The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Ford
Produced by Willis Goldbeck
John Ford
Written by James Warner Bellah
Willis Goldbeck
Dorothy M. Johnson
(short story)
Starring John Wayne
James Stewart
Vera Miles
Lee Marvin
Edmond O'Brien
Woody Strode
Andy Devine
John Carradine
Lee Van Cleef
Music by Cyril J. Mockridge
Alfred Newman
Cinematography William H. Clothier
Editing by Otho Lovering
Studio Paramount Pictures
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) April 22, 1962 (1962-04-22)
Running time 123 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget US$3.2 million (estimated)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a 1962 American Western film directed by John Ford and 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.

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".



Elderly U.S. Senator Ransom "Rance" Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie arrive by train in the small town of Shinbone, to attend the funeral of an apparent nobody in the Western United States. They pay their respects to the dead man at the undertaker's establishment, where the senator is interrupted with a request for a newspaper interview. Stoddard grants the request and Hallie goes off with a friend to visit a burned-down house with obvious significance to her.

As the interview with the local reporter begins, the film flashes back several decades into the past as Stoddard reflects on his first arrival at Shinbone by stagecoach to establish a law practice, and subsequent events.

As the flashback begins, a gang of outlaws led by gunfighter Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) hold up the stagecoach. Stoddard is brutally beaten, left for dead and later rescued by local rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Stoddard is nursed back to health by restaurant owner Peter Ericson (John Qualen), his wife Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and daughter, Hallie (Vera Miles). It later emerges that Hallie is Doniphon's love interest.

Shinbone's townsfolk are regularly menaced by Valance and his gang. Local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is ill prepared and unwilling to enforce the law. Doniphon is the only local courageous enough to challenge Valance's lawless behavior. On one occasion Doniphon even intervenes on Stoddard's behalf when Valance publicly humiliates the inept Easterner.

Stoddard is an advocate for justice under the law, not man. He earns the respect and affection of Hallie when he offers to teach her to read after he discovers, to her embarrassment, she's had no formal education. Stoddard's influence on Hallie and the town is further evidenced when he begins a school for the townspeople with Hallie's help.

In Shinbone, the local newspaper editor-publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) writes a story about local ranch owners' opposition to the territory potential statehood. Valance convinces the ranchers that if they'll hire him, he can get elected as a delegate to represent the cattlemen's interest. Shinbone's residents meet to elect two delegates to send to the statehood convention at the territorial capital. Valance attempts to bully the townspeople into electing him as a delegate. Eventually, Stoddard and Peabody are chosen. Valance assaults and badly beats Peabody after an unflattering newspaper article is published. Sensing that Valance is out of control, Stoddard accepts a challenge to a gun duel despite his complete lack of skills. Stoddard miraculously kills Valance with one shot, to the surprise of everyone including himself. Hallie responds with tearful affection and Doniphon congratulates Stoddard on his success.

Sensing that he has lost Hallie's affections, Doniphon gets drunk in the saloon and drives out Valance's men who have been calling for Stoddard to be lynched. The barman tries to tell Doniphon's farmhand Pompey that, as a black man, he cannot be served, to which Doniphon angrily shouts: "Who says he can't? Pour yourself a drink, Pompey". Pompey instead drags Doniphon home, where the latter burns down the house he was building in anticipation of marrying Hallie.

Stoddard is hailed as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and based on this achievement is nominated as the local representative to the statehood convention. At this point Doniphon tells Stoddard that it was he (Doniphon), hidden across the street, who shot and killed Valance, and not Stoddard. When asked, Doniphon replies he did it to please Hallie, which he now regrets because "she's your girl now". Pushing Stoddard to go back and stand for nomination, Doniphon says, "You taught her to read and write, now give her something to read and write about!"

Stoddard returns to the convention and is chosen as representative. He marries Hallie and eventually becomes the governor of the new state. He then becomes a two term U.S. senator, then the American ambassador to Great Britain, a U.S. senator again, and at the time of the funeral is the favorite for his party's nomination as vice-president.

The film returns to the present day and the interview ends. The newspaper man, understanding now the truth about the killing of Valance, burns his notes stating: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".

Stoddard and Hallie board the train for Washington, melancholy about the lie that led to their prosperous life. With the area becoming more and more civilized, Stoddard decides, to Hallie's delight, to retire from politics, return to the territory to set up a law practice. When Stoddard thanks the train conductor for the train ride to and from D.C. and the many courtesies extended to him by the railroad, the conductor says, "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!"



The film was shot in black-and-white on Paramount sound stages, which was quite a contrast with Ford's other films of the period such as The Searchers which included vast western exteriors and color photography.[1] Some maintain that Paramount needed to cut costs and insisted on a lower budgeted film.[2] Paramount executive A.C. Lyles maintains that Ford wanted to make the picture but Paramount had not the budget available. Ford then offered to make it for whatever budget they had (a puzzling scenario since Ford had two of the industry's biggest box-office attractions, both at the heights of their careers, James Stewart and John Wayne, lined up to work together for the first time). Lee Marvin stated at length in a filmed interview that Ford realized that the film would not be as effective shot in color because the atmosphere and use of shadows would be adversely impacted and fought to make it in black-and-white.

