John Ford is one of those film directors with a far greater reputation than his actual filmic output deserves. That’s not to say that he did not direct good films (see Stagecoach and The Grapes Of Wrath) but he directed many mediocre films, too; and most of those mediocrities came in the early and later parts of his career (see The Searchers). A rare exception to this was Ford’s 1962 film, The Man Who Shot liberty Valance. No, it’s not a masterpiece, as some of its champions claim, and it’s nowhere near a great film. But it is a good one, and one that is so for the same reasons Stagecoach is: a good script, good dialogue, and good acting. The film fails, however, with its anomic sidestories, predictable ending, and cheap production values; yes, the usual excuse is that the film was competing against television westerns, but, really, some of the sets are paper-thin; thus belying the claims of some who state that Ford chose to use such sets and black and white, rather than the reality that, by this point in his career, Ford was not considered a top notch director any longer, and had several financial flops in a row. And, after all, if he had made a choice, would he have not made great visual usage of the black and white? And would he have really chosen to use sets that are so phony they seem almost Expressionistic- I wrote almost, now.
The film opens with the arrival of a U.S. Senator, Ransom ‘Rans’ Stoddard (James Stewart). And his wife Hally (Vera Miles), in an old Western town, Shinbone, to attend the funeral of an old friend. The state is never mentioned, nor is a specific date, although one might guess it’s about 1900. The local newspaper editor, and his reporter, get the reluctant Senator to tell the tale of why he has come to the town, and who the dead friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), was. The rest of the movie, save the last few minutes, is an extended flashback. Stoddard tells of his arrival in town to help with the then territory’s aspirations for statehood, over the will of the ranchers. On the way to town, the ranchers’ main thug, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and his men, rob the stagecoach Stoddard is on, and beat him for trying to help a lady. Doniphon and Pompey (Woody Strode), his black ranch hand, find him and take him to the town’s restaurant, owned by an old Swedish couple, where the waitress, Hally, attends to him. Later, the town marshal- a fat, cowardly, worthless clown, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), who is fearful of Valance, shows up to chow down and convince Stoddard that the robbery was out of his jurisdiction. All in the town fear Valance except Doniphon, who aims to marry Hally, but has reservations, even though he is adding a section on to his home.
As the weeks wear on, and Stoddard works at the restaurant, sets up his attorney shingle at the Shinbone Star, the local newspaper of publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), and teaches the locals how to read, including the illiterate Hally, who starts falling in love with him, and Valance stalks and harasses him, with Doniphon providing protection. He even helps to humiliate Stoddard while teaching him to shoot a gun. The two men seem friendly, even as both seem oblivious to Hally’s feelings for Stoddard, as she has never really loved Doniphon. The town then holds a convention to send delegates to the territorial convention on statehood. Valance has his thugs nominate him and Stoddard nominates Doniphon. Valance loses and Doniphon refuses, and the two delegates end up being Stoddard and Peabody. Losing to Stoddard pushes Valance over the edge. He challenges Stoddard to a gunfight that night. Stoddard plans to flee, but after Valance and his thugs (including one played by Lee Van Cleef) beat Peabody nearly to death, Stoddard changes his plans and confronts valance, who twice shoots and humiliates Stoddard- the second time shooting him in the arm. With a third shot looming, Stoddard shoots and seems to kill Valance cold.
The town is stunned, and Stoddard soon becomes a folk hero, known as the title of the film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Stoddard is wounded and depressed over having sunk to Valance’s level, in killing him. Hally nurses him and confesses her feelings, which Doniphon overhears. He then gets drunk, and burns down his home, assuming he has lost Hally, although the truth is she never reciprocated his feelings. At the territorial convention for statehood, Major Cassius Starbuckle (John Carradine) supports a local hired political hack of the ranchers as the delegate to Washington, D.C., to lobby for statehood. Starbuckle condemns Stoddard as a thug who is riding to fame on the corpse of Valance. Stoddard leaves the room, depressed and wanting to return to Shinbone. Doniphon then corners him, still angry over Hally’s feelings for Stoddard, and tells him the truth: Doniphon, tipped off by Pompey and Hally, was the one who shot Valance dead, with a rifle, from the shadows of an alley. He says he did it for Hally, but regrets it since he lost her to Stoddard. He then orders Stoddard back to the convention, claiming that, ‘You taught her to read and write, now give her something to read and write about.’
