#47) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
OR “Lee Dies at the End”
Directed by John Ford
Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck. Based on the story by Dorothy M. Johnson.
Class of 2007
The Plot: Told through flashback, Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) recounts coming to the small town of Shinbone as a young attorney. His stagecoach is robbed by local outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who beats Stoddard nearly to death. It turns out no one in Shinbone will stand up to Liberty, except for Doniphon (John Wayne), who knows that Liberty doesn’t respond to anything but violence. Stoddard spends his time educating the town and pushing the territory towards statehood, all the while leading to his inevitable showdown with Liberty.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “Ford’s last great Western” and contemplates what was lost when the West became civilized.
But Does It Really?: I give this one “minor classic” status. Everyone involved has done better, but it’s probably the most meditative western you’ll find this side of “Unforgiven”. Wayne’s character represents what the West was, and Stewart’s what the West will become, and it’s a perfect vehicle to bring these two legends together. The film has something to say about the end of an era in American history, coming from filmmakers at the end of their era in movie history.
Shout Outs: If there’s a stagecoach in a John Ford western, does it count as a reference to “Stagecoach”?
Wow, That’s Dated: As always with a John Ford western, Native Americans are vilified or completely ignored, in this case both. No natives in sight, except for a passing reference to “savage redskins”.
Title Track: Only once does someone actually say “The man who shot Liberty Valance”. The real drinking game for this film is every time John Wayne says “pilgrim”. He really over-does it.
Seriously, Oscars?: Perhaps because Ford’s day in the Oscar sun was long over, the film only received one nomination; costume design for the legendary Edith Head. She lost to “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”.
- Shout-out to cinematographer William Clothier, the man who shot “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”.
- There’s that “Young Mr. Lincoln/Ascot Gavotte” theme again! What’s the deal, Ford?
- So when we flash back Jimmy Stewart is the exact same age?
- If you’re Lee Marvin and you want to leave a mark on films, beating up Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne is a start. Quick! Someone call the town’s comically drunk gunfighter!
- They never explicitly say which state/territory they’re in, but we know that this film takes place sometime in the early 1880s, so let’s just say West Dakota.
- Woody Strode’s character is named Pompey. Like the city?
- More westerns should have Swedes in them.
- And yes, Edmond O’Brien’s character is frequently referred to as Mr. Peabody.
- The love triangle is a bit unnecessary (and creepy, both Stewart and Wayne are 20 years older than Vera Miles).
- One of the songs in the saloon is so close to being “West of the Wide Missouri”.
- Sheep Wars? Now that’s a film I wanna see!
- Geez I keep expecting Andy Devine and Edmond O’Brien to have a “comic relief-off”.
- Ummm…where’s the music in the convention coming from? That hall is way too small to fit a band.
- For those of you keeping score, that’s a flashback WITHIN a flashback at the end. Christopher Nolan, take note.
- Wait, they go the whole movie without actually singing the song? What a jip!
- Whenever a John Wayne impression contains the word “pilgrim”, it’s because of this film.
- “Liberty Valance” gives us the saying; “When the legend become fact, print the legend.”
- Sergio Leone once called this film his favorite John Ford western. Only appropriate since he picked up the torch from there.