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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a classic Western movie made in 1962, directed by John Ford and starring James Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin. The screenplay is adapted from a short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson.

In 2007, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Plot

The film opens on preparations for a funeral. A U.S. Senator and his wife have come back to the small town of Shinbone, in an unnamed Western state. The senator is prevailed upon by a newspaper editor to explain why he has come to bury an apparent nobody. The senator explains and the film unfolds in flashback, to a time before the railroad came to Shinbone, to when the region was a western territory and statehood was the pressing issue.

Ransom "Rance" Stoddard (James Stewart) is an attorney who believes in law and order, but refuses to carry a gun. Robbed and violently attacked on his way to town by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), an outlaw with a silver-handled whip, Stoddard is brought to town by a man named Tom Doniphon, who brings the injured stranger to the care of friends in town.

Doniphon (John Wayne) is a rancher, who believes there is no law and one "needs a gun in these parts." Doniphon feels that Stoddard is a hopeless tenderfoot who is unable to handle himself in the kind of fights that are common in the West. Stoddard in return cannot understand Doniphon's thinking, which is exactly like Liberty Valance's -- might makes right. Caught in between is Hallie (Vera Miles), a woman widely regarded to be the love of Doniphon's life.

Valance comes to town and causes disturbances in saloons and restaurants. Local law enforcement in the person of the slovenly and spineless Town Marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is helpless to stop him; he excuses his inaction since Valance's crimes were committed outside the city limits. Valance takes particular delight in humiliating Stoddard upon seeing him a second time. Doniphon intervenes, over the objections of Stoddard: "Nobody fights my battles." Doniphon: "Well, that was my steak that he ruined."

When Hallie tells Stoddard she can't read or write, he decides to set up a makeshift school. Local children and a number of adults, including Doniphon's hired hand Pompey (Woody Strode), attend. Doniphon is disdainful of the school and interrupts a class to tell Stoddard how Valance and his men have killed two homesteaders.

Valance works for cattle land barons who wish to keep the territory as is and prevent it from becoming a state. When a convention is held to select two delegates to the territorial capital city, Valance wishes to be voted one himself and attempts to bully the townspeople. Stoddard himself, along with the publisher of the Shinbone Star, Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien), is selected. After being thwarted in the meeting, Valance challenges Stoddard to a gunfight.

Valance continues to terrorize the town. He nearly beats Peabody to death (after an unflattering article in the newspaper). In response, Stoddard decides that he must go through with the Valance gunfight. Unfortunately, Stoddard is completely unskilled with a gun and no match for the infamous gunfighter. But when the shootout occurs, Stoddard miraculously kills Valance, a shock to everyone.

Stunned and wounded, Stoddard goes to Hallie, who responds with tearful adoration. Doniphon sees this, assumes that he has lost Hallie's affection and goes on a drunken rampage, burning down the house he was building in anticipation of marrying her.

Stoddard becomes legendary as "the man who shot Liberty Valance," a hero. At a convention to pick the delegate to Washington to lobby for statehood, Stoddard is nominated. But he has guilt pangs about being a killer and capitalizing on an act of violence. It is only then that Doniphon tells him the "true" story, illustrated in a flashback sequence: Doniphon, fetched by Pompey on the pleadings of Hallie, sure that Valance would kill Stoddard, had stood where a side-street opened on to the scene of the shooting and shot Valance with a rifle. It happened that his shot coincided with Stoddard's and Valance's. When Stoddard asks why, Doniphon bitterly replies he'd done it to please Hallie, which he now regrets because "she's your girl now."

Stoddard returns to the convention and is chosen as representative. He eventually becomes a congressman, then governor and senator, with wife Hallie by his side.

Years later, Tom Doniphon has died, having led a lonely, secluded life. Ransom and Hallie return for the funeral. Stoddard confesses the whole story for the first time, but the newspaper editor refuses to publish it and burns the notes his reporter took. "When the legend becomes fact," the editor says, "print the legend."

The movie ends with Senator Stoddard and Hallie returning to Washington by train, melancholy about the lie that led to their prosperous life. Stoddard asks a conductor how long it will take to get to Washington. The conductor tells them that the train is traveling at high speed and that at an upcoming junction they are holding the express train for him. "Nothing's too good," he says, "for the man who shot Liberty Valance."

