the man who shot liberty valance

'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance': Famed Director John Ford's Final Western


There's no doubt that we wouldn't have western films as we know them today without legendary Hollywood director John Ford paving the way. Ford was a master at bringing the historic ways of the Old West to life and creating the heroic cowboy characters we still love watching today from his iconic films like Stagecoach, The Searchers, and his final western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the 1962 film, Ford partners back up with the man he turned into a legend, John Wayne, and made his final statement on the Wild West. Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck the film was a box office hit, despite Stewart and Wayne starring as the lead characters in an action-packed film in their 50s. It was also the first time the two legendary actors starred together in a film, though they would also go on to appear in Wayne's final film together, The Shootist.

The black and white film opens with James Stewart starring as Senator Ransom Stoddard who comes back to the western town of Shinbone for the funeral of his friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Accompanied by his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) he explains to a local newspaper editor why he ended up making the long trip back. The story then follows a flashback of Stoddard as a young lawyer coming out into the American frontier where he meets the criminal Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Despite trying to help the town build up their local government, Stoddard and Valance are constantly at odds as the criminal wants to keep the town under the rules of the Old West and the local cattle barons. Things really aren't going well either under the leadership of the cowardly Marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine). 

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When Valance challenges Stoddard to a duel, Stoddard somehow defeats Valance in the showdown, making the happy locals of the frontier town nominate him for the state convention and declaring him a hero. Turns out it was actually his pal Tom Doniphon who killed Liberty Valance and he encourages him to accept the nomination and keep the secret between them. The story of the defeat of Liberty Valance turns into a western legend, one that locals know even years later when Senator Stoddard is visiting town from Washington D.C. 

John plays the typical John Ford hero -- a man with limited words who represents the simplicity of life in the Old West. In a sense, when he kills Liberty Valance and promotes modernism by helping the town pursue statehood through Stoddard's nomination, he goes against everything he stands for. It seems that the film is showing the death of the Ford westerns and the director's way of saying goodbye to that chapter of his life, as well as all of the iconic classic heroes played by Wayne. The film will forever be as legendary as its Oscar winning director and two lead stars. 

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