“THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE” is considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time. Directed by longtime and legendary Western director John Ford, the film would bring together two of Hollywood’s top film stars James Stewart and John Wayne.
“THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE” would become one of the last Western films to be shot in B&W and in Dec. 2007, the film was selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as part of the few films deemed as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”. And “THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE” is truly an awesome John Ford film unlike many Westerns that focused on the gun battles and outlaw exchange. Although, “THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE” does include some elements of the standard Western but in a way, it’s more of a tragedy. Saying anything more than beyond that would spoil the film.
The film begins with a US Senator Ransom “Rance” Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) coming back to the small town of Shinbone. The two are there for a funeral but when a newspaper editor shows up to the funeral demanding for an interview and pressing on the Senator to answer him on why he has returned to Shinbone to bury someone insignificant.
Stoddard decides to talk to the media in hopes that his story will get published.
The story goes back into the past when Stoddard was an attorney who is influenced by law and order. As he and a few people are riding in a stagecoach, they are stopped and robbed by an outlaw named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). When Valance’s henchman try to steal one of the women’s pendant given to her by her dead husband, Stoddard tries to defend her and vows that he will bring Valance to the court of law and put him in jail.
The threat to Valance doesn’t come off that well and Stoddard is immediately beaten with Stoddard’s silver whip. The outlaws leave Stoddard alone and beaten but is found later by Dom Doniphon (John Wayne).
Doniphon takes the injured Stoddard to the town of Shinbone where he is being taken care of immediately by Hallie and the restaurant owners Peter Ericson (John Qualen) and his wife Nora (Jeanete Nolan). When Stoddard comes to, he tells them that he is an attorney and will put him in jail. But Doniphon tells him that in the West, there are no laws and one will need a gun if he was going to survive.
When the bumbling, lazy and overweight Marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is brought to hear Stoddard’s story, he says that since it happened outside of Shinbone, he has no jurisdiction. So, nothing can be done. Doniphon tells Stoddard that there is one quick gun in the town that Liberty Valance can’t keep up with and that’s him.
Stoddard helps the Ericson’s and Hallie at the restaurant as a dishwasher, meanwhile Doniphon who is very much in love with Hallie brings her a cactus when flowers on them. She loves them. When Stoddard looks in his law books about jurisdiction, he learns that the Marshal does have jurisdiction and can get involved. He tries to show Hallie the book but we learn that she is illiterate (it turns out that many of the people in Shinbone are illiterate). And Stoddard agrees to teach Hallie how to read and others who want to learn as well.
As Donaphon sits down in his seat at the restaurant awaiting his food, he talks to the town’s publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) about the rumors circulating about Liberty Valance (about him robbing and what he did to Stoddard).
Meanwhile, Liberty Valance and his henchman come into the restaurant and take a table and food from people who were eating. Everyone sits in fear except Tom Doniphon who eyes him carefully. When Stoddard comes out to take Doniphon’s food to him, Valance and his henchman see him and Valance trips him and spilling Doniphon’s food all over the floor.
This leads to a confrontation between Doniphon and Valance in which Doniphon asks for Valance to pick up his food that he spilled. The two engage each other’s eyes as they look as if they will shoot each other down. Stoddard disgusted by what he sees, picks up the spilled food and can’t believe people will kill each other for a steak.
Dutton Peabody is surprised by Stoddard standing up for his belief and gives him inspiration to write the news about what he saw. He talks about Stoddard sharing an office for him and even putting his sign of “Attorney-at-Law” at his office. Even using the space to teach people to read and Stoddard decides to stay longer in the town of Shinbone. Hallie is very happy and Doniphon is a bit jealous of what he sees. He tells both Peabody and Stoddard that if they print any news about Valance, they will be dead men.
Meanwhile, Doniphon leaves the town for business and we see Stoddard become good friends with Peabody, as Stoddard admires his written work. Even the school is successful as adults and children have come to learn to read and have learned a little about the US government. Hallie starts to grow closer to Stoddard because of his kindness and helping her and the townspeople to read.
Doniphon arrives and is shocked the whole town is now trying to learn to read including his workhand Pompey (Woody Strode) which upsets him. He tells the townspeople that Valance has killed two homesteaders (the Homestead Act in the 1860’s gave an applicant freehold title to 160 acres of undeveloped land outside of the original 13 colonies).
Stoddard now gets the idea that the law in the West is about using a gun and not the law. He borrows Peabody’s gun and learns to shoot. Doniphon tells Peabody to follow him to his ranch and tries to teach him how to shoot a gun. When Doniphon tries to size him up, he learns that Stoddard can’t shoot. He then tells Stoddard to place three paint cans on top of the posts and immediately Doniphon shoots the paint cans which explode paint on him. Stoddard not too happy, punches Doniphon.
We learn that Doniphon has Pompey and a few men building a house for Hallie. Doniphon intends to marry Hallie and live on their ranch. Telling Stoddard that Hallie is his woman and that ever since he came into town, he has interfered.
Meanwhile, a convention is being held for two delegates that would go to the territorial capital city and Valance who works with cattle land barons and against statehood wants to be voted in and even bullies the townspeople. But the people choose Stoddard and Shinbone Star publisher Dutton Peabody. Valance then challenges Stoddard to a gunfight.
Peabody gains courage and prints a story on the Shinbone Star about Valance. When he enters his newspaper office at night, Valance and his henchman are in there waiting for him. They beat him severely and destroy his printing press. Stoddard runs into the printing press and can’t believe that Valance has beaten him so badly. He asks the townspeople to get a doctor but tells the Marshal that he is ready to get into a gunfight against Valance.
“THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE” is a film that features a well-written screenplay but most of all John Ford’s experience of getting the best of his talent for this film. What happens in the final 15-minutes of the film is amazing and when you get to the final moments of the film, you literally are left in awe. Overall, a magnificent film!
But with such a strong screenplay under the directing of John Ford, you get powerful performances from John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin and Vera Miles. Actually, there are a bunch of other talents with their own characters who also shine in this film that stick in your mind and how these characters contributed to making the town of Shinbone come alive.
“THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE” is highly recommended!