skip navigation
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance(1962)

Contribute

FOR The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) YOU CAN

UPLOAD AN IMAGE SUBMIT A VIDEO OR MOVIE CLIP ADD ADDITIONAL INFORMATION WRITE YOUR OWN REVIEW

TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here
ADD YOUR COMMENT>

share:
Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (1)

DVDs from TCM Shop

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance An experienced gunman and a... MORE > $14.98 Regularly $14.98 Buy Now

Articles

powered by AFI

SEE ALL ARTICLES
teaser The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

SYNOPSIS

Sen. Ransom Stoddard and his wife Hallie, visitors from Washington, D.C., arrive in the Western town of Shinbone, where they met and married years before, to attend the funeral of their old friend Tom Doniphon. The couple finds the town changed from the lawless frontier they once knew. Except for a few old-timers, no one in Shinbone even remembers Tom, who was once the toughest and fastest gunman in the territory. Yet, everybody has heard about Stoddard, the man who shot Liberty Valance, a murderous outlaw who terrorized the town until his death brought law and order to the district. While Doniphon's simple coffin is readied for a pauper's burial, reporters gather around Stoddard with questions about his life and especially about his heroic act, but the senator insists on setting the record straight about the incident that made him famous.

Director: John Ford

Producer: John Ford, Willis Goldbeck

Screenplay: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, based on the story by Dorothy M. Johnson

Cinematographer: William H. Clothier

Editor: Otho Lovering

Art Directors: Eddie Imazu, Hal Pereira

Original Music: Cyril J. Mockridge

Cast: John Wayne (Tom Doniphon), James Stewart (Ransom Stoddard), Vera Miles (Hallie Stoddard), Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance), Edmond O'Brien (Dutton Peabody), Andy Devine (Marshall Link Appleyard).
BW-124m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

Why THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is Essential

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." This famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance might also be the motto for John Ford's career. Although he directed in a wide range of genres, Ford is best known for his Westerns, and along with writers like Zane Grey, visual artist Frederick Remington, and perhaps a few others, no one did more to forge the legends and myths of the Old West with its heroes and villains, the codes and philosophies, the look and sound and feel of it.

Ford's was a romantic, sentimental vision of our historical past, and it frequently centered on the conflict between the wilderness and civilization, tinged with nostalgia and loss. As a younger man, with My Darling Clementine (1946), he viewed the encroachment of society into the untamed West with some sense of hope and possibility. Nearly 20 years later, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance still depicts the inevitable demise of the "outlaw hero," the man who acts on behalf of a civilization that must always exclude his type to progress forward. But the world that replaces his is now shot through with regret, fraud, and a willful forgetting. "Aren't you proud?" Ranse Stoddard's wife asks as she looks over the "garden" that he has made from the desert. The look on his face and the final coda to the film speaks not of pride but of the realization that his entire life and career have been built on a lie, and that's a shattering truth for a man in his twilight years.

Back in 1962, many dismissed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a minor, disappointing work from a master filmmaker who had seen better days. In the years following, the pendulum made a wide arc into unqualified reverence and a determination to see major significance in every tiny corner of the frame and every utterance. ("Ransom Stoddard! Get it? Ransom? And he defeats Liberty?!") A more balanced contemporary approach recognizes the film's flaws but gives it credit as the last fully realized work of one of the most important directors in American cinema history. If nothing else, as theorist Robert B. Ray has detailed, it can be taken as a perfect critical study of one of the most enduring of Hollywood tropes: the outlaw hero (Tom in Liberty Valance, Clementine's Doc Holliday, Rick in Casablanca, 1942) reluctantly drawn into cooperating with the "official" hero (Stoddard, Wyatt Earp, Victor Laszlo) to defeat a common enemy (Valance and the cattle interests, the Clantons, Nazis), usually for the mutual love of a good woman (Hallie, Clementine, Ilsa). Except the outcome in Valance is dark and painful. As some have noted about this story: The hero doesn't win; the winner isn't heroic. Destiny here is more a matter of accident and misunderstanding, and history depends entirely on who's telling it and why.


