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

Man Who Shot Liberty 1Alright, in the interest of full disclosure, yours truly has seen bits and pieces of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance before. It was a film that “we” often used to run on the overhead screens behind us at the Movies Unlimited video store back in the day. However, I never saw the ending and since I was always working at the time (at least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it), I was never able to fully grasp what was going on, though, it “sounded” (remember, my back was to the screen) like a good movie. So, I figured that in tying up some loose ends and finally sitting down to watch the film in its entirety, that it would also be fair fodder for this particular feature. Anyway, I’m sure glad I did because TMWSLV is a rare thinking-man’s entry in the western genre by my estimation, therefore probably making it one of the finest westerns ever made.

OK, so TMWSLV was directed by the legendary John Ford who not only popularized the western genre, but who many folks credit with making tales of the Old West everything that we know them to be today. Anyway, I believe the rumor is that this effort was purportedly supposed to be Ford’s farewell to the western genre. It didn’t quite work out that way, as Cheyenne Autumn was released two years later. Nevertheless, I can’t think of a better way to go out in style than by pairing John Wayne (Everyone loves The Duke, right?) with James Stewart in a frontier epic as two embittered men with different philosophies who are still fighting for the same cause. Throw in an all-star supporting cast of Vera Miles, Edmond O’Brien, Strother Martin, John Carradine, Woody Strode, Lee Van Cleef, and Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance (Wow, Lee Van Cleef and Lee Marvin in the same movie?! No wonder I always get these two confused), and there’s a recipe for a true classic.

Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a popular politician who has returned home to the fictional town of Shinbone in the western U.S. to attend the funeral of his friend Tom Doniphon (Wayne). When a reporter (Carleton Young) presses Stewart for a story about why such a powerful, important and busy man would come all the way out west from Washington to bury an ordinary citizen, Stewart sits down and recounts the story of when he first came to Shinbone, at the time still a largely unsettled territory in the late 1800s. Stewart is a lawyer fresh out of school looking to start a practice out west when he’s robbed and beaten by Liberty Valance (Marvin, in a great villainous role that many cite as one of his crowning achievements). Wayne finds Stewart and ushers him to the restaurant run by Miles’ family who provide him with room and board. Stewart vows to put Marvin behind bars, but Wayne explains that a gun is the only law that’s recognized in Shinbone. Thus begins Stewart and Wayne’s strained relationship. Marvin continues to terrorize the town, with sharp-shooting Wayne providing the only protection. This is much to the chagrin of Stewart who claims that not only is Wayne’s attitude much like Marvin’s, but that he doesn’t need Wayne to fight his battles. Stewart eventually starts a school to teach the townsfolk how to read, including Miles who’s beginning to develop feelings for Stewart. Wayne doesn’t like this at all since he has set his camp for Miles as well. The school leads to a discussion about statehood, which inspires Stewart to start an election, with the winning delegate aiming to push for their territory to become such a state. Of course, this won’t sit well with Marvin, who works for powerful barons who wouldn’t benefit from the area becoming governed. Wayne informs Stewart that if he continues with this course of action it will cost him his life. Sure enough, when Marvin fails in bullying the citizens to elect him as the delegate, he essentially challenges Stewart (unskilled with a pistol) to a duel. This forces Stewart to confront a situation that he has desperately been trying to avoid all along.

Man Who Shot Liberty 2

Now, just in case there are those out there reading this who haven’t seen this film, I don’t want to relay any more details, though, I’m guessing the title will give something away. However, there are still some matters to layout. First, while I’m definitely a fan of the western, I do often find many of them to be very formulaic and typical of one another. It’s usually always the good town marshal taking down the outlaw in black, etc. Part of the reason why I enjoyed TMWSLV so much is that it delves into the mythology behind the legends of history, in addition to the legends of heroes. There’s a key line in the film when the newspaper reporter utters, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This supposedly means that the truth is only important when it agrees with public perception, and that we all have a need to create heroes in our minds even if none exist. Furthermore, this notion suggests that history is just a jumbled mess of such “legends,” and that reality is really only what our perception of reality is. It’s all very sobering to think about, and it clearly deconstructs the cowboy mystique (among other things), which is probably the reason why some critics panned the film at the time of its release, since it was a western that called into question the validity of the tough cowboy type as the hero, which was rarely done.

