The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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This article is about 1962 film. For the 1962 song, see (The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance. For the 2014 stage play, see The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (stage play).
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Ford
Produced by
Written by
Based on A 1953 short story
by Dorothy M. Johnson
Music by
Cinematography William H. Clothier
Edited by Otho Lovering
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date
  • April 22, 1962 (1962-04-22)
Running time
123 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3.2 million
Box office $8 million[1]

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a 1962 American Western film directed by John Ford starring James Stewart and John Wayne. The black-and-white film was released by Paramount Pictures. The screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck was adapted from a short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson. The supporting cast features Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, and Lee Van Cleef.

In 2007, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Plot summary[edit]

Senator Ransom "Ranse" Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arrive by train in the frontier town of Shinbone, in an unnamed western state, to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). As they make their way toward the undertaker's establishment to pay their respects to the deceased, a reporter (Joseph Hoover) and his editor, Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) approach and ask Stoddard to explain why a United States Senator would make the long journey from Washington just to attend the funeral of a local rancher.

Stoddard's story flashes back more than 30 years to his arrival in Shinbone as a young, idealistic attorney. His stagecoach is robbed by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). When Stoddard takes Valance to task for robbing a widow of her heirloom, he is brutally whipped and left for dead. When Doniphon finds and brings him into town, restaurant owner Peter Ericson (John Qualen), his wife Nora (Jeanette Nolan), and employee Hallie tend to his injuries, and explain that Shinbone's townsfolk are regularly victimized by Valance. Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), the town marshal, has neither the courage nor the gunfighting skills to challenge Valance; Doniphon (who loves Hallie and plans to ask her to marry him) is the only man willing to stand up to him.

When Stoddard, the naive "pilgrim" (as Doniphon dubs him), opens a law practice in town, Doniphon and many others believe him crazy for inviting retribution from Valance, who cannot abide any challenge to his "authority". Force, Doniphon explains, is the only thing Valance understands; he advises Stoddard to either flee the territory or buy a gun. Stoddard maintains he will do neither; he is an advocate for justice under the law, not brute force. He earns the town's respect by refusing to knuckle under to Valance, and by founding a school to teach reading and writing to illiterate townspeople—including Hallie. Hallie becomes attracted to Stoddard.

When Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien), publisher of the local newspaper, offers him a revolver, however, he accepts it; and when Doniphon sees that he is trying to teach himself to use it, he brings Stoddard to his house for a shooting lesson. Doniphon also shows Stoddard he is renovating his house in anticipation of marrying Hallie and to make those plans clear to Stoddard. During target practice he shoots a hole in a paint can, splattering paint on Stoddard's suit, explaining that this is the sort of trickery that he can expect from Valance. Infuriated, Stoddard approaches Doniphon, decks him with a sock in the jaw, then leaves. Doniphon is impressed by Stoddard's muscular use of force, which seems out of character for the gentleman attorney.

Shinbone's residents meet to elect two delegates for a statehood convention at the territorial capital. Doniphon declines Stoddard's nomination, and instead nominates Stoddard for one of the positions, because he "knows the law, and throws a mean punch". Stoddard addresses the group, explaining that statehood will benefit the people of the territory through improvements in infrastructure, safety, and education. The area's cattle barons, who oppose statehood and the new regulations that it would bring, hire Valance to sabotage the effort. He interrupts the meeting and attempts to bully the townspeople into electing him as a delegate, but Stoddard defies him yet again. The townspeople elect Stoddard and Peabody, prompting Valance to challenge Stoddard to a gunfight later that evening. Doniphon again advises Stoddard to leave town, but Stoddard maintains that he still believes in the rule of law (even though Link will do nothing to help him), and he is willing to risk his life for his principles.

That evening, after Valance and his gang (Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin) assault Peabody and trash his newspaper office as retribution for the newspaper's coverage of a recent murder committed by the Valance gang, Stoddard goes into the street to face Valance. Valance toys with Stoddard, shooting a pottery vase near his head, and then his right arm, knocking his gun to the ground. He condescendingly allows Stoddard to retrieve his gun. The next bullet, he says, will be "right between the eyes"; but Stoddard fires first, and to everyone's shock, Valance falls dead. Doniphon watches Hallie as she lovingly cares for Stoddard's wounds, then heads for the saloon to drown his sorrows, realizing he has lost Hallie. At his homestead, in a drunken rage, he sets fire to the addition that he has just finished in anticipation of asking Hallie to marry him. His ranch hand, Pompey (Woody Strode), rescues him from the inferno, but the house is destroyed.