Much of the criticism leveled against The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance focused on its look, what seemed to be Ford's lack of regard for any kind of pictorial beauty. The elegant vistas of his beloved Monument Valley, the majestic sweep of the cavalry trilogy, My Darling Clementine, and The Searchers (1956), are nowhere to be seen. The film is dark and confined, shot almost entirely on a sound stage. Opposing reasons for this have been put forward: The studio, reluctant to finance a Ford Western even with stars like Wayne and Stewart, imposed the production limits; the black-and-white photography was necessary to cover the make-up that allowed 54-year-old Stewart to play both a young man just out of law school and a distinguished, elderly politician; Ford wanted to forego his usual methods in favor of concentrating on the characters and their often-suppressed emotions, motives, and truths. It has even been put forth that the casting was not as off-handed as it appears or merely arising from Ford's desire to work with actors he knew and trusted, regardless of their age inappropriateness, but rather a decision dictated by the notions of truth, legend and history inherent in the story. We don't see the characters realistically as they were years earlier but as projections of their memories, which have been distorted by legend and fateful acts from which there is no escape. Whatever the reason, the murky darkness and confined spaces of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance perfectly reflect the gloom and pessimism of the story.


Peter Bogdanovich once pointed out that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was made when John Ford was 67--and he was old in terms of his health, hastened by many years of hard work and hard living. His films of the five or six years prior to this had generally not been commercial successes or critically praised, and the studio system under which he made his greatest works was changing drastically. He was now in the position of begging for financing, and the only reason he got it for this picture was because he had John Wayne, the actor he had made into a star, a film legend almost single-handedly forged by Ford himself. "I think the world he knew was collapsing," Bogdanovich said. Perhaps in this story, Ford found a telling parallel to his late-life realizations and one last comment on the West he had virtually created on screen.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Shortly before he's shot, Liberty Valance draws the "dead man's hand," aces and eights. The legend of the fatal poker deal grew from the hand Wild Bill Hickok supposedly held as he was shot dead in a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. Ford used the dead man's hand once before, held by Luke Plummer just before he is shot by the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) in Stagecoach (1939), making a nice symmetry between the first of his great sound Westerns and what many consider his last. Although Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and one segment of How the West Was Won (1962) came later, most film critics and analysts consider The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Ford's last fully realized work.

It wasn't until this point in his career that John Wayne called another character on film "Pilgrim," but Wayne imitators ever since have used it as one of his most standard catchwords.

Parodies of Wayne's use of the term "Pilgrim" to refer to Stewart have turned up in various movies, including Full Metal Jacket (1987) and An American Tale: Fievel Goes West (1991).

On a 1972 episode of the British TV comedy Monty Python's Flying Circus, there is a "cheese western" spoof that mentions "The Cheese Who Shot Liberty Valance."

Although it was never used in the score for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a popular pop ballad was inspired by the movie. It was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David but not recorded until after the picture came out. It became a Top 10 hit for Gene Pitney. The tune was later recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, James Taylor, and the Royal Guardsmen.

At one point, hard-drinking newspaper editor Dutton Peabody refers to the bad guys as "Liberty Valance and his Myrmidons." The Myrmidons were figures of ancient Greek mythology, skilled warriors in Homer's Iliad commanded by Achilles. Because they were known for their fierce loyalty to their leader, the term came to be used in pre-industrial Europe almost as "robots" would be today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term has since come to mean "hired ruffian" or "a loyal follower, especially one who executes orders without question, protest, or pity--unquestioning followers."

Print the Legend, a phrase taken from the movie's famous quote, is the title of a crime novel by Craig McDonald about the death of Ernest Hemingway, a study of photography in the American West, and, of course, a book about John Ford by Scott Eyman. The phrase is often invoked in any writing or discussion about a person or event whose fame has surpassed the base realties.

Sergio Leone, the director of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), and many other Westerns, was one of the directors heavily influenced by Ford. He said The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was his favorite John Ford film because "it was the only film where he (Ford) learned about something called pessimism."

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Tom Doniphon refers to Valance as "the toughest man south of the Picketwire...next to me!" The Picketwire is not a fence or dividing wire, as it sounds, but slang for the Purgatoire River, which flows into the Arkansas River in Colorado. This is the only indication in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance of the specific location of the town of Shinbone. The location, however, could be New Mexico or possibly Oklahoma (south of the river), since the territory in the film has yet to achieve statehood and the flag in the classroom scene has 38 stars, placing it after Colorado's entry into the union.

