Few directors are as instantly associated with a genre. Arguably, none is more beloved for his iconoclastic portraits of the American west than John Ford. A curmudgeon who at once begrudgingly allied his talents with that other ‘John’ of legendary status – ‘Duke’ Wayne – and profited handsomely by the alliance (and vice versa), Ford’s filmic repertoire could almost stand alone as the purest evocation of the American west…or, at least, the west as seen through a poet’s eyes. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to conjure to mind any image of the west without immediately referencing an image burned into our collective memory from a John Ford movie. The pivotal line from Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is “When the legend becomes fact – print the legend.” Yet, one might just as easily substitute ‘Hollywood’ for ‘the west’ and attach John Ford’s name for good measure.
Ford breathed the western. It was in his blood. He reintroduced audiences to both its legacy and mythology at a time when Hollywood regarded the western genre as little more or better than a cheaply made diversion for the Saturday matinee. But Ford’s westerns are almost always epitaphs to its rugged grandeur and naturalist beauty, invariably tinged with a touch of sadness for that way of life now lost to us for all time. Ford might have aspired to become a cowboy himself; if only he had he been born fifty years earlier and miraculously reincarnated as a proud and vigorous figure to be carved in granite astride his noble steed.
The image we readily have of John Ford today, is that of the patch-eyed and jowl, cigar-chomping and paunchy overseer of an inimitable and truly remarkable body of work. Yet, even in his youth, the six foot Ford – with smoother skin and two eyes, hiding behind a pair of perfectly round spectacles; his quaff of thick curly hair tussled atop his head – looked more like a bookkeeper than a roughhewn and starry-eyed romantic figure from the old west. Ford found his alter ego in the six foot four Wayne, a formidable tower of rugged masculinity; flawlessly handsome then, and ready to make good on the prospect of becoming the face of the American west, no less magisterial or ensconced in its annals than Wyatt Earp.
It wasn’t easy. Ford at once detested and adored Wayne; a sort of professional jealousy, manifesting itself in a terrible contempt, frequently exposing Wayne to abject humiliation in front of his costars. Wayne took it, perhaps because he realized Ford truly loved him besides, could appreciate his talents (talents, Ford diligently worked to foster, hone and mold along the way into an iconography we instantly recognize as ‘John Wayne’) and knew, that when it came to making yet another film in the venerable western genre, Ford could think of no one finer to walk in those dusty, spur-strapped boots than the man who owed him everything. It was, of course, a two-way street.
Ford could not have made the westerns he did, so readily and with such masterful precision, without John Wayne as his star. There were, to be sure, other Hollywood he-men who invariably found their reputations attached to this genre: Gary Cooper for one; Errol Flynn another, and of course, Clint Eastwood – though arguably, only after Wayne and Ford had retired their ten gallons and ridden off together into that proverbial sunset. Yet, as magnificent as Coop’, Flynn and Eastwood undeniably are; they fail to match our fondness for Wayne. While the others came, partook and arguably, stood in for the American west on occasion, Wayne and Ford were the epitome of it…or at least, the west as we prefer to remember it.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford is perhaps testing these maxims and precepts against his own turbulent culture and changing audience tastes: a very smart move. For in questioning the western mythology he almost single-handedly helped to solidify as ‘the truth’, Ford makes us aware of the differences between fact and fiction – essentially maturing the western beyond the legend, while illustrating the machinations by which lies come to mimic truth; eclipsing reality with their reasonable facsimiles. It’s a delicate balancing act, one that could so easily have failed – either as a John Ford western, or simply, as a movie too much ahead of its time. Perhaps this is the way Hollywood viewed the project too. For in preparing the film, Ford could find no studio willing to fund it, despite his assurances Wayne’s name, as well as James Stewart’s were already attached to the project. Bargaining with Paramount to get a workable budget, Ford was forced to shoot the entire movie on back lots at Paramount and MGM and, in B&W. The latter was hardly considered a hardship, as Ford’s best westerns are, arguably, all shot monochromatic. But the lack of locations – at least in retrospect – proved a minor hindrance.
Indeed, when comparing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to the rest of Ford’s canon, one is immediately struck by its restrained visuals; the obviousness of indoor sets shot under optimal lighting conditions, only meant to mimic the great outdoors. No sprawling vistas or stark resplendencies showcasing Death and Monument Valley herein. Yet, it is to Ford and cinematographer, William H. Clothier’s credit The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance visually belies these cost-cutting measures - mostly; Clothier’s sumptuously lit sets and exteriors playing to the moody magnificence of what is essentially an intimate melodrama with only one big reveal.