Production

  • The frequent references to the "Picket Wire" in the movie are not about a prairie fence. Rather, "Picket Wire" was the slang name for the Purgatoire River in southeastern Colorado. Even though a date was never stated, the U.S. flag in the schoolroom scene has 38 stars, placing the movie after Colorado became the 38th state on August 1, 1876. Saguaro cactus are visible in parts of the film, suggesting the contradictory possibility of Arizona as the location of Shinbone, as Saguaro are native to Arizona. Arizona became the 48th state on February 14, 1912. There is, however, no overt mention in the film of a particular territory.
  • Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote a song called "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", which became a Top 10 Hit for Gene Pitney but was not used in the movie. Instead, the main titles contain a hard-driving theme used in an earlier John Ford production. James Taylor covered the Bacharach–David song on his 1985 album That's Why I'm Here. The Royal Guardsmen also covered the song in their 1967 album Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.
  • In certain scenes involving the character of Hallie, Ford used part of Alfred Newman's score from John Ford's earlier movie Young Mr. Lincoln, "The Ann Rutledge Theme". Ford told Peter Bogdanovich in the latter's book John Ford that the theme evoked the same meaning, lost love, in both movies.
  • Before leaving the bar to meet Ransom Stoddard, Liberty Valance wins a hand of poker with a pair of aces and a pair of eights. This is the famous "Dead man's hand," so called because it was the hand allegedly held by Wild Bill Hickok when he was murdered by Jack McCall in Deadwood, South Dakota, on August 2, 1876.
  • Although greatly admired as a film-maker, director John Ford was well-known for making life difficult for his long-suffering casts. When asked by Ford what he thought of the appearance of Woody Strode, an African-American, in greyed up hair, overalls and hat, Stewart remarked that "it looks a bit Uncle Remus-like". Ford then implied that Stewart was racist. On the other hand, Strode himself claimed that Stewart was "one of the nicest men you'll ever meet anywhere in the world".
  • Wayne made many films with Ford with whom he was close, but was always targeted by the director and his venomous remarks. During filming, Strode claims that Ford "kept needling Duke [Wayne] about his failure to make it as a football player" while Strode was "a real football player" (Wayne's potential career in football had been put off by an injury).
  • Ford also admonished Wayne for failing to serve in World War Two while Stewart was regarded as a war hero: "How rich did you get while Jimmy was risking his life?". Wayne's failure to serve in the conflict was a source of great guilt for him, though it is claimed that it was due to the influence of producers who did not want to lose their emerging star. Ford's behaviour caused Wayne to take his frustrations out on Strode, who believed that they could otherwise have been friends: "What a miserable film to make", Strode is quoted as saying.

Reception

The film was an instant hit when released in April 1962, thanks to its classic story and popular stars John Wayne and James Stewart. At the 1963 Academy Awards, the film was nominated for Best Costume Design for Edith Head, one of the few westerns to ever be nominated for the award. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has continued its popularity through repeated television broadcasts and the rental market. Along with The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, and Stagecoach, it is also widely considered to be one of director John Ford's best westerns.

Sergio Leone, the director of such classic Westerns as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and one of the directors Ford influenced the most, said it was his favorite John Ford film because ‘it was the only film where [Ford] learned about something called pessimism.’

Billing

James Stewart was given top billing over John Wayne in the movie's posters and the previews (trailers) shown in cinemas and on television prior to the film's release, but in the film itself, Wayne is given top billing. Their names are displayed on pictures of signposts, one after the other, with Wayne's name shown first with his sign mounted slightly higher on its post than Stewart's. John Ford remarked in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich that he made it apparent to the audience that Vera Miles' character had never gotten over Tom Doniphon because "I wanted Wayne to be the lead."

Cast

Quotes

  • Maxwell Scott: "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
  • Liberty Valance: "You lookin' for trouble, Doniphon?"

Tom Doniphon: "You aimin' to help me find some?"

  • Tom Doniphon: "It ain't mannerly out west to let a man drink alone."
  • Tom Doniphon: "It was cold blooded murder...but I can live with that."
  • Pompey: (Reciting from the Declaration of Independence) "We hold these truths to be self-evident that, uh, that..."

Ransom Stoddard: "That all men are created equal."
Pompey nods.
Ransom Stoddard: "That's fine, Pompey."
Pompey: "I knew that, Mr. Rans, but I just plumb forgot it."
Ransom Stoddard: "That's all right, Pompey. A lot of people forget that part of it."
(Pompey is a black man (slaves were emancipated in 1865), and is standing beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.)

  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the source of the "Pilgrim" phrase that is commonly used in John Wayne impersonations; Wayne's character addresses James Stewart's character as "Pilgrim" 23 times in the film. Though part of the John Wayne persona for many impressionists, Wayne used the term in only one other film, McLintock!, and then only once.

References

External links

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