What do you get if you combine one of the most popular actors of his generation with one of the greatest, and put them in a Western directed by the man who defined the genre and left an indelible impression on cinema forever? You get The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a film that combines the brilliance of John Wayne and James Stewart with the incredible talent of John Ford, in what would become one of the most wonderful Western films ever made.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard, played by James Stewart, a senator that returns to a small town named Shinbone to attend the funeral of an old friend. When asked, he recalls the tale that happened several years before. When Ransom was just a young and idealistic lawyer, he arrived in Shinbone to practice law. A fateful encounter with the titular villain, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) leaves Ransom injured and hopeless. He is taken in by some residents of the town and becomes a part of the community, led by the brave and valiant Tom Doniphon. Over the next few weeks, Ransom and Tom work together to try and bring down the antagonistic terror, and when Ransom successfully brings his downfall, he has to live with the fact that he will always be known as the man who shot Liberty Valance – and that isn’t quite as easy as it seems.
John Wayne is one of the most iconic performers to ever grace the silver screen. Recognizable by his frame, his distinctive voice and genuine personality, he served as a welcome screen presence for several decades, working in a wide variety of films. However, it was the Western where Wayne truly found his niche. Personally, one need only look to The Searchers or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to see how he helped define the genre. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Wayne is given a tremendous amount to do in creating a very likable character that is also one of his most complex. Right from the outset, we know that he meets his demise, but that doesn’t stop us from openly hoping he doesn’t. Tom Doniphon is far from a simple character, and Wayne’s commitment to the rule was wonderful. The complexities of the character are evident in the fact that Wayne himself seems to be critically commenting on the entire idea of the taut “Western hero”, who is seemingly without fault. Tom is a character who shows his jealousy, anger and love without hiding it. He is a flawed character, and that’s wonderful.
James Stewart seems to be incapable of ever giving a bad performance. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance put him in slightly unfamiliar territory – not to say he was a stranger to the genre – rather, I hadn’t seem him play this kind of a character within a Western before – his milquetoast, highly cerebral everyman seemed out of place within the town of Shinbone – yet Stewart did incredibly well handling the character within the genre. Ransom is the true hero of this film – a normal man that is thrust into a world he doesn’t necessarily want to be a part of. He may not be as valiant as Tom, but he is certainly a very brave man who takes up the challenge as best as he can. I wouldn’t call this Stewart’s best performance, but I would say this is amongst his most fascinating, and proof that he was one of the greatest actors of all time.
The villain of this film was Lee Marvin, who played the titular Liberty Valance. I just need to say that when I think of Lee Marvin in a Western, it is difficult to not imagine him in the ill-fated (yet highly entertaining) Paint Your Wagon, an utterly bizarre film. Yet Marvin was a bona fide star, and playing the villain in this film was perfect for him. He is strange, hilarious and utterly terrifying. He is gloriously sinister, and he creates a menacing character. He may not be present for much of the film, but his spectre certainly does loom throughout, and the tense final confrontation between Valance and Ransom is a masterclass in acting from all parties involved. Marvin is wonderful in the film, and while it may not be the role that defined his career, it was certainly a very memorable performance from a great actor.
The supporting cast of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is populated with some delightful performances. Andy Devine is a riot as Marshall Link Appleyard, a sweet but inefficient lawman that does his best to keep law and order within the small town. His character is both annoying and lovable, and Devine is such a warm presence. Vera Miles plays Hallie, the female love interest of both characters. Initially, I thought she was a bit wasted and served as more of a plot device, but upon further inspection, I saw that she was actually a lot more complex than a simple love interest. She was tough and independent, and fascinating. Her chemistry with Wayne and Stewart was electric, and she did a fantastic job of creating a memorable character with what she was given. What I expected to be an afterthought of a character actually turned into a pretty complex one.
Putting personal feelings aside, there is no doubt that John Ford was highly influential. The Searchers is a masterpiece of classical filmmaking, and as Martin Scorsese said, a film that influenced each and every film that came after it. In one of their last collaborations, Ford and Wayne bring out the best in each other. Ford creates a film with characters quite different from previous films he made with Wayne, who in turn gives a performance that brought out the true complexities of the film Ford was trying to make. It is a film much darker in tone and intention than the feel-good The Searchers. It is a film that is undeniably bleak, but still quite funny and entertaining.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was boldly shot in black-and-white, which instantly told me that this was going to be a very different kind of Western. Rather than being set in wide-open fields and prairies, it was rather filmed in claustrophobic alleys and small rooms, creating a sense of paranoia. The true fear the characters feel towards Liberty Valance is brought up in the fact that this film takes place in a small town, and the simplicity of the filmmaking, combined with the genuine fear provided by the wonderful actors, gives it an added boost of brilliance. It is simply made, but it is far more complex. I thought the framing of this film was genius, and it saw Ford doing some of his most audacious work. Truly magnificent in how it handles its story, creating something genuinely thrilling.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great film. It is serious, but has a lovely sense of humor and a warm-hearted nature. Wayne, Stewart and Marvin are wonderful, and the film itself is far different from a lot previously made in the genre. It isn’t a film that a lot can be said about it, but it is certainly an entertaining, but still very complex, piece of cinema that is a great addition to the canon of great Western films. It deserves its status as a classic of the genre, because it really is wonderful.