John Wayne made a total of 21 films with John Ford. It was Wayne's appearance in Stagecoach (1939) that brought him from the ranks of B pictures to true stardom, and he first received credit for his acting in such Ford films as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956). It's fair to say the actor owed much of his career to his most frequent director and one of the reasons Wayne remained respectful of him even though Ford was often abusive to the actor. After The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, they worked on two more films together, the Civil War sequence of How the West Was Won (1962) and the comedy-action picture Donovan's Reef (1963).

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was James Stewart's second film with John Ford, after Two Rode Together (1961).

Ford also directed Stewart and Wayne in an hour-long Alcoa Premiere teleplay the same year this picture came out, a baseball drama called "Flashing Spikes." Stewart and Wayne appeared together again in Wayne's final film, The Shootist (1976), directed by Don Siegel. They were also both in the cast of How the West Was Won (1962) but in different segments.

Woody Strode (1914-1994) was a star athlete at UCLA before he was discovered by Ford and put in his first role, a bit part in Stagecoach. Strode played a few small parts in the following years, and after the war he became one of the first black athletes to integrate pro-football as a member of the Los Angeles Rams. Besides Liberty Valance he made two other films for Ford, Two Rode Together and the title role in Sergeant Rutledge (1960). He always gave Ford credit for making him an actor and called him "the greatest director I ever worked for."

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was the second Ford movie each for Vera Miles (The Searchers) and Jeanette Nolan (Two Rode Together). Miles was the sister of the murdered Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), for which Nolan supplied the voice (uncredited) of Mrs. Bates.

This was Andy Devine's third picture with Ford after Stagecoach and Two Rode Together.

Ford stock company sightings: In addition to stars like John Wayne and Henry Fonda, the director often used many of the same character actors and supporting players in his films. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance included the following frequent Ford players : John Carradine, John Qualen, Willis Bouchey, Carleton Young, Anna Lee, Woody Strode, O.Z. Whitehead, Denver Pyle, Shug Fisher. Qualen played Vera Miles's father in The Searchers.

Ford also liked to give work to former silent stars, such as Mae Marsh, who had worked with him in his earliest days but were barely remembered by the public. Gertrude Astor was the first actress signed to a contract with Universal. That was 1915. She made dozens of movies before the end of the 1920s, gaining a reputation as one of the most elegant and best dressed women in the business, but by the mid-30s she was mostly doing uncredited bits. She made two silent films with Ford, a 1917 Western and the lead in a 1925 drama. He cast her in a bit in Three Godfathers (1948) and again in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

In the cast as an uncredited townsman was Danny Borzage, brother of director Frank Borzage and something of a Ford mascot. Borzage had been playing bits in Ford's films since The Iron Horse (1924) and was always on set to play mood music on his accordion for the cast and crew between scenes and sometimes during them.

Scenarist James Warner Bellah was a novelist and short story writer before going into screenwriting at the age of 55 with the John Wayne film, The Sea Chase (1955). Ford's cavalry trilogy--Fort Apache(1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande (1950)--all came from Bellah stories, and Ford's Sergeant Rutledge was taken from a Bellah novel, adapted by Bellah and his Liberty Valance co-writer, Willis Goldbeck.

Cinematographer William Clothier worked in Spain and Mexico before the war and got his first break doing photography (uncredited) on William Wyler's war documentary The Memphis Belle (1944). He followed his work on a minor crime drama, For You I Die (1947), with uncredited work on Ford's Fort Apache. He also shot Ford's Donovan's Reef and a few other John Wayne pictures. He received Academy Award nominations for Wayne's The Alamo (1960) and Ford's Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

The same year she was nominated for her work on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Edith Head also designed costumes for eight other pictures, including Hatari! (1962) starring John Wayne. Her 35 Oscar® nominations and eight awards make Head the most honored costume designer and woman in Academy history.

Lee Marvin's widow Pamela said The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was her "all-time favorite" of all the movies her husband made.

"Jim Stewart and Duke Wayne gave, for me, topnotch performances in a picture ideally suited to them." - cast member Edmond O'Brien

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance went into general release in April 1962 and received mostly unfavorable reviews. In many cases it was relegated to the bottom half of a double bill. It took a few decades before critical reassessment turned in its favor, and it is now regarded as one of John Ford's most significant achievements. There has been a bit of a backlash in recent years, however. Some critics and theorists have gone to great pains to make a case in favor of the film, seeing great significance in every shot and even in the names of the characters, leading some writers to say now that Liberty Valance is solid and worthy but overrated.

