The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

John Wayne and James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Legend of Liberty Valance

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is often regarded as a great western and as such has all those components you would expect from a western, the gunfights, the tough cowboys, the stand offs but it has something more, a truly interesting storyline which encompasses so much more than just the search for vengeance which was the staple of many a western. But "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is no way a complex storyline, in fact it's relatively simple but in being simple it's easy to watch and combined with John Ford's direction and powerful performances from its stars mainly those of John Wayne, James Stewart and Vera Miles "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" truly is a great western.

Having returned home to Shinbone for the funeral of his old friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne - The Comancheros), Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart - Two Rode Together) recounts to the local newspaper editor who Doniphon was and why he has returned to pay his respects. Stoddard had originally ended up in Shinbone when the stagecoach he was on was robbed by local villain Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin - Bad Day at Black Rock) and having tried to stand up to him was nearly whipped to death. With no money and just a few of his law books he finds a home in the Ericson's cafe where he washes dishes to pay his way and where he meets Hallie (Vera Miles - 23 Paces to Baker Street) who falls for him. With times changing and the territory vying for Statehood Stoddard finds himself being chosen as the representative much to the annoyance of Valance whose presence in Shinbone continues to cause unrest. But when Valance attacks the editor of the local newspaper, Stoddard is forced to call him out leading to the legend of the man who shot Liberty Valance.

Vera Miles as Hallie in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Taken purely on face value "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is a very well crafted western as we watch the honest attorney at law try to make a stand for what he believes, in the town of Shinbone where the only law is that of the gun. As such it still has that vengeance side to things with having been robbed and whipped Ransom Stoddard wants to bring his assailant Liberty Valance to book for what he's done, but not in the gun totting way but by legal means. Accompanying this side of the movie you have an almost romantic storyline between Stoddard and Hallie which leads to jealousy when it comes to Tom Doniphon who also has feelings for Hallie. But rather than being just a soppy love tale to embellish things it's a clever subplot adding meaning to everything which goes on and the almost antagonistic relationships which form.

But that is very much if you take "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" purely on face value and if you do you will no doubt be entertained from those almost necessary requirements such as various tough talking, gun totting scenes. But there is another level to "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and it feels like legendary director John Ford is trying to make a statement about westerns. He covers themes such as new law with attorneys starting to surpass that of the old gun totting law, the modernisation of towns with elections and of course the whole difference between fact and myth. It's cleverly done so that although it feels like Ford is paying tribute to the old west where the gun ruled it adds another element to the movie rather than detracting from the expected elements.

Adding to this there is also an almost comedy side to things making it have plenty of fun scenes such as when Tom decides to teach Ransom a lesson about guns involving a series of paint cans. It gives it a lighter moment to break not so much the heaviness of the storyline but the seriousness. And someone who seriously breaks the seriousness is Andy Devine who as Marshal Link Appleyard with his cowardly ways and whining voice is a comedy treat whenever he appears, which is often in the kitchen of the local canteen looking for free food.

But whilst Andy Devine gives "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" plenty of lighter moments it's very much John Wayne and James Stewart's movie, their first together. As you would almost expect John Wayne is again playing that same sort of straight talking cowboy that he did in many of his westerns, an extension of himself. But that's not a criticism because it works what Wayne delivers as Tom Doniphon is that old fashioned respect, the sarcasm, the quickness with a gun and the whole tough talking; it's everything you want from a cowboy. And what a contrast you have with James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard, the man of books and law. In many ways Stewart was playing a very similar character to that we had seen him do before, the optimistic young man who is both honest and naive, not that much unlike Mr. Smith in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington". But again it's not a criticism because James Stewart played these sorts of characters better than anyone and when put him with John Wayne makes for an interesting pairing.

Aside from the big stars of John Wayne and James Stewart, Vera Miles makes a good impression as Hallie the young woman who falls for Ransom yet also has feelings for Tom. Miles delivers a performance so strong, so feisty that not once is she over shadowed by the talents of Wayne and Stewart and in fact that is the same for pretty much everyone, no one is really over shadowed. From Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance, Edmond O'Brien as newspaper editor Dutton Peabody, Woody Strode as Pompey through to Jeanette Nolan and John Qualen as the Ericson's, they all put in very solid performances.

What this all boils down to is that "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" deserves being regarded as a great western. It delivers that expected level of entertainment from gun fights, and good verses bad with the added moments of almost comedy. But then it also delivers a look at how the west changed from being a place where the gun ruled through to a more civilized place. With John Wayne and James Stewart on fine form and with a great collection of supporting characters and performances it truly is a great western, only slightly bogged down by being a little laborious in places, a minor quibble in an otherwise perfect movie.