Print the Legend

No director from the Golden Age of Hollywood did more to create the mythology of the Western than John Ford. Beginning with Stagecoach in 1939, he made several iconic films in the genre: My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, and The Searchers. A final film that belongs on this list was one of the final films that Ford made, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In a sense it marked the end of the straightforward stories and set the scene for the Man-With-No-Name antihero stories like A Fistful of Dollars that came along two years later. In general, Valance marked the end of the hagiography nature of westerns an began the search for historical accuracy. It also has a renewed relevance in the US today.

Cast & Crew

As with all the above films except My Darling Clementine, Ford had John Wayne as his star, this time as the character Tom Doniphon. Ford had befriended the young Duke Wayne when he first started in the movies. Wayne’s career had sputtered along until Ford took a chance and cast him as Johnny Ringo in Stagecoach. From that moment on, Wayne was box office gold. There was a definite comfort level for both men when they worked together, even though their working relationship was rough and tumble. In all they worked together 10 times, incluing such non-Westerns as They Were Expendable, The Long Voyage Home, The Quiet Man, and The Wings of Eagles.

The rest of the cast was outstanding, starting with James Stewart as the protagonist Ransom Stoddard. Strangely enough, Stewart and Ford hadn’t worked together until Ford’s 1961 movie, Two Rode Together, even though Stewart was an established star in westerns through movies like Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur. As the antagonist Ford cast Lee Marvin as the titular Liberty Valance. While Marvin had small roles in movies in the 1950s, including Bad Day at Black Rock and The Caine Mutiny, he made his name in television, particularly as the hard-edged lieutenant in “M Squad.” Three years after Valance, he turned his tough-guy persona on its ear with the drunken gunfighter in Cat Ballou and won the Best Actor Oscar, then re-established his hard edge with The Professionals and Point Blank. Marvin worked with Ford and the Duke once more the next year in Donovan’s Reef.

The love interest, Hallie, was played by Vera Miles who had worked with Ford and Wayne on The Searchers and had also played Stewart’s wife in The FBI Story. Two years earlier she’d played Janet Leigh’s sister in Psycho. As newspaperman Dutton Peabody, Edmund O’Brien got to chew the scenery with a Shakespearean flare, going so far as to quote a portion of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Also in the cast were veteran character actors Andy Devine and John Carradine, who’d both appeared in Stagecoach. As Valance’s henchmen Ford cast two actors who would go on to major careers: Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef.

Most Westerns of this era had a decidedly WASPish view of the west. Ford began to change the impression with Sergeant Rutledge in 1960, which looked at a respected black Cavalry officer on trial for raping a white woman. Ford cast actor and former decathlete Woody Strode in the title role, and Strode starred in three more of Ford’s movies. (He also fought Kirk Douglas in Spartacus.) In Valance Strode played Pompey, John Wayne’s hired hand/friend. One scene late in the movie was topical since the movie came out at the height of the civil rights protests. Pompey comes into a bar to pull Doniphon out and take him home. The bartender starts to order Pompey out but Wayne stands up for Pompey, saying he had a right to be there. It’s a mild scene now, but when it was released white supremacists were likely shocked to think they’d “lost” John Wayne. If Wayne were alive today, he’d be very upset with the rhetoric about Hispanic immigrants, since he like to travel south of the border and that was where he found his three wives.

There was also Jeanette Nolan and John Qualen as the Scandinavian couple who run the town’s restaurant. When a vote is taken in town, Qualen proudly shows his citizenship papers to the clerk. In the background is a strong Mexican contingent in town that’s somewhat represented by Andy Devine’s Sherriff Link Appleyard, who’s wife is Mexican. Strangely enough, one contingent not represented were Native Americans. Two years later Ford made Cheyenne Autumn, one of the first movies to treat Native Americans with respect, though it would be another couple of years, with Little Big Man and The Outlaw Josie Wales, that the roles would begin to be portrayed by Native American actors. (There’s still a way to go in regard to this, as the recent dustup showed over the casting of 2016’s Gods of Egypt.)

The look of Valance is different as it was filmed on the studio backlot and at a ranch in Thousand Oaks, a few miles outside the San Fernando Valley. Ford had often filmed in Arizona, particularly in Monument Valley, but budget constraints kept them close to the studio. In one shot in particular it looks like the scenery people transplanted a couple tall cacti into a Southern California field to make it look somewhat like the Southwestern. Ford had been scrupulous with such details, even if he wasn’t filming on location. He had the Welsh mining village in How Green Was My Valley built in the Southern California hills when filming in Wales wasn’t possible. If you compare My Darling Clementine and Liberty Valance, you’ll see a huge difference between two movies set in similar locations.

Ford filmed Valance in glorious black and white like most of his classic westerns, though this would be the last non-color film Ford made. The director of photography was William H. Clothier, who had worked with Ford on Fort Apache and The Horse Soldiers. Clothier had started as a camera operator – his first credit was for aerial photography in Wings, and he also worked on the original King Kong and the classic WWII documentary, The Memphis Belle. He became John Wayne’s choice for cinematographer on most of his movies during the 1960s and early 1970s, having worked on The High and the Mighty as well as Wayne’s directorial debut, The Alamo.