James Stewart’s somewhat self-appointed Ransom ‘Ranse’ Stoddard didn’t gun down desperado, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) did. Ranse’s reputation: his entire political career and marriage to Hallie (Vera Miles) have been built upon this lie – one not even he is aware of at first – playing to a courageous showdown that never happened…or rather, did – just not in the way Ranse thought. And Ranse not only owes Tom these many years of prosperity. He literally owes him his life. For Liberty was a far better shot and infinitely more ruthless than Ranse ever could be.
In Ranse Stoddard we have a fascinating figure; the diminutive gentleman of some brains, who nevertheless is the proverbial fish out of water when exposed to this harsh frontier – home to both Tom and Liberty. And James Stewart is the quintessential actor to play such a troubled ‘hero’; Stewart’s genial nature allied with his alter ego, forced into bouts of sad-eyed doubt, and even more crippling vignettes of fuming rage that frequently muddle his thinking. On the flipside is Wayne; the robust man of action whose fists and rifle do most of his talking. Screenwriters, James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck play to the fact each is rather envious of the other. Ranse would trade half his intellect for some of Tom’s brawn and vice versa. In the end, neither is satisfied with his lot in life; and curiously, we get the distinct sense neither is Hallie; having chosen Ranse as her husband, yet somehow wishing she had remained at Tom’s side.
Based on a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is not about the man who thinks he shot Liberty Valance; rather, the vanquished breed of nobility turned to dust with the passing of Tom Doniphon. John Ford has already written the epitaph for Hollywood’s version of the American west by setting his prologue in a present, nearer to our own time and social morays. Gone is that era of inspired daydreaming for uncharted horizons as the aged Senator Ranse Stoddard and his wife, Hallie depart the train at Shinbone station to pay their respects on the day of Tom Doniphon’s funeral. Here is a town barely recognizable to this aged couple who left it so many years before, never looking back while Ranse pursued his successful political career. Ford is a master at setting up the complex parallel between Shinbone’s thriving sophistication and the Stoddard’s physical decline. Indeed, while Ranse and Stoddard have entered the winter of their lives, the town has only begun to enjoy its’ Spring; begun after someone put a period to the notorious outlaw, Liberty Valance.
Ranse takes great pride in Shinbone’s progress, allowing the town to believe his actions were the impetus for it. The truth, regrettably, is never what it seems. Met at the station by an exuberant reporter, Charlie Hasbrouck (Joseph Hoover) and his even more demonstratively probing editor-in-chief, Maxwell Scott (Carlton Young), Ranse cannot resist the opportunity to give ‘an exclusive’ interview to ‘The Star’ newspaper, while Hallie is escorted out of town by the former Marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), who drives her to the ruins of the old stone house where Tom Doniphon once lived. Learning of Ranse’s purpose in town – to attend Tom’s funeral – Scott presses the matter further, following Ranse, Hallie and Link to the undertaker, where Tom’s loyal man, Pompey (Woody Strode) is already in mourning. Once again, it is Ranse who leaves the forlorn friends to enlighten the press about their friendship; stepping into an adjacent garage where he immediately discovers the remnants of an old stagecoach raised on blocks.
This discovery jogs Ranse’s memory. We regress nearly forty years back in time; Ranse, now an optimistic young lawyer, newly appointed to the bar and on his way by stagecoach to practice in Shinbone. Regrettably, the coach is high-jacked by Liberty Valance and his band of ruthless cutthroats. Defending the honor of the widow Prescott (Anna Lee) gets Ranse badly beaten and horse-whipped by Liberty, who also destroys Ranse’s law books with relish before leaving him for dead in the desert. Thankfully, all is not lost. For Tom and his hired man, Pompey come across Ranse and hurry him into town in the dead of night, to be nursed by restaurant owner, Peter Ericson (John Qualen) and his wife ,Nora (Jeanette Nolan). Tom is sweet on their daughter, Hallie. She, however, is quick to dismiss Tom’s affections; also outspoken in her disdain for the town’s marshal, Link Appleyard who is quite unwilling to enforce the law.
Left penniless by the stagecoach robbery, Ranse rooms upstairs with the Ericson’s and works in their restaurant, washing dishes. For the forthright Ranse, general help is decidedly a step down in his career aspirations, further aggravated when Liberty arrives for a meal, using the opportunity to humiliate Ranse once again; this time, by tripping him with a tray full of dishes. What Ranse perhaps fails to grasp is that Liberty intends to finish the job he started in the desert. Intent on preserving the order, if not Ranse’s dignity, Tom intervenes in their confrontation; later, informing the naïve Easterner that if he intends to remain in the territory he will have to learn how to use a gun. Ranse refuses. In fact, Ranse is rather pompous; citing himself as a man of peace, still believing he can bring about an end to Liberty’s reign simply by enforcing the law.