Stoddard returns to the convention and is chosen as the representative. He marries Hallie and later becomes the state’s governor, Ambassador to Great Britain, and now a U.S. Senator. In his years as a politician, Stoddard has helped improve the lot of the lives of many Shinbone residents. Hearing the real story of the Senator’s return trip, the newspaper editor says it is of no value to him. Stoddard asks why, and the editor replies with the film’s signature line: ‘This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ Stoddard and Hally return to Washington by train, where Stoddard confesses he wants to soon retire and return to Shinbone and become a lawyer again. Hally is joyed at this. The film then ends with the Senator asking the train conductor information on the train’s schedule, and complimenting the company that owns the railroad. The conductor replies, ‘Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,’ and the film ends.
The DVD, by Paramount, is the bare bones edition. While other versions have more features, this one has only the original theatrical trailer. The 123 minute long film is presented in a 16:9 aspect ratio, and the print used is actually quite good. The technical aspects of the film are also solid. The acting is uniformly good, but not great (much as it is in Stagecoach, where Wayne, Devine, and Carradine also starred), while stars, Stewart and Wayne, fall a little bit too easily into their typical stereotyped characters. Stewart gets indignant over the way he is treated by everybody, while Wayne is little better than the thuggish Valance, and, had the film been made by a truly great director, these script flaws in character would have been amended to have more depth, subtlety, and nuance, for, as they are, they are key elements in making the film’s plot and end, however well acted, easily discernible, as the film descends into a dark comedy of predictable manners, that looks like something that should have followed The Twilight Zone on a television schedule. This film also provided the fodder for countless Wayne impersonations using the term ‘Pilgrim,’ which is uttered a few dozen times. Although there are a few flaws, the film’s deliberate and realistic pacing puts it more in league with a Western like High Noon, which Ford and Wayne reviled, rather than other Ford Westerns. The screenplay, by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck was adapted from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, and one knows, almost from the moment that Doniphon sends Pompey to get Stoddard out of town that Doniphon will end up shooting Valance. Given the film’s title and the presentation of the characters, there simply is no way to realistically resolve the tale otherwise. The scoring, by Cyril J. Mockridge and Alfred Newman, is as solid as the rest of the film, for the music never leads to much nor leaves too deep an impression. The same might be said for William H. Clothier’s cinematography- as this is not one of Ford’s more visual films.
Of course, many critics have mangled their exegeses of the film, often claiming that the admonition of the editor at film’s end- ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,’ is the film’s moral, as well. Yet, clearly the film undermines this very claim and premise. That any critic of substance could claim that this is what the film stands on, when the visuals of the film so clearly show the claim is a lie, and even shows the effects of such a lie on its tellers, is amazing. Yet, even critics as usually well informed as James Berardinelli seem to buy into it: ‘‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’
That single quote, uttered by newspaperman Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), encapsulates the primary theme of John Ford’s last great Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Truth is only meaningful as long as it agrees with what the public wants to hear. When heroes don’t exist, it is necessary to invent them. And, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.’ Yet, Ford is not deconstructing history’s lies, but the will of those who want to tell such lies.
And then something interesting occurs, when one recollects the film, and that is that the death of Valance, even from Doniphon’s viewpoint, does not make it clear that it was NOT Stoddard who killed Valance; a Western twist on the Rashomon Effect. Yes, Doniphon’s gun goes off a fraction of a second sooner than Stoddard’s, but both bullets seem to arrive simultaneously, before Valance, who was drunk, gets off his shot at Stoddard. And, even though he had poor aim, it’s clear that Stoddard had a better line of sight, and a simple coroner’s inquest could have determined if it was Stoddard’s bullet that killed Valance. This all makes even the fact that there was a man who shot Liberty Valance unimportant. The more important lesson is that Stoddard and Doniphon both stood up for what they believed was right, and, no, since Doniphon was clearly trying to save Stoddard’s life, the idea that Valance was murdered is preposterous. Hell, Valance was still breathing when the town’s doctor attended to him, and let him expire, so even he would have been on the legal hook, had anyone cared to try anyone for Valance’s death. Yet, despite these facts and the aforementioned flaws, the film is still well worth seeing. While he was never the master of cinema many critics and film buffs claimed he was, Ford’s films are always well made, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is no exception. Just don’t buy to strongly into its legend and this fact will remain clear.