The Story

The screenplay for Liberty Valance was done by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson. Johnson taught journalism at the University of Montana and published 17 novels and dozens of short stories, all set in the West. Her stories were also the basis for the Gary Cooper western The Hanging Tree and Richard Harris’ major hit, A Man Called Horse.

Bellah had a very colorful background, an American who enlisted in the Canadian Army to fight in World War I and ended up flying with the RAF. In World War II he rose to the rank of Colonel working in the Southeastern theater with Lord Mountbatten and Generals Wingate and Stillwell. In between he was a popular writer of Westerns, and some of his work was serialized by the Saturday Evening Post. His stories were the basis for Ford’s Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande. In 1960 he adapted his own novel Sergeant Rutledge for Ford with the help of Goldbeck, an then they worked together again on Liberty Valance. Goldbeck had been a screenwriter in Hollywood since the silent films, and was mostly known for adapting the Dr. Kildare stories in the 1930s and 40s. He also was an uncredited part of cinema history, having done the screenplay for Tod Browning’s classic Freaks.

(Note: Spoilers are following, so if you haven’t seen the movie you’ll want to skip to the last section – or watch the film on Netflix before continuing.)

Liberty Valance looks at the contrast between the mythical west and what it became after it was civilized. It begins in 1910 with Senator and former Governor Stoddard (Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Miles) arriving in Shinbone. The state they’re in is never specified, though in the script the characters talk about being south of the Picket Wire. That was the nickname of the Purgatorie River that’s located in southeastern Colorado. However, when a US flag is shown later in the movie, it has 38 stars – the 38th being Colorado after its admission in 1876. The train is met by Appleyard (Devine), the former sheriff of the town. Stoddard is the picture of an elder statesman who can’t refuse talking politics when approached by the current editor of the newspaper. It’s almost as if Stewart was playing the Claude Rains role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While he talks, Link drives Hallie out of town to a decrepit and partially burned house that’s surrounded by cactus roses in bloom. When they return to town, Stoddard makes his apologies and rejoins them as they head to the undertaker’s to pay their respects to Tom Doniphon. Waiting with the body is Pompey (Strode), Doniphon’s loyal friend and helping hand. The newspaper editor is surprised – he has no idea who Tom Doniphon was – so he follows Stoddard and insists that the Senator tell him the story. Seeing Doniphon in his casket shakes Stoddard. He proceeds to tell the story, though without the political polish he showed earlier.

Thirty-plus years earlier, Stoddard comes to the southwest as a newly-minted lawyer, only to have his stagecoach robbed by Valance (Marvin) and his men. When Valance tries to take a broach from an elderly woman, Stoddard intervenes and is beaten and whipped for his trouble. Doniphon (Wayne) and Pompey find him along the road and carry him into town where Doniphon calls upon his girl Hallie to help Stodard. Hallie works with Peter and Nora Ericson who run the restaurant in town. It’s always busy in spite of its limited menu: massive steaks, potatoes, beans, and deep-dish apple pie. When he wakes up, Stoddard wants Appleyard to arrest Valance, though Appleyard begs off since the assault was outside of his jurisdiction.

Valance works for the cattlemen in the territory who want to put off statehood and keep the range open for their cattle. Doniphon has a small ranch outside of town and aligns himself with the townspeople and settlers who want the order and prosperity promised by statehood. He’s the only man in town who will go toe to toe with Valance. The arrival of Stoddard, who’s the embodiment of what statehood would mean, increases tension. While he works in the restaurant to pay back the Ericson’s hospitality, Stoddard also hangs his shingle out in front of the newspaper office at the invitation of the editor and highly functioning town drunk, Dutton Peabody (O’Brien). He starts a school in the back room at the paper where he teaches civics along with the three R’s. (There is one major gaffe in a scene at the school, where the body of laws that established the country is misidentified as the Declaration of Independence instead of the Constitution.)

Doniphon returns from a trip with word that Valance has started a campaign of intimidation to prevent statehood. He’s not happy to find that Hallie is a student at the school where she’s learning to read, and he feels Stoddard is interfering with his relationship with Hallie. Doniphon had told Stoddard that if he intended to stay in town he’d better learn how to use a gun, or Valance would eventually finish what he’d started the night of the stage robbery. Hallie discovers that Stoddard has been practicing with a pistol, and implores Doniphon to help him. Instead Doniphon embarrasses Stoddard, leading to Stoddard laying out Doniphon with a hard punch.

On the day of voting for delegates to the territorial conference, Valance and his men try to hijack the proceedings, but Doniphon prevents it. Stoddard along with Peabody are elected as delegates. Valance tells Stoddard that if he’s in town that night, he’ll shoot him, so Doniphon has Pompey ready at the restaurant to drive Stoddard out of town. However, Peabody has written an article critical of Valance, and that evening the gunslinger brutally assaults the editor while vandalizing the office. In the face of the near-murder of Peabody, Stoddard sends a message to Valance that he’ll meet him in the street.