Although greatly admired as a filmmaker, Ford was well-known for making life difficult for his long-suffering casts, sometimes using a kind of psychological warfare on his actors to extract the most powerful performances possible. James Stewart frequently told a story about Ford embarrassing him by making him look like a racist. When asked by Ford what he thought of the appearance of Woody Strode, an African-American, in dyed grey hair, overalls and hat, Stewart remarked that "it looks a bit Uncle Remus-like". Ford then called for the crew's attention and announced that "one of our actors doesn't like Woody's costume, doesn't like Woody, and probably doesn't like Negroes". Stewart enjoyed the ribbing, and Strode himself claimed that Stewart was "one of the nicest men you'll ever meet anywhere in the world".[2]

But Ford's famed needling sometimes was more painful. Wayne made many films with Ford, with whom he was close. However, Wayne was a frequent target of the director's venomous remarks. Strode claims that Ford "kept needling Duke [Wayne] about his failure to make it as a football player" while Strode was "a real football player". (Wayne's potential career in football had been put off by an injury.)

Ford also admonished Wayne for failing to serve in World War II while Stewart was regarded as a war hero: "How rich did you get while Jimmy was risking his life?" Wayne's failure to serve in the conflict was a source of great guilt for him.[3]

Ford's behavior caused Wayne to take his frustrations out on Strode, who believed that they could otherwise have been friends. While filming an exterior shot on a horse-drawn cart, Wayne almost lost control of the horses and knocked Strode away when he tried to help. When the horses did stop, Wayne almost started a fight with Strode, who was much fitter. Ford gave them time to calm down, and Wayne later told Strode that they had to "work together. We both gotta be professionals". Strode blamed Ford's treatment of Wayne for the trouble, adding, "What a miserable film to make".[2]


The film's dramatically hard-driving music score was composed by Cyril J. Mockridge. In certain scenes involving the character of Hallie, Ford used part of Alfred Newman's "Ann Rutledge Theme" from his earlier film Young Mr. Lincoln. Ford told Peter Bogdanovich in the latter's book John Ford that the theme evoked the same meaning, lost love, in both films.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David later wrote a song based upon the plotline of the movie and called "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", which became a Top 10 hit for Gene Pitney but was not used in the film. Apparently, Pitney was not asked to record it until after the film came out.[4] The chorus of the Pitney recording features two hard strikes on a drum in order to represent the shots that were fired. Jimmie Rodgers also recorded the song, in the Gene Pitney style. James Taylor covered the song on his 1985 album That's Why I'm Here. The Royal Guardsmen also covered the song on their 1967 album Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.

Notable aspects

The exact location of the film's setting is unclear. There are frequent references to the "Picketwire River" in the film. The Picketwire River was an aberational name for the Purgatoire River in southeastern Colorado. Even though a date was never stated, the U.S. flag in the schoolroom scene has 38 stars, placing the film after Colorado became the 38th state on August 1, 1876. Saguaro cactus are visible in parts of the film. The only section of the U.S. in which the saguaro plant is native is the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and an extremely small area of California. There is, however, no overt mention in the film of a particular territory.

Before leaving the bar to meet Ransom Stoddard, Liberty Valance wins a hand of poker with two pair--aces over eights--known as dead man's hand.


The film was an instant hit when released in April 1962, thanks to its classic story and popular stars John Wayne and James Stewart. The film was nominated for Best Costume Design Edith Head, one of the few westerns to ever be nominated for the award. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has continued its popularity through repeated television broadcasts and the rental market. Along with The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, and Stagecoach, it is also widely considered to be one of director John Ford's best westerns and generally ranks alongside Red River, The Searchers, The Big Trail, and Stagecoach as one of John Wayne's best films.

Sergio Leone, the director of such classic Westerns as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and one of the directors Ford influenced the most, said it was his favorite John Ford film because "it was the only film where he (Ford) learned about something called pessimism."


Stewart was given top billing over Wayne in the film's posters and previews, but in the film itself Wayne has top billing. Their names are displayed on pictures of signposts, one after the other, with Wayne's name shown first and slightly higher on its post. Ford remarked in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich that he made it apparent to the audience that Vera Miles' character had never gotten over Tom Doniphon because "I wanted Wayne to be the lead".[5]


  1. ^ The Fourth Virgin Film Guide, edited by James Pallot and the editors of Cinebook; published by Virgin Books in 1995
  2. ^ a b c John Wayne - The Man Behind The Myth by Michael Munn, published by Robson Books, 2004
  3. ^ Wayne, Pilar. John Wayne, pp. 43–47.
  4. ^ Gene Pitney, Who Sang of 60's Teenage Pathos, Dies at 65
  5. ^ Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors by Peter Bogdanovich

External links

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