The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Senator Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arrive in the frontier town of Shinbone by train to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). As they make their way toward the undertaker’s establishment to pay their respects to the deceased, a reporter (Joseph Hoover) and his editor, Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) approach and ask Stoddard to explain why a United States Senator would make the long journey from Washington just to attend the funeral of a local rancher.

Stoddard’s story flashes back 25 years to his arrival in Shinbone as a young, idealistic attorney. His stagecoach is robbed by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). When Stoddard takes Valance to task for robbing old ladies of their heirlooms, he is brutally beaten. In town, restaurant owner Peter Ericson (John Qualen), his wife Nora (Jeanette Nolan), and employee Hallie tend to his injuries, and explain that Shinbone’s townsfolk are regularly victimized by Valance. Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), the town marshal, has neither the courage nor the gunfighting skills to challenge Valance; Doniphon (who loves Hallie and plans to ask her to marry him) is the only man willing to stand up to him.

When Stoddard, the naive “pilgrim” (as Doniphon dubs him), opens a law practice in town, Doniphon and many others believe him crazy for inviting retribution from Valance, who cannot abide any challenge to his “authority”. Force, Doniphan explains, is the only thing Valance understands; he advises Stoddard to either flee the territory or buy a gun. Stoddard maintains he will do neither; he is an advocate for justice under the law, not brute force. He earns the town’s respect by refusing to knuckle under to Valance, and by founding a school to teach reading and writing to illiterate townspeople — including Hallie.

Stoddard does buy a gun, however; and when Doniphon sees that he is trying to teach himself to use it, he brings Stoddard to his house for a shooting lesson. During target practice he shoots a hole in a paint can, splattering paint on Stoddard’s suit, explaining that this is the sort of trickery that he can expect from Valance. Infuriated, Stoddard punches him in the jaw and leaves.

Shinbone’s residents meet to elect two delegates for a statehood convention at the territorial capital. Doniphon nominates Stoddard for one of the positions, because he “knows the law, and throws a mean punch”. Stoddard addresses the group, explaining that statehood will benefit the people of the territory through improvements in infrastructure, safety, and education. The area’s cattle barons, who oppose statehood and the new regulations that it would bring, hire Valance to sabotage the effort. He interrupts the meeting and attempts to bully the townspeople into electing him as a delegate, but Stoddard defies him yet again. The townspeople elect Stoddard and Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), publisher of the local newspaper, prompting Valance to challenge Stoddard to a gunfight. Doniphon again advises Stoddard to leave town, but Stoddard maintains that he still believes in the rule of law (even though Link will do nothing to help him), and he is willing to risk his life for his principles.

That evening, after Valance and his gang (Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin) assault Peabody and trash his newspaper office, Stoddard goes into the street to face Valance. Valance toys with Stoddard, shooting a pottery vase near his head, and then his right arm, knocking his gun to the ground. He condescendingly allows Stoddard to retrieve his gun. The next bullet, he says, will be “right between the eyes”; but Stoddard fires first, and to everyone’s shock, Valance falls dead. Doniphon watches Hallie as she lovingly cares for Stoddard’s wounds, then heads for the saloon to drown his sorrows. At his homestead, in a drunken rage, he sets fire to the addition that he has just finished in anticipation of asking Hallie to marry him. His ranch hand, Pompey (Woody Strode), rescues him from the inferno, but the house is destroyed.

At the statehood convention, Peabody nominates Stoddard as the territory’s delegate to Washington, but his “unstatesmanlike” conduct is challenged by a rival candidate. Stoddard decides that his opponent is right; he cannot be entrusted with public service after killing a man in a gunfight. Seeing Stoddard’s reluctance, Doniphon takes him aside and confides that he, Doniphon, actually killed Valance from an alley across the street, firing at the same time as Stoddard. Doniphon explains that he knows Hallie loves Stoddard; he shot Valance to secure her happiness. Reinspired, Stoddard returns to the convention, accepts the nomination, and is elected to the Washington delegation.

The flashback ends, and Stoddard fills in the intervening years: He married Hallie, and then, on the strength of his reputation as “the man who shot Liberty Valance”, became the first Governor of the newly minted state. He then served as Ambassador to Great Britain before his election to the U.S. Senate. Scott now knows the truth about Valance’s death; but after some reflection he throws his notes into the fire. “This is the West, sir,” he explains. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” On the train back to Washington, Stoddard informs Hallie, to her delight, that he has decided to retire from politics and practice law in Shinbone. When Stoddard tells the train conductor (Willis Bouchey) that he will write to railroad officials, thanking them for their many courtesies in expediting his trip back to Washington, the conductor replies, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!”