Furthermore, Ranse aims to elevate the general tenor of the town by introducing formal education to its children; a practice embraced by Hallie who, admittedly cannot read or right. Ranse not only teaches Hallie the fundamentals, he also appoints her to help educate the others. A quiet respect blossoms between these two, eventually leading to love, though arguably, not passion. More impressive is the amount of respect Ranse garners from the town for his efforts. As his stature grows, Ranse once again realizes he is placing himself in harm’s way; for Liberty is not about to let Shinbone ‘go soft’. Secretly, Ranse purchases a gun, planning to teach himself the art of self-defense. It won’t work. Ranse is not accustomed to living by the gun. Knowing it is only a matter of time before Ranse and Liberty clash again, Tom decides to take Ranse to his farm and give him a crash course in how to use his firearm.
Hallie’s growing affections for the competition are not lost on Tom, who uses the object lesson of gun training to humiliate Ranse by firing his pistol into a nearby can of paint. It splatters all over Ranse’s new suit. Tom forewarns Ranse that Liberty will be just as devious in their confrontation. Furious, Ranse knocks Tom to the ground with his fists before storming off. In the meantime, Shinbone has decided to elect a pair of delegates for the statehood convention. This, of course, is very much to Ranse’s purpose, as it will hasten the end of Liberty by bringing a solid infrastructure, safety, and education to their tiny hamlet; elements of societal order Liberty cannot abide. Liberty attempts to intimidate the town into electing him as their delegate. Instead, the town sides with Ranse and local newspaper editor, Dutton Peabody (Edmund O’Brien), the latter a proponent of ridding Shinbone of its lawlessness once and for all. Both men are put forth as candidates for the legislature. As rebuttal, Liberty challenges Ranse to a duel. But Tom stands his ground, informing Liberty that the people have spoken. Ranse stays. Liberty should get out while the getting is good.
That evening, Liberty and his men brutally assault Peabody for publicizing his defeat in the paper. The desperadoes trashes The Star’s offices. Discovering Peabody too late, Ranse flies into a rage and stalks off in the night for a showdown; drawing Liberty from the cantina where he has gone to celebrate. Liberty is mildly amused by Ranse’s anger, casually firing his pistol into a nearby bucket of water and drenching Ranse. He then shoots Ranse in the arm, relishing what he perceives will be a slow kill. Liberty allows Ranse to retrieve his gun. His murder will be the sweetest revenge. But as Liberty goads Ranse into taking his final shot, he never imagines it will be his own last demand. For Tom is hiding off to the side, and as Ranse shakily prepares to take aim, Tom simultaneously fires a single bullet into Liberty, instantly killing him.
The town is elated by Ranse’s victory. Hallie affectionately tends to his wounds and Tom, begrudgingly, offers his congratulations. A short while later, Liberty’s henchmen, Reese (Lee Van Cleef) and Floyd (Strother Martin) plot Ranse’s lynching for Liberty’s ‘murder’. Tom, who bitterly realizes that in ridding the town of Liberty he has lost Hallie to Ranse, decides to get drunk and confront the pair. Pompey arrives, dragging Tom back to his ranch. Disgusted by his own sabotage of his future dreams to marry Hallie, Tom sets fire to the addition to his home he had begun as their bridal suite. The fire quickly engulfs the homestead. But Pompey manages to save Tom from the blaze. At the convention, Ranse is hailed as ‘the man who shot Liberty Valance’. But his guilt over committing murder prevents Ranse from accepting this appointment to the legislature. To spare Ranse from his self-pity, Tom privately reveals he shot and killed Liberty Valance. His conscience cleared, Ranse returns to the delegation and is exuberantly appointed.
We return to the present, Ranse deflated by his confession to Mr. Scott; realizing his preeminence in American politics, first as a Governor, then Senator, and finally, as an Ambassador to Great Britain, would never have come about without Tom Doniphon’s intervention and his enduring silence on the matter. Ranse gives Scott permission to do with the story what he will. But Scott informs Ranse he has no intention of publishing the piece, explaining “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Momentarily relieved of the responsibility - having to pretend at being a ‘great man’ - Ranse informs Hallie that he intends to retire from political life immediately and establish his own small law practice in the territory. However, as Ranse thanks the conductor for the many courtesies extended to him by the railroad, the conductor exuberantly reminds him, “Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!” It’s no use. No matter how long Ranse Stoppard lives, he must carry the burden of knowing his entire life’s work has been built upon a terrible lie.
