Classic Movie Quotes: 'Print the Legend' from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Today, I'm writing about the story behind the "print the legend" quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

This article is part of The Second Annual Classic Quotes Blogathon hosted by The Flapper Dame.

The quote "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend" from director John Ford's Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is one of the most resonant lines in movie history. It has been used as everything from a metaphor for Ford's own legendary career to a commentary on our present political situation.

"Print the legend" is spoken by a newspaper editor (Carleton Young) near the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Revered U.S. Sen. Ransom "Ranse"  Stoddard (James Stewart) has returned to the Western town of Shinbone for the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), and the editor of the Shinbone Star is eager to get the scoop on why the senator made the costly trip from Washington D.C. for a fairly obscure member of the community. Ranse is revered in the community for killing the dangerous outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), but, when pressed by the editor, he reveals that the truth behind Doniphon's involvement in the incident (clip below).

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is based on a short story by Western writer Dorothy M. Johnson (her works, A Man Called Horse and The Hanging Tree, were also made into films). "Print the legend" does not appear in Johnson's story; in fact, Ranse, who is called Ransome Foster in the story, never reveals the truth to anyone other than his wife, Hallie (played by Vera Miles in the film). Screenwriters James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck added the scenes between Ranse and the newspaper editor both to provide a framing device for the plot -- the story is told in a long flashback -- and to make Ranse a more heroic figure than he was in the story.

According to the biography Searching for John Ford: A Life by Joseph McBride, Ford also somewhat altered the quote. In the original shooting script, the editor credits the "print the legend" quote to Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien), the founder and original editor of the Shinbone Star, but Ford deleted this reference either during shooting or in the editing room.

Although The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a big hit in 1962, virtually no one picked up on the resonance of "print the legend." It wasn't until the 1970s, when a younger generation of film critics hailed Ford as an auteur of the American West, that the quote was recognized as having a special significance in the great director's career. 

It's hard to say whether Ford, who was notoriously reluctant to discuss his own work, attached any significance to "print the legend." However,  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is quite clearly a statement by Ford about his own body of work, especially his creation of the Western myth in films like Stagecoach (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1945). In these films, a mythic hero (Wayne in the first film; Henry Fonda in the second) clears out a Western town with nothing more than a carbine rifle and his own righteous dignity. Ford draws back the curtain in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and reveals to his audience that the truth behind those legends was much more ambiguous than they had ever imagined (Wayne was reportedly furious when his assistant told him that his character was ambiguous, shouting "I don't like ambiguity. I don't trust ambiguity").

James Stewart, director John Ford, and John Wayne on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
"Print the legend" is now a part of pop culture. A Google search reveals that it is used in rap lyrics, Netflix documentaries about 3-D printing, and sports articles about golfer Arnold Palmer and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. However, the quote is most prevalent in political writing. A quick tour of the Internet finds websites of almost every political persuasion accusing their adversaries of "printing the legend" instead of giving the public the cold hard truth.

You can check out my entry in last year's blogathon here. It's about the "frankly, my dear" quote from Gone With the Wind (1939). 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance will air at 2 p.m. July 24 on TCM. It is also available on DVD, Blu-ray, and video on demand.


  1. Thanks for coming back for the second round of quotes- I like that you chose a quote that may have been slightly lesser known, but still very significant! Embarrassingly I have not yet seen The Man who shot Liberty Valance(despite the fact I do own it!) {sorry to my Grandfather- he loved John Wayne} but now I'm more interested in seeing it. I enjoyed reading about the background on Ford- as yes he is quite the legend himself!!!! Thanks again for writing! and see you around twitter!

  2. I was initially not a big Western fan when I started my classic film journey, but I have grown to enjoy them greatly. This film is among my favourites. As you said, that particular quote is very relevant to the film and to current situations in society today. Great post!

  3. I had forgotten that's where the line originated. I remember the film as haunting, a reminder of the cost paid by those perceived as better than they are. It makes me wonder about Ford's own attitude toward his work.

  4. I have always liked the fact that the actor who quoted that line overcame the ignominy of his role in "Reefer Madness" to have a career that made that role just a bump in the road. I love the line, and can't imagine any other way to end the movie.

  5. Hey, I just picked up a used copy of a John Ford biography called "Print the Legend".

    Great post! I didn't realize how pervasive this quote had become in our society.

  6. Its a year later and I have no idea why I waited this long to watch the movie! IT WAS FANTASTIC and had to come back to your post about it!

    I think this is an amazing movie and it makes me think not only of Ford and Wayne and Westerns in terms of careers- but every other famous "legend". Duke and JS are perfect in their roles- what would have happened had they played each others parts? That would have been interesting!

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