Vintage Reviews: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Is the pen really mightier than the sword? John Ford’s 1962 classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance explores this question. 

In the film, we are taken to the town of Shinbone, where the local residents are being terrorized by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a hired gun working for Big Cattle. Amidst defenseless homesteaders, there are only two men strong enough to stand up to Liberty Valance, men whose strength shows in different ways. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the only gunslinger tougher than Liberty Valance, has been the town hero for quite some time. Rance Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), the newly-arrived lawyer from the East, is gaining favor by bringing some law and order to dusty, old Shinbone. Between these two men, Liberty will fall, but which one of them will take him down?

This film succeeds because it is well-shot and well-written. The storytelling is not only clear where it needs to be, but is also highly symbolic, metaphorical, and ironic. For instance, much was made of Paramount’s decision to shoot this film in black and white in 1962; one interpretation is that the stark aesthetics of black and white (and grey) help to mirror the morality tale that the film is trying to tell. Another interpretation is that Paramount was trying to cut costs.

Either way, the impact of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is still felt today. The most classic line from the movie, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” still resonates over fifty years later, as the concepts of “truthiness”, “fake news”, and “alternative facts” have become prevalent in our zeitgeist. Like the recent events in our current news cycle, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance explores the notions, as well as the value of truth, and how “truth”, whatever that is, shapes important events in our communities.

In exploring how the Wild West was tamed, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is, amongst other things, a text on history itself -- on how the victorious often dictate the stories we hear.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, might make another triumph; the film has generated enough interest for Paramount to consider a remake, possibly set in 1980’s Western Pennsylvania. Not much news has been made on the remake has been made in the last two years, which could mean a couple of different things: the remake has fallen into development hell, or perhaps the studio is taking its time to make something really good. Either way, we’ll still have this old classic to watch.


-Blake Pynnonen