The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Drama / Romance / Western
Directed by John Ford
Written by James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck and Dorothy M Johnson
Produced by John Ford and Willis Goldbeck
Cinematography by William H. Clothier
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
John Wayne as Tom Doniphon
James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard
Vera Miles as Hallie Stoddard
Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance
Edmond O'Brien as Dutton Peabody
Andy Devine as Marshal Link Appleyard
Ken Murray as Doc Willoughby
John Carradine as Maj. Cassius Starbuckle
Jeanette Nolan as Nora Ericson
John Qualen as Peter Ericson
Willis Bouchey as Jason Tully (conductor)
Carleton Young as Maxwell Scott
Woody Strode as Pompey
Denver Pyle as Amos Carruthers
Strother Martin as Floyd
Lee Van Cleef as Reese
Robert F. Simon as Handy Strong
O.Z. Whitehead as Herbert Carruthers
Paul Birch as Mayor Winder
Joseph Hoover as Charlie Hasbrouck (reporter for 'The Star')
It is 1910 and Sen. Rance Stoddard arrives in the small town of Shinbone with his wife, Hallie, to pay their respects at the funeral of Tom Doniphon. A reporter is surprised to see the Senator arrive in person for such an event, and questions him about his decision to appear. Rance proceeds to tell the story of his history in Shinbone, and his connection with Tom, giving the reporter an exclusive scoop as the Senator comes clean.
Back when the territory was on the verge of statehood, a group of cattle barons hire outlaw Liberty Valance to terrorize the town and prevent the territory from becoming a state, fearing new laws and industry that would jeopardize their businesses. Rance, a young lawyer at this time, is traveling west on a stagecoach to start up a law practice in the territory when his stage is attacked by Valance and his outlaws. Rance, a firm believer in the rule of law, stands up to Valance, even though he is unarmed, outnumbered and physically weaker than Valance. As a result of his heroism, he is brutally beaten and left for dead. Rancher Tom Doniphon finds him and takes him to the home of Peter and Nora Ericson, who run a restaurant with their daughter Hallie. As the Ericsons take care of Rance, and nurse him back to health, Tom checks in every once in a while, mainly to see Hallie, who he has been courting for a while.
Rance soon recovers, but is having a hard times coming to grips with the harshness of life in the Wild West. Rance and Tom verbally spar over the importance of the rule of law versus the ‘might makes right’ philosophy so ingrained in the West. Tom sees Rance as an idealistic tenderfoot who can’t fend for himself, while Rance sees Tom as the opposite side of the same coin of Liberty Valance. Meanwhile Rance takes work as a waiter to help pay back the Ericsons for their hospitality and helping take care of him. Rance’s philosophy is tested when Liberty Valance picks a fight with him, tripping Rance, who was carrying plates of food, taunting him, telling Rance to pick up the steak. Tom is present and confronts Liberty Valance, telling him to pick it up instead. There is a tense standoff between the two that is diffused when Rance picks up the food, insisting that no one fights his battles for him.
Later Rance learns that Hallie cannot read or write and decides to teach her. This leads to him accepting more students, and eventually he saves up enough money to open up a school. Rance’s school bucks the trends of the day by teaching everyone equally, including Tom’s black ranch hand, Pompey. Tom thinks the school is out of place in the Wild West and is a waste of time, interrupting the lessons to tell Rance that Liberty Valance and his men have killed two homesteaders.
The town is holding elections for a representative of the territory to send to Washington, and there is much debate on who should run. Valance tries to bully people into voting for him, while Rance nominates Tom. Tom declines, having more simple goals in mind, such as marrying Hallie and having a family in the new home he is building on his ranch. In the end, Rance is nominated along with Dutton Peabody, the publisher of the Shinbone Star newspaper and a notorious drunkard.
