon, and Hallie. While Doniphon is building an addition to his humble abode in hopes that he and Hallie will marry, Stoddard’s genteel manners steal Hallie’s heart. The relationship between Doniphon and Stoddard is complex: it is one of respect and competition. Both men are equally strong and brave in their own ways. However, at the end of the film, only one man is remembered for his bravery against Liberty Valance. Sometimes it’s not the truth that survives, but people’s perception that make it into the pages of history.
Even though the movie earned critical and commercial success, the making of the film was far from smooth sailing. Due to budgetary restrictions, Director John Ford had to shoot the film in black and white. Additionally, Ford was notorious for his abusive behavior towards the cast. People tolerated Ford because he had a special genius and many consider him to be one of the greatest directors in Hollywood. Ford greatly contributed to Wayne’s success, but he was just as cruel to Wayne as he was towards the other actors. Wayne never spoke out against Ford, but he consequently took his frustrations out on Woody Strode, who plays Doniphon’s best friend and side kick, Pompey. Despite the fact that Ford was difficult to work with, the cast and the story outshone the challenging production environment. Lee Marvin is so convincing as the malicious Valance that just his presence is enough to strike fear into the heart of the viewer. Andy Devine offers wonderful comic relief in this otherwise serious Western. His performance of Marshal Appleyard, with his innocent reactions and humorous facial expressions, is the perfect counter balance from the intensity brewing between the main characters.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an important film, especially in today’s world. At some point in everyone’s childhood, we hear that life is not fair. Nowadays so much of our sense of reality comes from social media and other online sources. Not everything we read and hear is the truth. In the final scene of the movie, Stoddard and Hallie’s facial expressions reflect the weight that the truth bears on them. They say the winners write the history, but sadly that can make it harder for those who follow to know the truth.