REVIEW:

There’s a song from the 60s or 70s entitled “Who Shot Liberty Valance.” When I first saw this flick in a bargain bin somewhere years ago, that’s what immediately popped in my head. Now, years later, it still pops in there but, after watching this fine film, there may be other things that will accompany that catchy tune when speaking of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

What is this about?

When Senator Ransom Stoddard returns home to Shinbone for the funeral of Tom Doniphon, he recounts to a local newspaper editor the story behind it all. He had come to town many years before, a lawyer by profession. The stage was robbed on its way in by the local ruffian, Liberty Valance, and Stoddard has nothing to his name left save a few law books. He gets a job in the kitchen at the Ericson’s restaurant and there meets his future wife, Hallie. The territory is vying for Statehood and Stoddard is selected as a representative over Valance, who continues terrorizing the town. When he destroys the local newspaper office and attacks the editor, Stoddard calls him out, though the conclusion is not quite as straightforward as legend would have it.

What did I like?

President Stewart. The more and more I see Jimmy Stewart films, the more I realize that this guy was more than just some tall, thin guy that was used to play the put upon roles, but rather someone who can actually act. Imagine that! In this film, we get him as a senator who, as we learn later in the film, has been in every political office one can have in the old west, save for law enforcement or President. Yet, this doesn’t stop him from delivering a series of eloquent speeches and monologues that could have been used in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which I debated about watching this afternoon, strangely enough.

Grounded meat does not spaghetti. Let’s face it, westerns are just another fantasy like sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero flicks. Even when they are real, we turn the characters into such exaggerated caricatures of who they really were, that they become legends. Coincidentally, that topic is touched on in this film. I believe it is Stewart that utters the line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It could have been someone else, though. My point is that this is probably the most grounded and believable western I’ve seen in all my days, except maybe for something like The Searchers.

Pilgrim. John Wayne is known as having certain mannerisms and a way of speaking, such as calling people “pilgrim”, if we are to believe Peter Griffin’s impersonation of him from Family Guy. While that is an extreme exaggeration, the basis of it and what many people have come to associate Wayne with over time can be traced back to this film. This is The Duke in his prime, creating a character that commands the audience’s attention when he’s on the screen while not chewing up the scenery, not to mention some nuances involving lost love, tragedy, and just being a hardened lawman. I have to give it to Wayne, while some say that his characters became stale and repetitive, especially in his later years, one can’t deny that he seemed in his element and that he had fun with these roles.

What didn’t I like?

Be the law. So, Jimmy Stewart’s profession before he gets into politics is a lawyer…and teacher at a point later in the film. Here’s the thing, though. The guy goes through a variety of occupations adjusting to life after his attack at the hands of Liberty Valance, but he never really practices law. I guess there is no reason to, and with his law books gone, it would make it a bit difficult, but still, the guy is a lawyer, he should be doing law stuff.

You own a paper? Jimmy Stewart is in town for John Wayne’s character’s funeral, if you can call it that. As he comes into town, being a Senator, the newspaper has to get an interview. He grants said interview and then heads to the undertaker’s. Upon reaching the shop, he is accosted by the newspaper editor who all but demands he tell him the reason for his coming to town. Apparently, even in the old west, media felt they had the right to tell people every little detail of people’s lives, even if it meant disturbing a funeral to do so!

Friar Tuck. Disney’s Robin Hood ranks up there as one of my favorite films. One of those reasons is Friar Tuck. The man who lent his voice to that beloved badger, Andy Devine, seems to be the human version of what Friar Tuck looks like. That isn’t my issue with him, though. He is obviously comic relief, and that’s fine, but it seems as if they made him nothing more than your typical bungler. Had it not been for the drinking problem of the newspaper editor, I’m sure they would have given him that, too. All this is not to mention, he sure seems scared to death to confront Liberty Valance, or any criminal.

There is a hint of irony in the last line of this film, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!”, seeing as how they just spent the whole film discussing said man. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance offers us much insight to our heroes, but not much in the way of telling us about the titular character of Liberty Valance. All we know about him is that he’s a big time criminal in them there parts. Other than wishing for a better understanding of this guy, I felt this was a pretty solid film. I’d say its a highly entertaining flick that needs to be in the collection of any one the collect western DVDs and Blu- Rays. I give this a very high recommendation. Take the time to check it out sometime!

4 out of 5 stars

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