“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
It may be folly to try and write a review of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The film, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin, is practically a perfect western. It features a classic tale of good versus evil, law versus order, a lie, and a love triangle for the ages. It is also about to be released in a two-disc set as a part of the Paramount Centennial Collection.
Told by then Senator Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) as flashback, the story follows Stoddard in his younger days, as he arrives in a small western town which he learns is terrified of the outlaw, Liberty Valance (Marvin). Even the law is afraid of Valance. The only man in town who isn’t, the only man Liberty is scared of, is Tom Doniphon (Wayne). Stoddard, a lawyer, quickly ends up on Valance’s bad side, but is convinced that the way of the Old West — shooting Valance — isn’t the right way, that Valance ought to be brought to justice within the law. Doniphon, with little effect, tries to convince Stoddard that there’s only one way to deal with the outlaw.
Making matters more difficult is the fact that Stoddard finds himself falling for Hallie, who is unofficially Doniphon’s girl. And Hallie finds herself torn between Doniphon and this newcomer.
The story plays out against the backdrop of the territory the characters live in contemplating statehood, with Valance working for cattlemen against it and Stoddard pushing the townsfolk on the pro side.
Many an academic paper has been written on what to be made of Ford’s film, and many good questions can be asked of it. Does Ford come down for violence as a solution to the problem or against it? Is Stoddard a moral person? Did Hallie make the right choice? Good cases can be made for– or against– answers to any of these questions, and it’s exactly for that reason the film has become the classic that it is. Depending upon one’s age, experience, and general point of view, one will see the movie differently.
What is not in doubt is that this new two-disc release is a thing of beauty. The print of the film is not only superb, but it comes with a an audio commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich which also includes archival recordings with Ford and Stewart. Hearing Ford and Stewart reminisce about the making of this true classic is an experience to behold; each is brilliant storyteller. There is also selected scene commentary with Dan Ford and recordings of John Ford, James Stewart, and Lee Marvin. The second disc contains the usual trailers and galleries and a multi-part documentary focusing on the film, the people involved in it, and the time in which it was made.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was one of the last films Ford made; it was made years after Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and other Ford classic westerns. It is a rumination not just on what was lost when civilization encroached on the “wild west,” but on the other works in Ford’s canon. It not only makes myths, but it deconstructs them, too.
The film is, perhaps, the perfect western — created by a master working with a wonderful cast. It is more than just a legend, it is legendary.