At the statehood convention, Peabody nominates Stoddard as the territory's delegate to Washington, but his "unstatesmanlike" conduct in killing Valance, is challenged by a rival candidate, Maj. Cassius Starbuckle (John Carradine). Stoddard decides that his opponent is right; he cannot be entrusted with public service after killing a man in a gunfight. Seeing Stoddard's reluctance, Doniphon takes him aside and confides that he, Doniphon, actually killed Valance from an alley across the street, firing at the same time as Stoddard. Doniphon explains that he knows Hallie loves Stoddard; he shot Valance to secure her happiness. Reinspired, Stoddard returns to the convention, accepts the nomination, and is elected to the Washington delegation.

The flashback ends, and the newspaper editor fills in the intervening years: He married Hallie, and then, on the strength of his reputation as "the man who shot Liberty Valance", became the first governor of the newly minted state, serving three terms. He then served as U.S. Senator for two terms and Ambassador to Great Britain before returning to the Senate for a third term. And now he's the odds-on favorite to become his party's nominee for vice president. Scott now understands that Stoddard's entire reputation is based on a legend; but after reflection, he throws his interview notes into the fire. "This is the West, sir," he explains. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." On the train back to Washington, Stoddard informs Hallie, to her delight, that he has decided to retire from politics and practice law in Shinbone. Stoddard tells the train conductor (Willis Bouchey) that he will write to railroad officials, thanking them for their many courtesies in expediting his trip back to Washington, the conductor replies, "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!" Stoddard blows out a match intended for his cigar and stares downward.



In contrast to prior John Ford westerns, such as The Searchers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Liberty Valance was shot in black and white on Paramount's sound stages. Multiple stories and speculations exist to explain this decision. Ford claimed to prefer the black and white medium over 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."[2] Ford also reportedly argued that the climactic shoot-out between Valance and Stoddard would not have worked in color.[3] Others have interpreted the absence of the magnificent outdoor vistas so prevalent in earlier Ford westerns as "a fundamental reimagining [by Ford] of his mythic West" – a grittier, less romantic, more realistic portrayal of frontier life.[4] A more pragmatic interpretation cites the fact that Wayne and Stewart – two of Hollywood's biggest stars, working together for the first time – were considerably older (54 and 53, respectively) than the characters they were playing. Filming in black and white helped ease the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept that disparity.[5] According to cinematographer William H. Clothier, however, "There was one reason and one reason only ... Paramount was cutting costs. Otherwise we would have been in Monument Valley or Brackettville and we would have had color stock. Ford had to accept those terms or not make the film."[6]

Another condition imposed by the studio, according to Van Cleef, was that Wayne be cast as Doniphon. Ford resented the studio's intrusion, and retaliated by taunting Wayne relentlessly throughout the filming. "He didn't want Duke [Wayne] to think he was doing him any favors," Van Cleef said.[7] Strode recounted that Ford "kept needling Duke about his failure to make it as a football player", comparing him to Strode (a former NFL running back), whom he pronounced "a real football player". (Wayne's football career at USC had been curtailed by injuries.) He also ridiculed Wayne for failing to enlist during World War II, during which Ford filmed a series of widely praised combat documentaries for the Office of Strategic Services, and was wounded at the Battle of Midway,[8] and Stewart served with distinction as a bomber pilot. "How rich did you get while Jimmy was risking his life?" he demanded. Wayne's avoidance of wartime service was a major source of guilt for him in his later years.[9]

Stewart related that midway through filming, Wayne asked him why he, Stewart, never seemed to be the target of Ford's venomous remarks. Other cast- and crew-members also noticed Stewart's apparent immunity from Ford's abuse. Then, toward the end of filming, Ford asked Stewart what he thought of Strode's costume for the film's beginning and end, when the actors were playing their parts 25 years older. Stewart replied, "It looks a bit Uncle Remussy to me." Ford responded, "What's wrong with Uncle Remus?" He called for the crew's attention and announced, "One of our players doesn't like Woody's costume. Now, I don't know if Mr. Stewart has a prejudice against Negroes, but I just wanted you all to know about it." Stewart said he "wanted to crawl into a mouse hole"; but Wayne told him, "Well, welcome to the club. I'm glad you made it."[7][10]

Ford's behavior "...really pissed Wayne off," Strode said, "but he would never take it out on Ford," the man largely responsible for his rise to stardom. "He ended up taking it out on me." While filming an exterior shot on a horse-drawn cart, Wayne almost lost control of the horses, and knocked Strode away when he attempted to help. When the horses did stop, Wayne tried to pick a fight with the younger and fitter Strode; Ford called out, "Don't hit him, Woody, we need him." Wayne later told Strode, "We gotta work together. We both gotta be professionals." Strode blamed Ford for nearly all the friction on the set. "What a miserable film to make," he added.[11]