Not one to take defeat lightly, Liberty Valance challenges Rance to a gunfight. Rance is honor bound to accept, lest he appear a coward, although everyone encourages him not to face Liberty Valance, knowing that he is unskilled with a gun. When the time comes for the duel, everyone is stunned to see Liberty Valance fall, and Rance, although wounded, still standing. Rance is proclaimed a hero as “The man who shot Liberty Valance”, and Rance himself is rather amazed at his victory over the superior foe.
Rance returns to Hallie who bandages him up and showers affection upon him. Tom sees this and becomes morose, as he feels he has lost Hallie’s love. Tom returns to the bar to get drunk, and some of Liberty Valance’s men show up demanding the town turn over Rance so they can lynch him. Tom drives the men out, and proceeds to return to drinking with Pompey. The bartender tries to tell Pompey that he cannot be served because he is black, but Tom stands up for him, forcing the bartender to serve him. Pompey drags the inebriated Tom home, where Tom, in a fit of drunken rage, burns down the house that he was building for Hallie and himself.
In an election for delegates to lobby Washington for statehood, Rance wins by a landslide, largely due to his hero status in killing Liberty Valance. Rance is apprehensive with the fact that his victory over Liberty Valance was the embodiment of the ‘might makes right’ philosophy that he set out to erase. Tom turns up at the convention and tells Rance the real story of what happened that night. Hallie had told Pompey to get Tom to help save Rance from certain death, and Tom had done so out of his love for Hallie. Tom stood by unseen on a side street, and timed his shot with Rance's and it was really his shot that had been the one that killed Liberty Valance, not Rance’s. Tom states that he regrets his decision because Hallie is Rance’s girl now, not his. Upon hearing the news, Rance is dismayed and feels inadequate to stand for the nomination as a delegate, but Tom pushes him to do so, telling Rance that since he taught Hallie to read and write he should give her something to read and write about.
Rance returns to the convention, is elected and begins a long and prosperous political career. He marries Hallie, and Tom lives a life of seclusion as a broken man.
Upon hearing the whole story for the first time, the reporter stuns Rance by burning his notes. Rance asks him if he’s going to publish the story and the reporter replies, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Rance boards the train back to Washington, fighting the guilt that he feels over Tom’s sacrifice. Hallie is thrilled when Rance decides to give up his life of politics, and return to Shinbone and set up a law office, as he originally planned so long ago.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. It won three other awards; one Laurel Award, one Western Heritage Award, and in 2007 won the National Film Preservation Board Award as a film that should be preserved for being “Culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
The film was shot almost exclusively on Paramount sound stages, a contrast to Ford’s other films that showed stunning outdoor scenes. It is said that Paramount did not have the money for the film, but Ford so wanted to make it he agreed to shoot it with whatever budget they could provide. Faced with having to make do with indoor sets, Ford opted to film the movie in black and white, as color would have revealed the true location of the film.
Ford was renowned for being a harsh director to work for, intentionally goading his actors to get better performances for him. According to Woody Strode, the African-American actor who played Pompey, Ford used Strode to get the goats of both Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne. In one instance, Ford tried to make Stewart look like a racist when Ford asked him how Strode looked in costume. Stewart replied Strode “looked a bit Uncle Remus-like”. Ford took the opportunity to proclaim to the rest of the crew, “One of our actors doesn’t like Woody’s costume, doesn’t like Woody, and probably doesn’t like Negroes”. Neither Stewart nor Strode was offended by the comment.
A more hurtful comment occurred when Ford knocked Wayne down a few pegs by comparing some of Wayne’s failures to other actors. Strode was a UCLA alumni and former NFL football player with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. Strode stated in a interview that Ford kept picking on Wayne, pointing out his failure as a football player due to an injury and referring to Strode as a real football player.
Ford also knocked Wayne down compared to Jimmy Stewart. Both Ford and Stewart had served in the armed forces during World War II, while Wayne did not. Ford was always deeply disappointed in Wayne for not serving his country, and apparently asked Wayne on the set, “How rich did you get while Jimmy was risking his life?” Wayne’s failure to serve and Ford’s disappointment in him was a source of great guilt in John Wayne’s life.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the first occasion where John Wayne calls someone “Pilgrim”.