Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of my favorite John Ford films. I have been planning on reviewing it, but here is a review that says it all.
The residents of Shinbone are about to choose delegates to a territorial convention where they will vote on statehood. The farmers support statehood, which would close the frontier by creating private property rights in the ranchers’ open range north of the Picketwire River that borders Shinbone. The ranchers oppose them and hire gunslinger Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) to force the farmers to elect anti-statehood delegates.
Into this maelstrom comes Jimmy Stewart as Ransom Stoddard, a freshly minted lawyer. Valance holds up the stage and beats Stoddard to within an inch of his life. Left at the side of the road, Stoddard is found by Tom Donophon (John Wayne) and carried to Shinbone and safety. Donophon is everything that Stoddard is not: rugged, self-reliant, and handy with a gun. By contrast, Stoddard is hysterical and ineffectual. After his recovery, he is put to work as a dishwasher and schoolteacher. Although he owes his life to Donophon, Stoddard tells him that he’s no different from Liberty Valance: Both rely on guns. But Donophon is very different from Valance. Donophon is a rancher, but he lives south of the Picketwire and is allied to the townsfolk of Shinbone, whom he serves as protector. He is also in love with Hallie (Vera Miles), a waitress in the restaurant where Stoddard works.
The film is centered on Stoddard’s courtship of Hallie and betrayal of Donophon. When Donophon, in a rare show of affection, brings Hallie a cactus rose, Stoddard asks her whether she has ever seen a real rose. Stoddard also teaches Hallie how to read and, unlike Donophon, is given to hugging her. Donophon is the very type of the American hero: hard on the outside, soft on the inside. Stoddard is the American antihero: soft on the outside, hard on the inside. In the competition for Hallie, Donophon doesn’t stand a chance.
Liberty Valance is a tragedy, perhaps the greatest American tragedy. What makes it a tragedy is that Donophon brings on his own fall -- by killing Valance and saving Stoddard’s life. From this, everything will follow, under a grim law of necessity: Hallie will marry Stoddard, who will go on to bring statehood to the territory and close the frontier, destroying the only life Donophon knows. Donophon sees all this but cannot prevent it because he is incapable of baseness. Necessity is the special feature of tragedy, where human choices have already been made and we wait for God’s choice.
One further act of nobility is required of Donophon. He had let Stoddard think that he killed Valance, but when Stoddard is incapable of accepting the moral responsibility for this, Donophon confesses the truth. Donophon can shoulder the responsibility that Stoddard cannot bear.
The film begins with a flash-forward to Donophon’s funeral, many years later, which Stoddard (now a senator) and Hallie attend, arriving by train rather than stagecoach. Donophon has been entirely forgotten and is given a pauper’s coffin. But Hallie returns to Donophon’s deserted ranch to bring him a cactus rose, as he once brought one to her. She leaves the rose on the coffin, where it will die, but not before Stoddard notices it. On the train back to Washington, Stoddard asks Hallie who placed the rose on the coffin, and she tells him. Stoddard realizes that his wife has always been in love with another man. Just then the train conductor stops by to tell Stoddard that they’ll get him back to Washington in two days: "Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance."


Mark said...

I love this film. Thank you for posting about it. Until reading this review I hadn't fully appreciated some of the subtleties. I need to watch it again in the light of the F.H. Buckley review.

Stephanie A. Mann said...

John Ford may have been the greatest American director of the Hollywood era. He tells not only the surface story but the deeper, universal story with all its implications so beautifully. The first time I watched the movie, I thought Jimmy Stewart's character was the "good guy"--when I watched it again I realized John Wayne's character was the one who sacrificed and lived more deeply. Vera Miles also performed her role so well as she is torn between the two men. Thanks for the great review.

Julygirl said...

I never saw the film because I prefer lush landscapes and lavish period costumes, but I do acknowledge John Ford as one of the premier directors of our age. There is always more to his films than meets the eye.

Stephanie A. Mann said...

There are interesting parallels between "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and "Fort Apache"--in both cases, the legend is allowed to replace the truth. Tom Donophon really shot Liberty Valance; Colonel Thursday was an arrogant commander and poor tactitian, yet Ransom Stoddard takes the credit and Kirby York lets the legend of Thursday's heroism endure.

Fr John Abberton said...

I am a great Ford fan. I just discovered your blog and the review of TMWSLV. Many thanks. I will watch it again - for the umpteenth time. Just one point that occurred to me the other day when I was thinking about the film. There is a change in the story - almost a complete break with the past and the beginning of Donophon's downfall when he walks away from Hallie into the darkness. He is dressed up in his best clothes and hat like something out of an old Holywood silent movie (Tom Mix etc)and looks every inch the old-time western hero. The next time we see him he looks dirty and dishevelled and it's clear that Stoddart has begun to take over. Both Hallie and Stompy are in his class learning to write and hearing about politics and American history. (That scene where Donophon walks away is one of the greatest scenes in cinema - pure magic).

Enbrethiliel said...


I have to watch this now! Thanks for posting about it, Elena.

Bruce Lewis said...

"(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance"
[Burt Bacharach/Hal David]

As performed by GENE PITNEY
[Musicor 1020] April 1962


When Liberty Valance rode to town the womenfolk would hide, they'd hide
When Liberty Valance walked around the men would step aside
'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast---he was mighty good.

From out of the East a stranger came, a law book in his hand, a man
The kind of a man the West would need to tame a troubled land
'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast---he was mighty good.

Many a man would face his gun and many a man would fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

The love of a girl can make a man stay on when he should go, stay on
Just tryin' to build a peaceful life where love is free to grow
But the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When the final showdown came at last, a law book was no good.

Alone and afraid she prayed that he'd return that fateful night, aww that night
When nothin' she said could keep her man from goin' out to fight
>From the moment a girl gets to be full-grown the very first thing she learns
When two men go out to face each other only one returns

Everyone heard two shots ring out, a shot made Liberty fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.