“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.