Memorable Quotes from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

HALLIE (Vera Miles): The place has sure changed. Churches, high schools, shops.
LINK APPLEYARD (Andy Devine): Well, the railroad done that. Desert's still the same.
HALLIE: The cactus rose is in blossom.
LINK APPLEYARD: Maybe you'd like to take a ride out desert way and maybe look around.
HALLIE: Maybe.

RANSOM STODDARD (James Stewart): I don't want a gun. I don't want to kill him. I want to put him in jail.
TOM DONIPHON (John Wayne): Out here a man solves his own problems.
RANSOM STODDARD: You know what you're saying to me? You're as bad as he is! What kind of community have I come to here?

LINK APPLEYARD: The jail's only got one cell, and the lock's broke and I sleep in it.

TOM DONIPHON: Hey, pilgrim! You forgot your pop-gun!

LIBERTY VALANCE (Lee Marvin): You lookin' for trouble, Doniphon?
TOM DONIPHON: You aim to help me find some?

HALLIE: Ranse, do you think I could...I mean, grown up and all...do you think I could learn to read?
RANSOM STODDARD: Why, sure you can, Hallie. Why, there's nothing to it. It'd be...it'd be easy. Can you learn how to read? Why, I can...I can teach you. A smart girl like you? Of course you can learn how to read. Now, do you want to try?
HALLIE: It's awful worrisome not knowing how. I know the Good Book from preacher talk; but it'd be a soul comfort if I could read the words myself.

DUTTON PEABODY (Edmond O'Brien): Liberty Valance... and his myrmidons!

DUTTON PEABODY: Good people of Shinbone; I, I'm your conscience, I'm the small voice that thunders in the night, I'm your watchdog who howls against the wolves, I, I'm your father confessor! I - I'm...what else am I?

TOM DONIPHON: Town drunk?

TOM DONIPHON: You talk too much, think too much. Besides, YOU didn't kill Liberty Valance.

TOM DONIPHON: Cold-blooded murder, but I can live with it. Hallie's happy. She wanted you alive. ... Hallie's your girl now. Go back in there and take that nomination. You taught her how to read and write; now give her something to read and write about!

DUTTON PEABODY: I'll have the usual, Jack.
JACK THE BARMAN (Jack Pennick): The bar is closed, Mister Editor, during voting.

DUTTON PEABODY: Bar's closed?

TOM DONIPHON: You can blame your lawyer friend. He says that's one of the "Fundamental laws of democracy." No exception.

DUTTON PEABODY: No exceptions for the working press? Why, that's carrying democracy much too far!

RANSOM STODDARD: You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
MAXWELL SCOTT (Carleton Young): No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

HALLIE: Look at it. Once it was a wilderness. Now it's a garden. Aren't you proud?

RANSOM STODDARD: Hallie, who put the rose on Tom's coffin?
HALLIE: I did.

Compiled by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Born in Iowa in 1905, Dorothy M. Johnson grew up in Montana. After graduating from the state university, she moved to New York for work as a writer and editor. In 1950, she returned to Montana, edited the local paper, and joined the university faculty. Over the course of her life, she published 17 books and 52 short stories, becoming one of the most noted female writers of fiction about the American West. Her story "A Man Called Horse" was first adapted into an episode of the Wagon Train television series and later into a 1970 film. Her novel The Hanging Tree was brought to the screen by director Delmer Daves and star Gary Cooper in 1959. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance began as a short story in Johnson's 1953 collection Indian Country.

Although he had been one of Hollywood's most respected and powerful directors for decades, John Ford was operating in a very different industry by the late 1950s. The old studio system was in its final days; most of the big companies were increasingly functioning as distributors and often only partial financers of projects initiated outside the studio. Ford had been putting together his own productions for years, but now it was becoming harder to find backing. Tastes were changing as well. Ford's work was looked on more and more as sentimental, old fashioned, and unsophisticated, and his most characteristic genre, the Western, although still popular (particularly on the rival medium of television), would not be a viable genre much longer. In this atmosphere, it was more difficult for Ford to get work and took him longer to find projects he could connect with personally. His last two productions, Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Two Rode Together (1961), a picture that was a disappointment to him, had not been big successes. He busied himself directing his most frequent star, John Wayne, in an episode of TV's Wagon Train and doing some uncredited work on the Duke's film The Alamo (1960). So he was happy when he found Johnson's story, which had themes close to his heart and provided a good role for Wayne. Unfortunately, it would not be smooth sailing into production.