I was additionally piqued by the aforementioned newsman who, upon the learning the truth of Stewart’s story, refused to print it. In the modern age where every single person in the public eye is fair game to have every and any shred of their personal lives exposed to an unyielding media and laid bare on Perez Hilton or TMZ for all to see, the idea that a reporter would do the right thing instead of just “doing his job,” is a romantic (and probably outdated) one.

Man Who Shot Liberty 3Ford’s choice to shoot the screenplay in black and white is another issue worth mentioning. Many actually seemed to believe that this decision was a budgetary one (black-and-white film is cheaper), but I really don’t think so. Bob Dylan said, “The times, they are a changin’” and in keeping with Ford’s theme of the unsanctioned nature of the Old West giving way to law, industry and general progress as the western territories of the U.S. were settled, the choice to film in black and white perfectly suggests a changing of the guard. It was a great aesthetic implementation, and yet even in the face of all this seriousness, there was still room for humor. Andy Devine as the hapless and spineless town marshal and especially Edmond O’Brien as the founder of the local newspaper provide tremendous comic relief. What’s my favorite line of the entire film? Upon hearing that the bar of the saloon where the delegate nomination ceremony is being held is closed without exception, O’Brien utters, “No exceptions for the working press? Why, that’s carrying democracy much too far!” It’s classic stuff. After all, “a beer’s not drinking,” and I give this classic four stars out of five. Few movies are perfect, but any problems that I have with TMWSLV would fall under the category of splitting hairs, so I won’t go into them here. Besides, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1063274681 Irv Slifkin

    Nice summation of a classic film. My minor quibble of the whole film has been the ages of the leads, both of whom seem too old for their roles, especially Stewart. It hasn;t dimmed the movie’s merits for me, but it has kept it a step or two away from greatness.

  • Trainman

    Its hard to say but I think TMWSLV is probably one of the best movies I have seen it fits right in with what the west was like. In the beginning you see the story of the opening up of the west, cattle men verses the settlers and the people wanting the territory to become a state. This isn’t just a movie or just another western it is a classic. There isn’t any kissing the horse or ridding off into the sunset, its a fictional story one that shows life as it was. Lee Marvin gets it in the end but the story doesn’t end there when Tom has died played by John Wayne the cactus flower Vera Miles places on his casket just shows that life goes on. What we get out of life is just what we put into it. This movie was like throwing a pebble in a pool of water, there’s a big splash in the beginning but, the ripple of the water effects everybody so I guess you could say it was true to life. If your looking for a movie that kills everything or everyone in sight, this one is not for you. It is a thinking mans Western

  • william sherman

    The best “review” of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE is by Leon Lewis in THE LANDSCAPE OF CONTEMPORARY CINEMA (1967).

  • Chuck Neumann

    Good review. I am sure the decision to film in black and white was not due to money, afterall John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart were the top stars of the day and each commanded big bucks. You mentioned Lee Marvin and Lee Van Cleef in the same movie, did you know they were in a TV show together? In was a episode of the Twilight Zone, Marvin played a bounty hunter and Van Cleef played a gambler. It was an excellent show. One thing about the movie, I’m not sure why either hero was that interested in Vera Miles. She seemed to complain the whole film, in the flashback as well as the “present” time. I guess there were few other ladies in Shinbone at the time to interest them.

  • Joanna

    This is one of my favorite movies of all time. Your review was thoughtful, but I would have upped the star value at least 1/2 a star.

  • ROLLAND T.

    I saw went it came out and it was a major disapointment. It seemed very low budget for the time. I thought the best part was when J. Wayne kicked the guy in the face over his steak on the floor.

  • Cathy Rec

    TMWSLV has always been my favorite western of all times. I can’t believe you waited so long to see it. Your review was very good, though I was afraid you would give it away. I agree/disagree with Irv about JW and JS’s ages. Yes, the men were a bit old for “courting’” but so was Vera. Yet, marrying later in life was not always unusual back then. Men were sometimes busy trying to make something of their lives, before trying to take on a wife as well. I do believe that this really was a good representation of that period.

  • James Sedares

    Very good article/review. TMWSLV has always seemed to me to be a sister film to both My Darling Clentine and The Gunfighter. All black and white with a less romaticized, realistic take on the Old West. It’s one of Wayne’s best performances. Up there with The Searchers and The Quiet Man. I like the maturity of the two major male leads. They were men, not boys. And they looked and acted it.

