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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 John Ford Productions distributor = Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) April 22, 1962
Running time 123 minutes
Language English
Budget $3.2M (US, est.)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a 1962 Western movie directed by John Ford and starring James Stewart and John Wayne. The black and white film was released by Paramount Pictures and the screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck was adapted from a short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson.

In 2007, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Stewart and Wayne were to be reunited in Wayne's final movie, The Shootist.[1]



In the late 19th century, a U.S. Senator and his wife have come back to the small town of Shinbone, in an unnamed Western state, in order to attend the funeral of a friend. The senator is prevailed upon by a newspaper editor to explain why he has come to bury an apparent nobody, Tom Doniphon. The senator explains and the film unfolds in flashback to a time before the railroad came to Shinbone and the region was a western territory with statehood the pressing issue.

Ransom "Rance" Stoddard (James Stewart) is an attorney who believes in law and order, but refuses to carry a gun. After graduating from law school, he heads out west to set up a practice in the town of Shinbone. A group of outlaws hold up the stagecoach and Stoddard is brutally beaten and left for dead when he dares to stand up to them. He is later found and taken to town by rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) and is cared for by Hallie (Vera Miles), a woman widely regarded to be the love of Doniphon's life.

It is an open secret that the outlaws are led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) who uses a silver-handled whip as part of his intimidation tactics. Valance and his men often come to town in order to cause disturbances in saloons and restaurants. Local law enforcement in the person of the slovenly and spineless town marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is helpless to stop him; he excuses his inaction since Valance's crimes were committed outside the city limits.

Doniphon is one of the few people around to stand up to Valance and his men. However, he himself believes that there is no law and that one "needs a gun in these parts." Doniphon feels that Stoddard is a hopeless tenderfoot who is unable to handle himself in the kind of fights that are common in the West. Stoddard in return cannot understand Doniphon's thinking, which is exactly like Liberty Valance's: might makes right.

Valance takes particular delight in humiliating Stoddard who is earning his keep by working as a waiter in a restaurant. He trips him over and orders him to pick up the steak now lying on the floor. Doniphon, who had ordered the steak, tells Valance to pick it up and the stalemate is only resolved by Stoddard picking it up, but making it further inedible. "Nobody fights my battles," he warns Doniphon, who replies with "Well, that was my steak that he ruined."

When Hallie tells Stoddard she can't read or write, he decides to set up a makeshift school. Local children and a number of adults attend including Doniphon's African-American hired hand Pompey (Woody Strode). As part of the lessons, Stoddard lectures them on the benefits of democracy and the Constitution. While standing under a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, Pompey tries to recite the American Declaration of Independence but stumbles on the "all men are created equal" part claiming he "just plum forgot it", to which Stoddard replies: "a lot of people forgot that part".[2] Doniphon is disdainful of the school and interrupts a class to tell Stoddard how Valance and his men have killed two homesteaders.

Valance works for cattle land barons who wish to keep the territory as it is and prevent it from becoming a state that will introduce laws that could undermine their businesses. A convention is held to select two delegates to the territorial capital city. Almost everyone in town attends, with the notable exceptions of Pompey and the women. Valance attempts to bully the townspeople into making him one of the delegates. Stoddard himself nominates Doniphon, but he refuses since he has "personal plans," i.e. marrying Hallie. Stoddard and the alcoholic publisher of the Shinbone Star, Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien), are selected.

After being thwarted in the meeting, Valance challenges Stoddard to a gunfight. He and his men continue to terrorize the town. He nearly beats Peabody to death after the publication of an unflattering article in the newspaper. In response, Stoddard decides that he must go through with the Valance gunfight. Unfortunately, Stoddard is completely unskilled with a gun and no match for the infamous gunfighter. But, when the shootout occurs, Stoddard miraculously kills Valance, a shock to everyone.

Stunned and wounded, Stoddard goes to Hallie, who responds with tearful adoration. Doniphon sees this and remarks that Stoddard "... got outta that fix real handy." Assuming that he has lost Hallie's affection, 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 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 becomes legendary as "the man who shot Liberty Valance," a hero. At a convention to pick the delegate to Washington, D.C. to lobby for statehood, Stoddard is nominated but he has guilt pangs about being a killer and capitalizing on an act of violence. It is only then that Doniphon, who has also turned up for the convention, tells him the "true" story: Doniphon, fetched by Pompey on the pleadings of Hallie, and sure that Valance would kill Stoddard, had stood in a nearby side-street and shot Valance with a rifle. It happened that his shot coincided with Stoddard's and Valance's. The fact that he shot the man from a discreet distance without warning means that it was more murder than an actual gunfight and — unlikely though it is — Doniphon might face murder charges on those grounds.