To adapt the screenplay, Ford renewed his collaboration with the writers of Sergeant Rutledge, Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah. Goldbeck also signed on as co-producer.

For the part of the young lawyer from the East who inadvertently becomes a town hero and successful politician, Ford chose James Stewart, whom he had worked with for the first time on Two Rode Together. Stewart genuinely liked Ford and was eager to work with him again, especially since he was less than happy about the development of his unlikable character in the earlier film, but would be playing an upstanding citizen and idealist in Liberty Valance.

Wayne convinced Ford to cast Lee Marvin, his co-star in The Comancheros (1961), as villain Liberty Valance.

John Wayne was one of Hollywood's biggest stars and had just signed a ten-picture deal with Paramount at $600,000 per film, so Ford took Liberty Valance there. But even with the director's reputation plus his agreement to come up with half the $3.2 million budget and two major stars on board, the studio was not sold on the project and took nearly half a year to greenlight it. The studio had several concerns about the project: It was downbeat in nature; Wayne's character was dead at the outset; and Stewart, who was approaching his mid-50s, would have to play a character fresh out of law school for the extensive flashback structure and a man in his 60s or older for the framing story. The company was also still smarting from the loss they incurred on Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and was not eager to make another risky Western.

Ultimately, it was Wayne's clout and his solid deal with Paramount that got the go-ahead on the project. It also probably rankled Ford to have the actor whose career he virtually created be the one he was now dependent on to get his production going.

Wayne was still on location for The Comancheros in early summer 1961 when he began getting memos about their upcoming project from Ford, who was eager to have his star back by summer's end to begin shooting Liberty Valance. "For a change, no locations," Ford wrote on July 7. "All to be shot on the lot. ... Seriously we have a great script in my humble opinion."

The script followed Johnson's story and viewpoint fairly closely with one notable exception. On the page, Tom Doniphon (Wayne's character) was more of a mentor to Ranse Stoddard (Stewart), easing him along the road from frontier lawyer to state senator. In the film, except for two notable acts that change Stoddard's life forever, Doniphon isn't quite so proactive with an eye to Stoddard's future.

In 1967, Ford was quoted as saying The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was based on historic facts, although he never said, and evidence never revealed, what that facts might have been.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Although most sources say The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was shot almost entirely at Paramount Studios, with exteriors on the Janss Conejo Ranch in Thousand Oaks, California, a documentary about the making of it revealed that the town and train shots were done on Lot 3 at MGM.

There are varying opinions about why The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was shot in black and white in the studio instead of location filming in color. Some accounts have it that Ford was forced to curtail his usual production methods because Paramount would not give him the financing he needed to shoot in one of his favorite locales, such as Monument Valley. Others, particularly critics and film analysts looking back to reclaim the film as one of Ford's major achievements, say the decision was entirely Ford's, a choice that zeroed in on a more intimate and intense character study. Most observers agree that black and white also helped ease the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept Stewart and Wayne as young men and Stewart in his make-up for the character late in life.

Ford himself once said he preferred black and white and that it is actually more difficult than shooting in color. "In black and white, you've got to be very careful. You've got to know your job, lay your shadows in properly, get your perspective right, but in color, there it is," he said. "You might say I'm old fashioned, but black and white is real photography."

According to actor Frank Baker, who played in several Ford movies (but not Liberty Valance), the director substantially improvised on the scenario from day to day.

Ford only shot just what he needed with very little extra coverage on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He also preferred to do a minimum of takes, saying that after the first few, the actors get tired and jaded and their performances lack spontaneity. That's why he liked to work with the same people over and over again (the famed Ford "stock company"), because he could count on them to know what he wanted and give it to him on the first take.

According to his grandson Dan Ford, many people involved in the shooting remarked on Ford's lack of energy and complete disregard for details such as background effects. Lindsay Anderson, in his book-length study of the director, says, "No doubt this was yet another instance of Ford's growing impatience with the business of shooting: it was no longer 'fun.' He resented the demands of narrative, of crowd-pleasing spectacle, the trappings of 'art.' And in places the work suffered."