    For maybe more than you want to know about John Ford check out the new release Secret Lives Of Great Filmmakers.

  • Still Bill Martin

    “Liberty” is the first movie I ever saw. I was four years old and it was in a drive-in in Austin, Texas. I’ll never forget Lee Marvin saying “…right between the eyes.” My dad was a huge John Wayne fan and on his birthday every year, I watch “Liberty” as a tribute to him. Would agree that Jimmy Stewart is considerably too old to play Rance. (He is wearing a toupee in the movie, but then again, so is John Wayne). Still like the movie despite its casting miscues. (They are still not as bad as “The Sons of Katie Elder” How old was Katie when she had John Wayne, 10?). Besides, “Liberty” has my favorite character actor of all-time in it, Strother Martin.

  • Mhari

    Good review. And good job of not spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it. I like westerns myself; and my dad loved John Wayne movies in particular; so I know a lot of them. I agree that the leads may have been a bit too old for the parts they played but their “star value” was what brought people to see them. I also would have added at least a half a star, maybe even a whole one.

  • Tom

    If you were serious about ever confusing Lee Marvin with anyone else, you can turn in your movie fan credentials on your way out the door because they’ve just been revoked.

    And my favorite line was delivered by the obsequious Strother Martin offering to retrieve his leader’s steak from the floor: “I’ll get it Liberty.” Set off by itself in print, the line has no impact, but in the movie it was delivered with appropriate flourish by the all-time master of the role of “prairie scum” (Martin’s own description of his typical part).

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  • Joe Gregorio

    Despite its being panned by some critics, I enjoyed this movie. A few of you commented that Jimmy Stewart was too old for his part, but I think John Wayne was the same age as Stewart (and perhaps even a year older). Always liked Vera Miles and wondered what happened to her. I don’t remember her in too many films after the early to mid-60′s.

  • billyb34usa

    This is a 5 star flick. No question about it. I saw it when it first opened and that day is one of the few times I’ve remembered being startled by just how good a film I was seeing. High Noon is another and Red River likewise. All in black and white. I love the ending…it just completes a perfect movie experience.

  • billyb34usa

    I believe the quote is:
    When the fact becomes legend; print the legend
    not as stated
    When the legend becomes fact; print the legend
    (that just doesn’t make any sense)

  • Judy

    This is one of my favorite Westerns. I collect Westerns as a hobby. John Wayne is my favorite and Jimmy Stewart is my second. Watch this movie about one time a month. Hope every one else enjoys it as much as I have.

  • mike jaral

    I read the reviews , and all mostly say how great it was. being a john wayne fan, and always liking a good ending, would have liked to see him not dead at the end, or ending up with somthing like chidren with another love and the building finished.just left me sort of empty, like the ending in spartagus. I like happy endings.

  • Cindy Urban

    I am not a lover of “Westerns” but,this is one of the best! My favorite scene is when Liberty trips Jimmy Stewart who’s carrying John Waynes’ steak,and it falls on the floor ! Lee Marvin gave one of his best performances as the “Town Bully”.Lee Marvin was also superb as the gunslinger in Cat Ballou(playing duel roles as the drunk gunslinger,and the villain).My other favorite “Westerns” are:The Westerner with Gary Cooper,and Walter Brennan,and the rarely seen ,ONE EYED JACKS,starring Marlon Brando,and Karl Malden(who I never forgave for smashing Marlon’s hand with the butt of his gun !)this movie(Jacks)had a great music score,and beautiful cinematography.

  • mislaigne

    Awesome cast. All the way through Andy Devine.

  • Randy

    This is easily one of my favorite films and I have seen it many times. There are several subtle funny scenes that are worth looking for. When the sheriff (Andy Devine) goes into the cafe and
    asks for a breakfast – and the inn-keeper says “On the cuff !” and they mark another free meal on the chalk board. Then when they are in the saloon, nominating delegates. Watch closely as
    John Wayne is calling the meeting to order using the beer barrel bung hammer – and hammers
    Mr. Peabody’s hat on the table !! The look of disgust on Dunton Peabody’s face is hilarious.

  • Melanie Blanks

    TMWSLV is top dog with me along with Red River, Cowboys, The Searchers. I have over 35 films of John Wayne, about 10 Jimmy Stewart, and just starting with Lee Marvin. Also some pretty strong collections of Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant. There are others, but these men rank tops with me. My first love will always be Westerns though.