In the climatic showdown, Valance plays with Stoddard, shooting him in his right arm and firing again when Stoddard tries to retrieve his gun from the ground. Valance promises his third shot will be between Stoddard’s eyes. Stoddard grabs the gun and manages to fire at the same time as Valance. Valance’s shot misses and he staggers back, shot in the chest, then drops in the street and dies.

Hallie runs to Stoddard, and Doniphon realizes he’s lost her. He goes on a drunken tear where he roughs up Liberty’s men and then returns to his ranch where he torches a room he was building in preparation for marrying Hallie.

Peabody recovers from his wounds, and he and Stoddard go off to the territorial convention where Stoddard’s name is place in nomination to represent those wanting statehood. When a representative of the ranchers excoriates Stoddard as having only one qualification, that he shot Liberty Valance, Stoddard is ready to leave and head back east, torn up by the thought of having killed Valance, a repudiation of his belief in law and order. However, Doniphon shows up and in private tells Stoddard what really happened. Hallie had sent Pompey to get Doniphon when Stoddard went out to face Valance. Doniphon pretended not to arrive in time, but in fact he and Pompey had watched Valance and Stoddard from a dark alleyway across the street. When Valance takes aim at Stoddard, Doniphon shoots his rifle a split-second earlier, killing Valance. Freed from the guilt of killing Valance himself, Stoddard re-enters the convention where he wins election, the first step in his distinguished career, while Doniphon rides away into obscurity.

The film switches back to 1910. In response to Stoddard’s story, the current editor of the paper (who has a portrait of Peabody in his office) slowly lists Stoddard’s many accomplishments while he rips up the notes of the conversation. He then delivers a line that sums up the movie, and much of the western genre: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Stoddard and Hallie leave Shinbone on the train, headed for Washington. Stoddard tells Hallie that he’s thinking about retiring soon, which she’s glad to hear. When the conductor comes by to tell them they’re making excellent time, Stoddard drops back into his politician personality, promising to write a letter of commendation to the railroad. The conductor delivers the final line of the film, a gut punch to both Stoddard and Hallie that’s soaked in unintentional irony: “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.”

A Renewed Relevance

 The days of the “Wild West” lasted only a couple of decades, but they’ve been the focus of movies for well over a century, beginning with the very first American movie with a story line – 1902’s The Great Train Robbery. Even when Dodge City, Deadwood, and Tombstone were in their heydays, pulp novels were busy creating myths of that time, and the movies picked up on that mythology. The contrast between the novel creations and reality was beautifully illustrated in Unforgiven when Gene Hackman’s sheriff reads the exploits of Richard Harris’ gunslinger in a pulp novel, then reminds Harris what actually happened. The 1960s marked the change in Westerns from glorifying the myth to deconstructing it. Before that time George Custer was a hero, thanks to movies like They Died With Their Boots On. The luster of Custer began to fade with The Great Sioux Massacre in 1965, and was completely destroyed with 1970’s Little Big Man. The legend was no longer satisfying, and since the 1970s the most successful westerns have been the ones that strip away the mythology and try to give a realistic view of the time – Movies such as Unforgiven, Tombstone, and the miniseries “Lonesome Dove.” Probably the easiest way to see the difference is to watch the original 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma and then view the Christian Bale/Russell Crowe remake. Same basic story but two very different movies.

Liberty Valance marks the moment the change began. One scene that highlights this is when Stoddard views Tom Doniphon’s body early in the film and is upset that he’s not to be buried wearing his guns. Pompey mildly informs Stoddard that Doniphon hadn’t worn his guns for years. The wild territorial days had been replaced by the law and order of statehood, with the change effected mostly by Stoddard himself.

Probably the greatest relevance of the movie to our current time is the attitude about guns. The whole idea of “a good man with a gun” that’s been propagated by the NRA is based on the mythology of western movies. In the real west, towns usually restricted the carrying of weapons. But what the film highlights is how the use of violence has consequences even for the “good” man. Doniphon is under no illusion; when he confesses to Stoddard that he killed Valance, he calls it cold-blooded murder. In the immediate aftermath of the killing, Doniphon goes off the rails and becomes as destructive as Valance was, though with Doniphon the destruction is aimed inwardly rather than outwardly.

Trivia and Box Office

This was actually this first movie where John Wayne called another character “pilgrim,” though it became a staple for impressionists when they did the Duke. Wayne was already sick with lung cancer during the filming of the movie, though it wouldn’t be diagnosed for two more years.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote a song based on the movie that was recorded by Gene Pitney and hit #4 on the music charts in 1962. The song’s not featured in the movie, partially because of a dispute between the music publisher and Paramount Pictures, and because it was viewed as too contemporary for a western. A few years later, Bacharach and David would have an even bigger contemporary hit with a movie from a western: “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

 The movie had a trim budget of $3 Million, and it was a success with a gross of $8 million, which was good enough for 16th place on the box office list for that year. It also achieved critical success. Roger Ebert singled it out among the Ford/Wayne collaborations for its pensive and thoughtful mood. Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) counted it as his favorite Ford film. The American Film Institute put Wayne’s Tom Doniphon on its “Hundred Years” list of heroes and villains.

In 2007 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry. The movie has held up well and retains its emotional power 53 years after its initial release.


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