If Ford was sick of filmmaking, it wasn't apparent to cast member Edmond O'Brien, who said, "I have never seen Ford happier than he was in making this; he came on the set positively beaming every morning, and that was not the usual thing with him." O'Brien also said everyone involved seemed to enjoy making The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

When he saw the set for the town of Shinbone, assistant director Wingate Smith remarked that it didn't looked lived in enough. Ford replied, "If they don't like it, we'll give them their nickel back."

During shooting of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Wayne was already suffering from the cancer that would take his life in 1979.

Wayne said Liberty Valance was "a tough assignment" for him. While everyone else seemed to have well-rounded characters, he saw his role as merely functional for the plot. "I just had to wander around in that son of a bitch [Tom Doniphon] and try to make a part for myself." When someone suggested to Wayne that his role was a complicated one, full of ambiguity, he reportedly shot back, "Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don't like ambiguity. I don't trust ambiguity."

Known for his tendency to be disagreeable at times, Ford was always rough on Wayne, who usually took the rough treatment with equanimity, but on this production, the abusiveness was raised a few notches. Some have ascribed it to Ford's age and increasing impatience with filmmaking; others say he resented Wayne because so few of the scenes Ford worked on without credit for Wayne's film The Alamo (1960) actually made it to the screen. In any case, the days when Ford, Wayne, and others would carouse or play cards all night or spend time on Ford's yacht were behind them, and the relationship was more strained than usual. Ford deliberately goaded Wayne repeatedly, hitting a particularly sore spot by pointing out publicly that many on the set - James Stewart, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode - had served during World War II while Wayne did not.

Jealousy might also have been a factor in Ford's treatment of Wayne, who was perhaps the biggest movie star in the world at this time while the man who helped him reach that status now had to scramble for work and depend on his star to get backing from studios. One day when Wayne casually suggested a minor scene change, Ford lost his temper and screamed, "Jesus Christ, here I take you out of eight-day Westerns, I put you in big movies, and you give me a stupid suggestion like that!"

Ford seemed to be determined to make bad blood between Wayne and Strode. Ford needled Wayne, who had attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship, by insisting that Strode, a decathlete and football star at UCLA, was "the real football player." Tensions came to a head during a scene in which Wayne was supposed to be driving a wagon back to his ranch with Strode in the back. Strode noticed that Wayne was having trouble controlling the horses and getting them to stop, so he reached forward to grab the reins to help. Wayne swung his arm and knocked him back roughly. When the wagon was finally brought to a halt, Strode jumped down, ready to fight Wayne. "Woody don't hit him! We need him," Ford said, likely antagonizing Wayne further. Shooting was halted a couple of hours until both men cooled off.

Strode frequently performed his own stunts, partly because he was such a good athlete and partly because it was hard to find a black double to match his build and looks (this had also been the case on Spartacus, 1960). In the scene where Wayne's character sets fire to his house, Strode had to race in and drag him out of the building. Wayne was using a double but the 47-year-old Strode wasn't. Ford told his star, "Duke, Woody is an old man, and he's got to carry you and he doesn't need a double!" Wayne decided to do the scene without one.

Strode was amazed that a man of Wayne's professional and physical stature was so subservient to Ford. "Sometimes [Ford] would holler, 'Duke!,' and whatever John Wayne was doing, I don't care if his pants were down around his ankles, he'd stop and come running," Strode wrote in his autobiography. "I told the other actors, 'You see Duke running? He's a millionaire. He doesn't have to do that. But that old man made him a millionaire. That's respect.'"

Although he had his problems with Wayne, Strode said Stewart was "one of the nicest men you'll ever meet anywhere in the world."

Wayne and Stewart got along very well during production. Stewart also liked Ford immensely and was glad to be working with him again after Two Rode Together (1961). He appreciated Ford's subtle direction, such as in the stage hold-up scene where Stewart's character first encounters Liberty Valance. Stewart couldn't get a handle on it and kept flubbing his lines until Ford walked over and repeated quietly in his ear, "You are not a coward, you are not a coward." That gave Stewart just the cue he needed to nail the take.

