1001 Classic Movies: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), starring John Wayne and James Stewart, is one of the 1001 classic movies you should see.

Each Monday, I'm going to recommend a classic movie you should see (for the reasons behind the 1001 series and reviews of earlier films covered go here). This year's best picture Academy Award winner Spotlight has brought a renewed interest in the good, old-fashioned newspaper movie. Throughout September, I'll feature three great movies about the printed page. This week's selection is director John Ford's elegiac Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). FYI: Citizen Kane is a famous newspaper movie I've already written about during the May series on 1941 best picture nominees.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance begins when U.S. Senator Ransom "Ranse" Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles) return to the Western town of Shinbone for the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Stoddard, who has served as a governor and senator and is expected to become Vice President, is revered in Shinbone as the man who shot the dangerous outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), although when pressed for the real story by a local newspaper editor (Carleton Young), Stoddard reveals that the truth behind that legend is much more complicated than anyone realized.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is based on a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson that captured the attention of Ford, who had already directed a string of great Westerns like Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), and The Searchers (1956). However, the great director was entering the twilight of his career, and he couldn't obtain financing for the project until he brought the movie to Paramount Pictures, which had an exclusive contract with Wayne (even then, budget conscious Paramount executives insisted the movie be shot in black and white and on studio sets to save money). The movie received a tepid reaction from critics, but it was a big hit at the box office in 1962 and even spawned a hit song by Gene Pitney.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance both celebrates and denigrates the press. Unflappable newspaper editor Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) is portrayed as a civilizing force in Shinbone: He is one of the few people who will stand up to Valance and he is an advocate for statehood, which will bring at least some law and order to Shinbone. However, Peabody's successor is more interested in promoting the heroic myths of the West, and when he hears the real story about the death of Liberty Valance, he is completely uninterested in printing it. Instead he tells Stoddard that "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Viewer's Guide: This movie is the last complete masterpiece of Ford's legendary career. Here's what to look for when you watch:
1. Ford. Ford, who helped create the myth of the lone hero who saves the day in movies like Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine, subtly subverts that trope by exposing the less glamorous truth behind the legend.
2. Marvin. The actor gives a sensational performance as the vicious Valance, who rules Shinbone with a bullwhip and a sardonic sneer. He would later win an Oscar for playing a comic version of that character in Cat Ballou (1965).
3. Pilgrim. Wayne sarcastically refers to Stewart as "pilgrim" throughout The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which was immediately latched onto by celebrity impersonators.
4 Supporting players. The John Ford Stock Company was in fine form in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Andy Devine trots out his hick routine, John Qualen deploys his Swedish accent, but it is John Carradine, as a pompous windbag of a politician, who steals the show.

James Stewart, John Ford, and John Wayne on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Other critics: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has a 93 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and Leonard Maltin calls the movie "one of the great Westerns" in a four star review for his Classic Movie Guide. The film was not well-received by mainstream critics in 1962. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called the movie "creaky" writing that a "basically honest, rugged and mature saga has been sapped of a great deal of effect by an obvious, overlong, and garrulous anticlimax." More avant-garde critics, like DuPre Jones in Sight and Sound, latched onto the film writing that "Wayne--taciturn, good-natured, tough, and supremely confident--is the John Wayne."

The bottom line: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the last masterpiece from one of the great directors of American cinema. Watch it for the great performances from the entire cast with the standouts being Wayne, Marvin, and Carradine.

Availability: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is available on video on demand and DVD.

Next week, I'll begin the October theme of film felines with the screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938).


  1. The theme song from Gene Pitney is great. The lyrics tell the entire story from the movie. As far as I now, is a unique case.


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