The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Today I am doing a co-post with the eminent blog Fredrik on Film and to honour this momentous occasion, the language of the day is English.


The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceSenator Ranse Stoddard arrives with wife and a humungous hatbox by the train to the town of Shinbone. A slightly different arrival than when the rookie solicitor Ransom Stoddard turned up about twenty years earlier.

Back then he was transported in Tom Doniphan’s wagon, beaten to a pulp, to Ericson’s Restaurant (where the plates are as big as cart wheels and heaped with beans). The beating was a result from trying to set himself up against the gangster Liberty Valance who had decided to rob the stagecoach that particular day. No East Coast tenderfoot would tell Liberty Valance which widows he can and cannot rob!

Stoddard has come to the frontier and Shinbone to introduce some law and order, but soon realises that this is not something that is done in the wink of an eye. Especially not with a man like Valance around and a town marshal who looks like he is doing the back-door trots every time someone even whispers the gangster’s name.

The only one who does not react with cowardly subservience as soon as Valance is mentioned is Tom Doniphon but he is fully satisfied with looking out for me, myself and I. A concept he hopes soon will expand to include the beautiful Hallie who works for the Ericson couple at their restaurant. But then maybe he should come up with slightly better compliments than ”you’re sure are pretty when you’re mad”.

Tom’s advice to the young solicitor is either to get a revolver or bow out of town now that he has caught Valance’s attention. But Ranse is made of sterner stuff than that. Not only does he stay in town and start a school because ”education is the basis of law and order”, but he also accepts a nomination to represent Shinbone in a Capitol City election. An election where Valance tried to bully the citizens into voting for him instead, so it’s something of a no brainer to figure out what is to come. Shootout at Main Street…

The Man Who… is not just a classic Western, but also a classic John Ford- Western. Since I am not particularly versed in either the Western genre or the filmography of John Ford, there are probably many particulars that I miss during the movie. What I doesn’t miss, however, are references from completely different movies which I now realize probably originated in The Man Who… For example, the happy gang of Mexicans in ponchos that pops up here and there to the sound of mariachi music. And was this the only, or the first, movie where John Wayne addressed a fellow with the epithet ”Pilgrim”?

For although Hallie has an important part to play and is portrayed by the talented Vera Miles, this is a Man’s movie, in the form of John Wayne’s Tom, James Stewart’s Ranse and Lee Marvin’s Liberty. On the one side Ford places Tom and Liberty, men who fit into the mould of the old Wild West. Men who only really understand one language and that is the power of the gun. On the other side is (of course) the intellectual Ranse (no one can play full of righteous indignation that Stewart!) who wants to change the world through law and order. It is the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that should be the foundation of a society, not revolvers and rifles. It is in this position that he also has the opportunity to show Hallie that there are other paths for both communities and women than to simply remain silent and stand by the stove while the men settle their business in the streets.

From this perspective, I think The Man Who… is both well narrated and interesting. Neither the script, nor Ford’s direction really decide between Tom and Ranse. They are simply two different, but evenly matched, forces and it is only in the light of history that we know which one of them who will emerge victorious. The hardy cactus rose of the desert pitched against the sensitive but civilized regular rose.

Another interesting part of the movie (although one I’m not quite sure of how much focus Ford really wanted to put on it) is that of equality between sexes and races. The movie’s women are just as committed to the development of the town as the men, but are nevertheless not allowed vote. To volunteer as nominees in the election is of course out of the question. The other group that has to wait outside Hank’s Saloon whether it concerns voting or drinking is the black population of Shinbone. It’s hardly a coincidence that in Ranse’s class room it is the black Pompey who gets to quote the classic words of the Declaration of Independence: ”that all men are created equal”.

Added to this is a (generally) nice mixture between seriousness and humour, most clearly personified by the chief editor of the rag Shinbone Star. Dutton Peabody, played by character actor Edmond O’Brien, is a man who likes to recite Shakespeare in a state of intoxication (not an uncommon condition for him) but who at the same time is not afraid to write ”the truth” (i.e. uncomfortable opinions) in his newspaper. Much more difficult for me to swallow was the cowardly town marshal Link, partly because the role was less nuanced than Peabody, partly because it was played by Andy Devine (aka the Man With the Worst Voice Ever).

But The Man Who… is also supposed be something of a love story, and this is where I get my revolver stuck in the holster. Hallie is torn between Tom and Ranse and by the end of the movie it is (at least to me) completely obvious which of them she loves most. I assume the public is supposed to think that Tom is noble when he sacrifices his own happiness in order to get Hallie what he think she wants. But all he is doing is taking away Hallies ability to choose for herself (the Old West equivalent to ordering dinner for your date at the restaurant?). Also, John Wayne is not a good enough actor to express heartbreak (when he thinks he has lost his love), but must instead become drunk as a skunk, which does not improve this part of the story.

But overall, a good movie (after all, it’s James Stewart, damn it!) and a good alternative to throw at people who maintain that Westerns are boring, simplistic and simple-minded.

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In order to find out what Fredrik on Film has to say about the movie, click here.

5 reaktioner till “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)”

  1. Great. I’m glad you liked it!

    It might be a Man’s movie but a lot of what happens originates from Hallie. An act or a comment from her usually make things happen, such as starting a school (which she is in charge of) or getting Tom to help Ranse, and in the end there would be no legend to print without her consent. Ranse looks at her when the reporters demand a story, and after she nods her head in approval of him telling the truth, he gives the interview.

  2. @Fredrik: I agree that Hallie is Ranse’s connection to Tom, her precense is necessary to bridge the gap between their worlds. But at the same time she suffers the problem of all prime movers in that she has no control over the events her actions or words has inspired.

    @Henke: You have a fine movie waiting for you 🙂

  3. Damn fine piece of movie. My gosh. I have a number of questions tumbling around though… My review to be presented to the world next Friday.


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