Stewart's ease with the director might have had something to do with the fact that Ford was easy on him, unlike the treatment of his co-star. Wayne used to ask Stewart with envy why it was that he never incurred the director's wrath. One day, however, Stewart made the mistake of giving his honest opinion when Ford asked what he thought of Strode's costume. Stewart said he found it a little "Uncle Remus-like." Ford then embarrassed him in front of everyone, saying, "One of the players seems to have some objection. One of the players here doesn't seem to like Uncle Remus. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure he even likes negroes." Wayne was visibly delighted.

Cast member Ken Murray called Ford an ogre and said he was scared of him.

The one cast member who could get away with just about anything on the set was Lee Marvin. Ford appreciated him not only for his acting and his World War II service as a Marine, but for Marvin's genuineness as a person. One day, Ford came on the set and Marvin whistled loudly through his teeth. The crew froze, certain there would be trouble. Instead Ford just smiled, because he recognized that what Marvin was doing was giving the admiral's whistle and piping the director "on board."

On Marvin's first day on the set, Ford called him over and said, "You just did a movie with John Wayne [The Comancheros, 1961]. Wayne did some directing on that, right? Well, that's not happening here. Duke's not doing anything on this picture but what I tell him."

Marvin's first scene (the stage hold-up) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance presented problems for the actor; he couldn't seem to get a handle on his character. After several takes, Ford instructed the stage driver not to throw down the cash box when Marvin demanded it. This had the effect of greatly notching up Marvin's anger, causing him to shout, "NOW!" The take was printed.

Cyril Mockridge was hired to score the picture, but Ford used a bit of music from his 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln score under some of Vera Miles's scenes as Hallie. Ford later told Peter Bogdanovich that he used Alfred Newman's "Ann Rutledge" theme for the same reason in both films, to evoke the feeling of lost love. He also told Bogdanovich that he made it apparent (through this music and other means) that Miles's character Hallie had never gotten over Tom Doniphon (Wayne) because he wanted Wayne to be the lead rather than Stewart.

Photographs exist of the entire cast of Liberty Valance seated around a table for what was a Ford tradition: formal tea time on the set.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was completed on November 7, 1961.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Sen. Ransom Stoddard and his wife Hallie, visitors from Washington, D.C., arrive in the Western town of Shinbone, where they met and married years before, to attend the funeral of their old friend Tom Doniphon. The couple finds the town changed from the lawless frontier they once knew. Except for a few old-timers, no one in Shinbone even remembers Tom, once the toughest and fastest gunman in the territory. Yet, everybody has heard about Stoddard, the man who shot Liberty Valance, a murderous outlaw who terrorized the town until his death brought law and order to the district. While Doniphon's simple coffin is readied for a pauper's burial, reporters gather around Stoddard with questions about his life and past deeds. But the senator insists on setting the record straight about the incident that made him famous.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The most memorable line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance might also be the motto for John Ford's career. Although he directed in a wide range of genres, Ford is best known for his Westerns, and along with writer Zane Grey, artist Frederick Remington and perhaps a few others, no one did more to forge the myths of the Old West ­ its heroes and villains, its codes and philosophies, the look and sound and feel of it. Ford's perspective is often a romantic, even sentimental vision of our historical past, but it's a viewpoint that confirms the indomitable nature of America's Western pioneers.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance predates by just a few years "revisionist" Westerns like Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) and even Ford's own Cheyenne Autumn (1964), in which the brutality and ambiguous morality of America's relentless drive across the continent were thrown into a harsher light. This film is not exactly a reversal of Ford's vision of the frontier, but it is shot through with the darkness, regret and a touch of cynicism of an older and wiser man. Once again, as in two of his greatest works, My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Searchers (1956), we get the struggle between individual and society, between wilderness and civilization, between wild nature and tamed garden (represented here by the desert rose cactus bloom Tom brings to Hallie and by Sen. Stoddard's massive irrigation project). What's missing are the elegant vistas of Monument Valley, a place Ford immortalized on screen, and the strong sense of destiny and history. The film is dark and confined, shot on a sound stage instead of the outdoors. Destiny here is more a matter of accident and misunderstanding, and history depends entirely on who's telling it and why.

