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.
The film begins on a note of uncharacteristic melancholy for a Ford film. A train arrives in a town called Shinbone, carrying Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles). His arrival is apparently big news to the local newspaper publisher, who’s astonished that the great man is in their midst for the pauper’s funeral of a man no one has ever heard of, Tom Doniphon. While his wife and a few friends from the old days sit with the casket, Stoddard sits down to regale the gentlemen of the press with the story.
The story shifts back to Stoddard’s first arrival in Shinbone, as a young lawyer from the east coast. His stagecoach is robbed by a gang of local outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and, when Stoddard tries to protect a woman from the robbers, Valance beats him and leaves him for dead. He’s rescued by a rancher named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) and taken to the home of Tom’s girlfriend, Hallie, and her parents, Swedish emigrants Peter (John Qualen) and Nora (Jeanette Nolan), to be nursed back to health.
At this time, Shinbone is a town small enough that the ineffectual town marshal (Andy Devine) doubles as the local glutton, the newspaper publisher (Edmond O’Brien) doubles as the town drunk and the local doctor (Ken Murray) is also the undertaker. (Isn’t that last one a conflict of interest?) Everyone has something in common: they are all terrified of Liberty Valance.
There is a larger conflict in the background. The territory where Shinbone is located is vying for statehood. The cattle ranchers who want to keep their ranges open will do almost anything the kill the idea, including hiring an outlaw like Valance as their muscle to intimidate the townsfolk and farmers who favor statehood.
While he waits for someone in town to need a lawyer, Stoddard also teaches, works at the newspaper, and washes dishes for Hallie’s parents. He becomes the town’s leading advocate for statehood, putting him on another collision course with Valance, which seems like a hopelessly one-sided battle. The man from the east has needed the intervention of Doniphon, the only local willing to face Valance on even terms, to keep him alive during a second meeting with the outlaw.
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
It may seem like this is just a story about a showdown between two men, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance manages to be a hugely entertaining civics lesson, couching the physical conflict between two men in a larger battle between the law of brute force and the rule of law. As a “civilized” man from the east, Stoddard is more than just a naïve lawyer out of his depth. He represents the rule of law gradually taming the unruly west that we tend to romanticize. Liberty Valance is a walking, talking stand-in for the lawlessness that must give way for the nation to expand westward. Tom Doniphon is caught in the middle. He hates Valance and what he represents, but isn’t so sure about the sort of progress that Stoddard is bringing with him in his bag of law books. Of course, as you might have guessed from the beginning of the movie, Stoddard will also become a rival for Hallie’s affections, putting an additional strain on the alliance between the two men. There’s no way that Doniphon would ever side with Valance, but will he side with Stoddard?
As an antagonist, Liberty Valance isn’t required to be a deep, but there is more to him than just a stock black hat. As portrayed by Marvin, Valance is a classic bully who gets off on the power his violence exerts over others. In another era and another place, a man like Valance might have volunteered for concentration camp duty because it sounded like a bit of fun. When he realizes that someone is actually going to stand up to him, even a previously ineffectual opponent like Stoddard, Valance reaches for a bottle to find the courage he’s never needed before.
Jimmy Stewart is brilliant as a man who seems sure of everything except himself. He doesn’t want the conflict he’s gotten himself into, but the only way out he sees is to run back east with his tail between his legs, an option he won’t even consider. There are many shades to Ransom Stoddard: anger, optimism, doubt, resignation. Stewart plays them all as close to perfect as you would want.
Tom Doniphon is one of the more carefully modulated performances of Wayne’s long career, as if going toe-to-toe with Jimmy Stewart made him raise his game a couple of notches. He’s still playing John Wayne, but there’s more to this incarnation of the Duke than in most other films.
The film’s black-and-white cinematography is in marked contrast to Ford’s usually rich color vistas, but it perfectly matches the film’s underlying sadness. No matter the heights to which Stewart’s character has risen, somehow it all ties back to a man who’s been forgotten by time. As anyone who’s seen this film already knows, the title is not as direct as it seems at first glance. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is as much a question as it is an ironic joke.