Stewart received top billing over Wayne on promotional posters, but in the film itself Wayne's screen card appears first. The studio also specified that Wayne's name appear before Stewart's on theatre marquees, reportedly at Ford's request.[12] "Wayne actually played the lead," Ford said, to Peter Bogdanovich. "Jimmy Stewart had most of the sides [sequences with dialogue], but Wayne was the central character, the motivation for the whole thing."[13]


The film's music score was composed by Cyril J. Mockridge; but in scenes involving Hallie's relationships with Doniphon and Stoddard, Ford reprised Alfred Newman's "Ann Rutledge Theme", from Young Mr. Lincoln. He told Bogdanovich that he used the theme in both films to evoke repressed desire and lost love.[14] The film scholar Kathryn Kalinak notes that Ann Rutledge's theme "encodes longing" and "fleshes out the failed love affair between Hallie and Tom Doniphon, the growing love between Hallie and Ranse Stoddard, and the traumatic loss experienced by Hallie over her choice of one over the other, none of which is clearly articulated by dialogue."[15]

The Burt Bacharach-Hal David song "(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance" became a Top 10 hit for Gene Pitney. Though based upon the movie's plotline, it was not used in the film. Pitney said in an interview that he was in the studio about to record the song when "... Bacharach informed us that the film just came out." Regardless, the song went to No. 4.[16] Jimmie Rodgers also recorded the song, in the Gene Pitney style. James Taylor covered it on his 1985 album That's Why I'm Here, as did The Royal Guardsmen on their 1967 album Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. It was also covered by the Australian rock band Regurgitator on its 1998 David/Bacharach tribute album To Hal and Bacharach. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the top 100 Western songs of all time.[17]


Liberty Valance was released in April 1962, and achieved both financial and critical success. Produced for $3.2 million, it grossed $8 million,[1] making it the 16th highest-grossing film of 1962. Edith Head's costumes were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design (black-and-white), one of the few westerns ever nominated in that category.[18] The film is considered one of Ford's best[19] and, in one poll, ranked with The Searchers and The Shootist as one of Wayne's best westerns.[20]

Roger Ebert wrote that each of the ten Ford/Wayne westerns is "... complete and self-contained in a way that approaches perfection", and singled out Liberty Valance as "the most pensive and thoughtful" of the group.[21] Director Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) listed Ford as a major influence on his work, and Liberty Valance as his favorite Ford film. "It was the only film," he said, "where [Ford] learned about something called pessimism."[22]

In a retrospective analysis, The New York Times called Liberty Valance " of the great Western classics," because "it questions the role of myth in forging the legends of the West, while setting this theme in the elegiac atmosphere of the West itself, set off by the aging Stewart and Wayne."[23] The New Yorker's Richard Brody described it as "the greatest American political movie", because of its depictions of a free press, town meetings, statehood debates, and the "civilizing influence" of education in frontier America.[21]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Box Office Information for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Numbers. Retrieved June 13, 2013.
  2. ^ McBride (2003), p. 306
  3. ^ Kalinak K. How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford. University of California Press (2007), p. 96. ISBN 0520252349.
  4. ^ Coursen, D (May 21, 2009). John Ford’s Wilderness: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Parallax View. Retrieved September 10, 2014.
  5. ^ McBride (2003), p. 312
  6. ^ Munn (2004), p. 232
  7. ^ a b Munn (2004), p. 233
  8. ^ A Look Back ... John Ford: War Movies. Retrieved December 1, 2014.
  9. ^ Wayne, Pilar. John Wayne, pp. 43–47.
  10. ^ McBride, Joseph (2003). Searching For John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 631. ISBN 0-312-31011-0. 
  11. ^ Munn (2004), p. 234
  12. ^ Matthews, L. History of Western Movies. Crescent (1984), p. 132. ISBN 0517414759
  13. ^ Bogdanovich, P. John Ford. University of California Press (1978), p. 99. ISBN 0520034988
  14. ^ Bogdanovich, P. John Ford. University of California Press (1978), pp. 95-6. ISBN 0520034988
  15. ^ Kalinak K. How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford. University of California Press (2007), pp. 96-98. ISBN 0520252349.
  16. ^ Gene Pitney, Who Sang of 60's Teenage Pathos, Dies at 65
  17. ^ Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014. 
  18. ^ The 35th Academy Awards (1963) Nominees and Winners. Retrieved September 15, 2014.
  19. ^ Top 7 John Ford films (because we couldn’t pick just 5). movie Retrieved September 15, 2014.
  20. ^ Readers suggest the 10 best westerns. archive. Retrieved September 15, 2014.
  21. ^ a b Ebert, R (December 28, 2011). The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. archive. Retrieved September 15, 2014.
  22. ^ Nixon, R. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Turner Classic Movies archive. Retrieved September 15, 2014.
  23. ^ Erickson, H. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. New York Times archive. Retrieved September 15, 2014.
  24. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06. 
  25. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06. 
  26. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-19. 

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