Ford's decision to shoot the entire film in black and white at the studio was taken by some reviewers of the time as a sign that the venerable filmmaker was becoming lazy and careless in his twilight years. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who had criticized Ford's Western films of the forties for overemphasizing the pictorial beauty of the frontier, disliked this film for never venturing outdoors. But many have reevaluated the look of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, seeing in its murky darkness and confined spaces a reflection of the story's thematic gloom and pessimism. Foregoing the historical sweep of his cavalry films and other classics, Ford concentrates here on the characters and their often-suppressed emotions, motives, and truths.

Even in this, however, the film came under fire for employing actors (notably Stewart) who were far too old to play themselves in flashbacks to their earlier days. A look back, however, reveals not a cavalier casting decision but the effect of playing with the notions of truth, legend and history inherent in the story. We don't see the characters realistically as they were years earlier but as projections of their memories which have been distorted by legend and the fateful acts from which there is no escape.

Director: John Ford
Producer: John Ford, Willis Goldbeck
  Screenplay: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson
Cinematographer: William H. Clothier
Editor: Otho Lovering
Art Director: Eddie Imazu, Hal Pereira
Original Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: John Wayne (Tom Doniphon), James Stewart (Ransom Stoddard), Vera Miles (Hallie Stoddard), Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance), Edmond O'Brien (Dutton Peabody), Andy Devine (Marshall Link Appleyard)
BW-124m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Awards & Honors

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance received an Academy Award nomination: Edith Head for Best Costume Design, Black and White.

Other awards: Laurel Award (exhibitors) to John Wayne: Top Action Performance; nominations to film as Top Action Drama and Lee Marvin, Top Action Performance.

Winner of the Western Heritage Bronze Wrangler Award for Film.

In 2007, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was chosen by the National Film Preservation Board to be one of the films preserved in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry.

The Critics' Corner: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

"Director John Ford and the writers have somewhat overplayed their hands. They have taken a disarmingly simple and affecting premise, developed it with craft and skill to a natural point of conclusion, and then have proceeded to run it into the ground, destroying the simplicity and intimacy for which they have striven. ... Stewart and Wayne do what comes naturally in an engagingly effortless manner. Vera Miles is consistently effective. Marvin is evil as they come. There is a portrayal of great strength and dignity by Woody Strode. But the most memorable characterization in the film is that of Edmond O'Brien as a tippling newspaper editor deeply proud of his profession." - Variety, April 1962

"Wayne--taciturn, good-natured, tough, and supremely confident--is the John Wayne." - DuPre Jones, Sight and Sound, 1962

"Liberty Valance is Ford if not perhaps at his greatest then at least at his middle best." - Hazel Flynn, Hollywood Citizen-News, 1962

In his April 1962 New York Times review, Bosley Crowther called the film "creaky" and declared it proof that "the western, ravaged by repetition and television, has begun to show signs of age...[a] basically honest, rugged and mature saga has been sapped of a great deal of effect by an obvious, overlong and garrulous anticlimax."

"The pasteboard town of Shinbone, where, in [critic] Manny Farber's words, 'the cactus was planted last night,'...avoids the conventional romanticizing of period detail to force all our attention on to the faces of the characters. There are probably more close-ups in Liberty Valance than in all of Ford's 1940s Westerns combined." - Joseph McBride, Michael Wilmington, John Ford (Martin Secker & Warburg, 1975)

"The lighting of this picture is at times only serviceable, inexpressive even when the image is an important one: a shot of the cactus rose which Tom has bought for Hallie and which Pompey has planted for her looks like something shot in a hurry, in the last ten minutes of a long day; and the hold-up of the stage which introduces Liberty Valance has the cramped artificiality of a scene in a 'B' picture. And yet, whether by design or by accident, this lack of visual refinement has an artistic result which is not just negative. ... The film develops with the simplicity and concreteness of a ballad, the objectivity and the historic sense of an epic. And it is very much a story." - Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford (Plexus, 1981)

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about as fine a thesis on the intermingling of Western fact and fiction as has ever been filmed. It is also yet another commentary on the merging of the old Wild West into the new one." - Tony Thomas, A Wonderful Life: The Films and Career of James Stewart (Citadel, 1988)

"Ford's purest and most sustained expression of the familiar themes of the passing of the Old West, the conflict between the untamed wilderness and the cultivated garden, and the power of myth." - Nigel Floyd, Time Out Film Guide, 2000

by Rob Nixon

back to top