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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - a classic western starring Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin
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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) starring Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Edmond O’Brien

Jimmy Stewart as the bookish lawyer, with the newspaper editor (Edmond O’Brien) who’s not afraid to take a stand against Liberty Valance — and pays the price for it.

I know that the title ‘finest western of all time’ is sure to be disputed, but I stand by it.   In addition to starring three of the great actors of the 20th Century (John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin), it’s a truly great story.   It’s told in flashback, as Jimmy Stewart’s character is returning to the western town where he got his start.   A bookish lawyer, many years ago he came to this wild west town, where there was no law. But there was a band of thugs led by Liberty Valance (played deliciously by Lee Marvin) running rampant.   Jimmy Stewart plans to stop them by legal means …  Only to find out that there is no one willing to enforce the law.

John Wayne, competing with Jimmy Stewart for the love of Vera Miles in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”

In addition, he competes with John Wayne’s character for the heart of a young woman (Vera Miles).   The movie comes to a climax with a gunfight. Between the evil, taunting Lee Marvin and the helpless Jimmy Stewart. Who’s certain to be murdered.  Only he surprisingly wins, which launches him to a successful career, including becoming a U. S. Senator.   But the question is, what was John Wayne doing during the gunfight?   I won’t reveal the answer, except to say that it changes everything.


Lee Marvin as the bully Liberty Valance – selfish, self-centered, reckless, and deadly

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a wonderful cowboy film. It teaches the value of courage, standing up for what’s right, and the cost of hiding a secret.   I wouldn’t recommend it for the younger children, but I would definitely watch it with my 10- and 13-year olds.   I love the John Ford film, and recommend it highly.

Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Editorial review of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, courtesy of

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. — That’s more than the code of a newspaperman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; it’s practically the operating credo of director John Ford, the most honored of American filmmakers. In this late film from a long career, Ford looks at the civilizing of an Old West town, Shinbone, through the sad memories of settlers looking back. In the town’s wide-open youth, two-fisted Westerner John Wayne and tenderfoot newcomer James Stewart clash over a woman (Vera Miles) but ultimately unite against the notorious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).

Ford’s nostalgia for the past is tempered by his stark approach, unusual for the visual poet of Stagecoach and The Searchers. The two heavyweights, Wayne and Stewart, are good together, with Wayne the embodiment of rugged individualism and Stewart the idealistic prophet of the civilization that will eventually tame the Wild West. This may be the saddest Western ever made, closer to an elegy than an action movie, and as cleanly beautiful as its central symbol, the cactus rose. —Robert Horton

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