The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Some films pack an extra wallop because they skillfully place the story and characters into a larger historical context. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is just that kind of film. It explores the slippery relationship between legend and fact. It also explores the tension between an older, more violent west and a newer, more civilized west — and what happens when the two cultures clash. As with his earlier film The Searchers (1956), Ford documents the changing values of the American west. Even heroic figures have faults and biases. They’re no less brave, despite the fact that their motivations are often less than pure.

John Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, a traditional hard-working rancher. When confronted, he knows how to settle an argument with a gun. James Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a newly qualified lawyer who will eventually become a United States Senator. He is reluctant to use violence because it debases society and conflicts with our highest values. Hallie (played by Vera Miles) is torn between the two men — as is the audience. Neither approach is completely right or wrong. They represent a necessary transition from an unsettled land administering frontier justice to a community built on laws and common goals.

In his book John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich asked Ford if his sympathies were with the John Wayne character and the Old West:

Well, Wayne actually played the lead; Jimmy Stewart had most of the scenes, but Wayne was the central character, the motivation for the whole thing. I don’t know — I liked them both — I think they were both good characters and I rather liked the story, that’s all. I’m a hard-nosed director; I get a script — if I like it, I’ll do it. Or if I say, ‘Oh, this is all right’ — I’ll do it. If I don’t like it, I’ll turn it down.

This is one of the most powerful and thoughtful westerns of the 1960s. It’s also worth repeating that based on his incredible body of work, John Ford was perhaps the greatest of all classic film directors.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
(1962; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (Blu-ray), $9.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, March 22 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies