The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1962

Director: John Ford

Production: Ford Productions-Paramount; black and white, 35mm; running time: 122 minutes. Released April 1962. Filmed September 1961 in Paramount studios. Cost: budgeted at $3.2 million, (according to Ford's grandson).

Producer: Willis Goldbeck; screenplay: Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah, from the story by Dorothy M. Johnson; photography: William H. Clothier; editor: Otho Lovering; sound: Philip Mitchell; art directors: Hal Pereira and Eddie Imazu; music: Cyril Mockridge; music director: Irvin Talbot (theme from Young Mr. Lincoln by Alfred Newman); costume designer: Edith Head.

Cast: James Stewart ( Ransom Stoddard ); John Wayne ( Tom Doniphon ); Vera Miles ( Hallie Stoddard ); Lee Marvin ( Liberty Valance ); Edmond O'Brien ( Dutton Peabody ); Andy Devine ( Link Appleyard ); Ken Murray ( Doc Willoughby ); John Carradine ( Starbuckle ); Jeanette Nolan ( Nora Ericson ); John Qualen ( Peter Ericson ); Willis Bouchey ( Jason Tully ); Carleton Young ( Maxwell Scott ); Woody Strode ( Pompey ); Denver Pyle ( Amos Carruthers );

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Strother Martin ( Floyd ); Lee Van Cleef ( Reese ); Robert F. Simon ( Handy Strong ); O. Z. Whitehead ( Ben Carruthers ); Paul Birch ( Mayor Winder ); Joseph Hoover ( Hasbrouck ); Jack Pennick ( Barman ); Anna Lee ( Passenger ); Charles Seel ( President, Election Council ); Shug Fisher ( Drunk ); Earle Hodgins; Stuart Holmes; Dorothy Phillips; Buddy Roosevelt; Gertrude Astor; Eva Novak; Slim Talbot; Monty Montana; Bill Henry; John B. Whiteford; Helen Gibson; Major Sam Harris.



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* * *

John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opened to mixed reviews in 1962, and played on the second half of many double bills. But two decades later critics see this film quite differently. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is now regarded as one of the greatest works of one of America's greatest filmmakers. It reaffirms John Ford's reputation as the master of the most American of the film genres, the western.

Coming late in the career of a director with a long-standing reputation as a creator of popular films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was completely an auteur project. Ford located the property, developed a script with long-time associates Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah, and raised half the proposed $3.2 million budget needed for an all-star case which included John Wayne and James Stewart in their first film together. Because Wayne had just signed a ten picture contract with Paramount (for which he was paid $6 million in advance), Ford took his package deal to that particular studio. Shooting commenced in September 1961. The completed film was released in April 1962, and quickly played out, to be resurrected a decade later in revivals and retrospectives.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance presents a very dark view of the western legend. Although the opening sequence is of an "iron horse," confidently moving through the desert, the rest of the film is by and large confined to sequences indoors, usually taking place at night—recorded on a Hollywood sound stage. The Old West has lost the epic proportions of Monument Valley, and moved to a ramshackle town, populated by a handful of people. (An unseen range war occurs off-screen.) The West has been settled; the myth of the western hero is remembered only in flashbacks. Indeed, the western era has already past when the film begins. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) journey to hometown Shinbone to attend the funeral of an old friend, the true western hero Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Through a long flashback (one that comprises most of the film) we learn how progress came to the West. On his first journey to Shinbone, Stoddard, an earnest young lawyer from the East, is robbed and beaten by archetypal outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Stoddard seeks revenge by trying to civilize the community. But in the end Stoddard can bring the civilized values of the East only through deception and violence. He earns his fame not through the law but as a man who stood up to and killed evil incarnate, Liberty Valance.

Tom Doniphon is more tragically caught up in the conflict between civilization and chaos, order and violence. Doniphon is doomed to live in a world to which he can not adapt. Structurally, the film counterpoints the rise of Stoddard with the fall of Doniphon. Gradually Stoddard educates and draws Doniphon's "girl" to him through his teachings. (Stoddard literally becomes the school teacher.) Ultimately, when Stoddard does face off with Liberty Valance, the film tells the viewer that it is Doniphon, in a last heroic act, who shoots Liberty Valance. If a viewer looks closely, however, nowhere does the film actually show us who killed Liberty Valance. It is impossible to tell visually whether the bullet was from the gun of Tom Doniphon or that of Ransom Stoddard. But the myth continues. The out-of-date western hero loses his girl, and settles into a life of obscurity, while the lawyer from the East rises to heights of political power, becoming a senator in Washington, D.C.

At the nominating convention for statehood, Stoddard assumes authority. In this sequence Ford mocks the heart of the American political process. This becomes clear when the cattle-baron candidate, one Buck Langhorn, is nominated. Dressed in western dude fashion, this grotesque cowboy "image" is all that remains of the values and honor associated with a western hero like Tom Doniphon. Aptly, when the doors swing shut on the convention, that is the last time we see Doniphon alive. As the newspaper editor notes later about Stoddard's rise to power, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The desert is now a garden, full of the symbolic cactus rose. The myth is complete with "progress" coming to the old West. The honor and values of Stagecoach , the Iron Horse , and earlier Ford westerns will never return again.

To deconstruct the western as story, Ford finally acknowledged its role as a myth and legend in the history and development of the United States. To create a timeless world of formal artifice, Ford filmed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in black and white on a studio soundstage. Furthermore, Ford's distinction between fact and legend also involved the restructuring of the film's time by placing the act of telling between past and present, thus reinforcing the process of deconstructing mythmaking. This narrative framework, the stark stylization of mise-en-scène, and the use of lighting render the flashback (and the flashback in the flashback) into nightmare. This is a stripped down western; the colorful legend and look of Monument Valley have become a barren world of broken dreams.

In the end The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great filmmaker's own critique of the form in which he did his best work. It probably now ranks second to The Searchers (1956) in Ford's oeuvre, and is part of what critics and historians now consider Ford's greatest period, the films—especially the westerns—made after World War II. Ford's career is now seen as a slow, steady parabola of change, beginning with certainties about the values of civilization and ending with abject filmmaking, always seeming to follow the rules, yet always breaking with them. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance must be seen as a great achievement of a filmmaker at the height of his power and understanding.

—Douglas Gomery

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