In this ultimate moment of realization, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance achieves a sort of sobering confessional quality few American westerns before or since its time have managed to convey without becoming maudlin or overtly sentimental. The strength of the picture remains James Stewart’s superb performance as this basically honest man who willingly allows himself to be swayed, then corrupted by a lie he is all too eager to embrace, simply to advance his own career objectives and life’s aspirations. In the end, Tom Doniphon is the more forthright man of action; his reputation and stature – even within Shinbone – reduced to rubble and a forgotten rosewood casket precisely because he did the honorable thing. But Ranse has hardly escaped the deception unscathed. Without any needless exposition, John Ford manages to convey a sense Ranse’s marriage to Hallie is not a success. Tom has been between them these many years – or rather, his memory, now likely to linger in perpetuity after his death. And knowing what a fraud he is has understandably eaten away at Ranse’s self-respect. If only he could admit the truth, he might be rid of this specter; success - the double-edged sword, having simultaneously built up and destroyed his credibility with the passage of time. Alas, any confession now would ruin two lives – his and Hallie’s; an impossible situation. The secret must be carried to his grave.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance stands in stark contrast to John Ford’s superb Technicolor visual tomes from the mid to late 1950’s. In forgoing stately grandeur to tell this more intimate and devastating tale, Ford almost single-handedly matures the Hollywood western into the advancing, deglamorized, and decidedly less romantic age. Arguably, the doing was only partly his. For two decades John Ford had been a highly respected and recognized name. However, by 1960, he was fighting a losing battle on several fronts. First, Ford’s ill health had begun to take its toll on his vitality for the craft. Second, the demise of the studio system meant Ford’s reputation could no longer rely on the crutch of a full company awaiting his beckoned call. Third, Ford’s last few movies had not been hits at the box office, and the new breed of executives now in charge of the studios were, perhaps, unwilling to gamble on Ford’s reputation alone to bankroll this project.
As a result, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was made mostly under duress, Ford understanding that its failure could end his career. Ford’s crusty nature aside, it must have been galling to realize the only way this film could be green lit was if John Wayne’s name was attached to the project. In early years, Ford had been the master craftsman and saleable commodity studios turned to for inspiration. Now, it was Wayne – the man who owed Ford everything – whose name alone could light up the marquee. Shot mostly on sets at Paramount, with a few exteriors on the old MGM western set, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance lacks the emblematic breadth of a traditional John Ford western. The absence, however, is all to the good, since the film is an intimate character study, focused on the clash between the old and new western ideologies, and, the paradox making the two irreconcilable.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is very dark film. It seeks to examine the integrity of a man by the measure of his actions, rather than through the contemplations behind those actions. Both James Stewart and John Wayne deliver multi-layered, subtly nuanced performances as their love/hate friendship progresses. Tom loves Hallie, but loses her to Ranse because he allows his competition to take credit for his heroic deed. And even Ranse seems to realize – perhaps much too late to make any difference at all – Hallie has married him partly to satisfy her romanticized view of the night Liberty Valance was gunned down. As such, Hallie’s opinion of Ranse as her knight has only managed to tarnish his armor.
James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck’s screenplay irons out much of the serialized confusion in the original Dorothy Johnson short story, fleshing out the character of Tom and affording him more internal conflict. In the short story, Tom is a stock and benevolent figure. In the film he is the frustrated instigator and sublime antagonist – constantly reminding Ranse of the fact that personal integrity alone is a poor substitute, especially when pitted against men who only respect the point of a pistol.
In their infinite wisdom, Paramount Home Video have chosen to release The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance only in the U.K. on Blu-ray and minus virtually all the extra features included on their rather lavishly appointed 2-disc Centennial Collection DVD. Thankfully, this disc is ‘region free’. You can play it anywhere! In hi-def, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sports an impressive transfer; exceptionally solid with superior clarity and a gorgeous gray scale. This is a near flawless presentation, infrequently interrupted by the minutest age-related artifact. Great stuff from Paramount – as always. Like Sony, Paramount remains consistently committed to releasing impeccable HD quality transfers on home video. The DTS 5.1 audio is very impressive, though undeniably dated in its overall fidelity. Dialogue is very natural sounding and SFX and music are nicely integrated.
Less impressive is the loss of the comprehensive commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, the scene specific commentary from Dan Ford with archival recordings of Stewart and Lee Marvin, and the absence of that second disc of extras, including the magnificent 7-part documentary on John Ford and the making of this film; plus, the extensive gallery of lobby cards, production stills and publicity photos and original theatrical trailer. No two ways around it. Losing all of this is a grand disappointment. The hi-def transfer alone is worth the price of admission herein, and perhaps Warner Home Video will get around to reissuing this one in North America with all the bells and whistles. Until then, keep your old Centennial DVD, but dip into the register for this repurchase – clearly, the way The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was meant to be seen. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)