When Stoddard asks why he did it, Doniphon bitterly replies he'd done it to please Hallie, which he now regrets because "she's your girl now." Pushing Stoddard to go back in and stand for nomination, Doniphan 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 enjoys a busy political career, becoming a congressman and serving several terms as Governor of the state and Senator. He even serves a spell as ambassador to Britain and is seen as a potential US Vice-President.

Years later, Tom Doniphon has died, having led a lonely, secluded life. Stoddard and Hallie return for the funeral where they meet old friends like Appleyard and Pompey. Much has changed with the town now having shops and actual schools, irrigation projects etc. Stoddard confesses the whole story for the first time, but the newspaper editor refuses to publish it and burns the notes his reporter took, stating: "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Senator Stoddard and Hallie return to Washington by train, 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 give up politics, return to the territory and set up a law office.

Stoddard asks a conductor how long it will take to get to Washington. The conductor tells them that the train is traveling at high speed and that at an upcoming junction they are holding the express train for him: "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance."



The movie was filmed in black-and-white on Paramount's sound stages, which was quite a contrast with Ford's other movies of the period, such as The Searchers, which included great western exterior shots and colour photography.[3] Some maintain that Paramount needed to cut costs and insisted on a more low budget film.[1]

Although greatly admired as a film-maker, director John 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. When asked by Ford what he thought of the appearance of Woody Strode, an African-American, in greyed up hair, overalls and hat, Stewart remarked that "it looks a bit Uncle Remus-like". Ford then implied that Stewart was racist. On the other hand, Strode himself claimed that Stewart was "one of the nicest men you'll ever meet anywhere in the world".[1]

Wayne made many films with Ford with whom he was close, but during production was always a prime target of the director's venomous remarks. During filming, 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, though it is claimed that it was due to the influence of producers who did not want to lose their emerging star.

Ford's behaviour 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 than he was. 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".[1]


Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote a song called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which became a Top 10 Hit for Gene Pitney but was not used in the movie. Instead, the main titles contain a hard-driving theme used in an earlier John Ford production. The Chorus of the song features a single hard strike from a kettle- drum, or tympani that slides upward, in order to represent the shots that were fired. Jimmie Rodgers also recorded the song, in the Gene Pitney style. James Taylor covered the Bacharach–David song on his 1985 album That's Why I'm Here. The Royal Guardsmen also covered the song in their 1967 album Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.

In certain scenes involving the character of Hallie, Ford used part of Alfred Newman's "Ann Rutledge Theme" from his earlier movie 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 movies.


There are frequent references to the "Picketwire River" in the movie. The Picketwire River was a previous 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 movie after Colorado became the 38th state on August 1, 1876. Saguaro cactus are visible in parts of the film, suggesting the contradictory possibility of Arizona as the location of Shinbone, as Saguaro are native to Arizona. Arizona became the 48th state on February 14, 1912. 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 a full house, aces full with eights — a set known as a 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. At the 1963 Academy Awards, the film was nominated for Best Costume Design for 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.

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 movie's posters and the previews (trailers) shown in cinemas and on television prior to the film's release, but in the film itself, Wayne is given top billing. Their names are displayed on pictures of signposts, one after the other, with Wayne's name shown first with his sign mounted slightly higher on its post than Stewart's. 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." [4]


  • Maxwell Scott: "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
  • Tom Doniphon: "Liberty Valance's the toughest man south of the Picketwire — next to me."
  • Liberty Valance: "You lookin' for trouble, Doniphon?"
Tom Doniphon: "You aimin' to help me find some?"
  • Tom Doniphon: "It ain't mannerly out west to let a man drink alone."
  • Tom Doniphon: "It was cold blooded murder...but I can live with that."
Ransom Stoddard: "That all men are created equal."
Pompey nods.
Ransom Stoddard: "That's fine, Pompey."
Pompey: "I knew that, Mr. Rance, but I just plumb forgot it."
Ransom Stoddard: "That's all right, Pompey. A lot of people forget that part of it."

(Pompey is a black man (slaves were emancipated in 1865) and is standing beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.)

  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the source of the "Pilgrim" phrase that is commonly used in John Wayne impersonations; Wayne's character addresses James Stewart's character as "Pilgrim" 23 times in the film. Though part of the John Wayne persona for many impressionists, Wayne used the term in only one other film, McLintock!, and then only once.


  1. ^ a b c d John Wayne — The Man Behind The Myth by Michael Munn, published by Robson Books, 2004
  2. ^ "Spiritedness, Reason, and the Rule of Law: John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" by David W. Livingstone, Ph.D., Malaspina University-College
  3. ^ The Fourth Virgin Film Guide, edited by James Pallot and the editors of Cinebook; published by Virgin Books in 1995
  4. ^ Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors by Peter Bogdanovich

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