While John Ford would go on to direct several more pictures after this one, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance represents a sort of exclamation point of one of most celebrated directorial careers in American film. His previous high-water mark, The Searchers, was a film torn between the conventions of a previous era and emerging modern sensibilities. Liberty Valance is thoroughly modern by 1962 standards and virtually timeless by any other.
John Ford’s The Searchers is a movie in desperate search for an identity. For every aspect that is excellent, two more make you want to cringe. The film seems to have feet in two eras. Its ambivalent attitude toward the stereotypical treatment of Native Americans seems slightly ahead of its time, although Hollywood would do much better later. Balancing against this are characters and storylines that would have seemed dated when Ford and John Wayne were first working together back in the thirties.
Despite having two directors with somewhat clashing styles, being noticeably dated in places, and a little too obviously based on a stage play, Mister Roberts still works as a classic comedy and a war movie in which the only violence is committed upon a pair of hapless palm trees.
The Tony-winning play by Joshua Logan and Frank L. Nugent had already run for seven years on Broadway when the film was made and Henry Fonda had played the role of Lt. (jg) Doug Roberts 1,300 times before a frame of film had been shot. It’s safe to say that he didn’t need reheasal.