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Director: John Ford

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Ken Murray

Language: English


Not Rated: One Occasion of Language, Violence, Gun Fighting, Drunkenness, Death

Plot (Previewing)

“If you want to stay healthy, there are two ways of doing so: get a gun or get out of town.”

Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) is a US Senator who comes to a small western town of Shinbone to attend a funeral of an old time friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).  The arrival sparks the curiosity of the local media and Ransom is forced into retelling his story of how long ago he came to Shinbone and squared off with the notorious villain Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).

A flashback to Ransom’s arrival just outside of the town begins his story.  There he encounters Liberty Valance and his gang for the first time.  Ransom is a lawyer from a well established and civil eastern area.  His encounter with the villain begins what is too be a mission to bring law, order and even education to the western frontier.  Ransom finds his services not much in need in the rugged town.  He instead picks up work at the local restaurant and uses the local press and school to educate the citizens of the governmental system.  Along the way, Ransom meets Tom who is a tough cowboy but a moral opposition to Valance’s ruthlessness.  Ransom is dedicated to show the town a peaceful and ordered resolution, but Tom, at first, is convinced only a law of self reliance can be achieved.  The judicial system to Tom is being the first one to draw his gun.  To Ransom, on the contrary it is a due process of arrest and trial.

The region is in a fight for statehood to protect the rights of the townspeople from the wealthy ranchers.  Tom and Ransom team up in order to prevent the town from the mayhem of Liberty Valance and his gang.  Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), a local newspaper man, also lends assistance to Ransom in exposing Liberty Valance and his motives.  With the heart of the restaurant owner’s daughter Hallie (Vera Miles) up for competition, Tom and Ransom must put aside their own interests in order to do justice for the town.

In the film’s climax, Liberty Valance is shot and Hallie’s heart is won, but everything is not as it seems.  With the town now coming to some order, Ransom is nominated to be a representative in Washington.  However, Ransom is overcome with guilt and it is none other the Tom that comes to aid in his time of need.  The conclusion brings upon an infamous quote “when legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Critique (Spoilers)

Even though John Ford is a Catholic, the film portrays no religious significance.  I do not recall a mention of God at all.  There is an absence of pastors, priests, or other religious figures in the film.  There is also a lack of faith expressed in the people.  Take as an example, when Ransom is on his way to meet Liberty Valance for a duel, Hallie runs to Pompey to fetch Tom and in her fear she never seeks out in any for of prayer for Ransom’s safety.  However, for the lack of religious tone, the movie shows a morality especially in tension between the two main characters, Ransom and Tom.  I personally, however,  may have thought a consistent non gun carrying Ransom may have played an even more powerful part; taking on Liberty Valance without a pistol and living up to his initial position of order over shoot outs.  The film has a heavy emphasis on governmental law and none on faith or belief in God, which, in my opinion, is erroneous.  For the time, however, it may have been the climate of social injustice overcoming the town.   With this injustice, it is rightfully showed that it is defeated with order over mayhem and individualism.

One of the most humorous characters in the film is the newspaper man Mr. Dutton Peabody.  He provides many of the best lines of the movie.  On one hand he is a respected man who is dedicated to his craft of the press.  On the other hand he is a notorious drunk.  At first, his drunkenness is not evident but it comes to light very quickly on voting day.  “Just one beer” he begs to Tom as he is continuously refused as required by law that bars are closed during voting.  Peabody is irritable about the closing and his body language and actions towards the crowd are hilarious.  Then, when nominated with Ransom to be a representative, Peabody delivers the comical but incredibly truthful refusal “I build them up and then I tear them down.”  However, he does go on and accept the nomination largely for the purpose that an opposition is needed against Liberty Valance.

The issue of drunkenness continues to present itself later on, this time with Tom.  With the loss of Hallie, Tom is a broken man who resorts to burning down his house.  The last we see of Tom, his appearance points to the fact he is still unsettled.  He does, however, come to lift the guilt off Ransom, or so it seems.  It seems Tom wants to rightfully set the record straight for his own interest, but at the same time he wants Ransom, who Tom does believe can make a difference for his town, to have the guilt of killing Liberty Valance lifted off him so he will accept the nomination for Washington.   Tom, overcome by his own brokenness, believes his killing was cold blood murder, but in reality that is not true.  In a perfect world, it would have been more pleasing to see Tom continue his virtue but in the end, even the tough cowboy cannot cope with his broken heart.  As we learn that Tom stopped carrying a gun long before his death, it can mean either he remained broken or that he embraced law and order that had come to Shinbone.

Ransom may be the least likeable of the main cast, but partly because the overall cast in phenomenal.  He is a softer contrast to Tom’s rigidness.  This seems to be reinforced by symbolism of wearing an apron much of the film.  He stands for something good only until he is tired of being pushed around.  While it may be just to take up arms for defense, it was contrary to his initial position.  It would have been more beneficial to see Ransom beat Liberty Valance at his strengths, instead he lowers himself to a resolve of violence.  His accession into higher office takes off after the shooting but it seems that it cannot happen without this act of violence happening first.  I think his guilt is a witness to a loss of his integrity and it is only resolved when he finds out that he is not responsibly after all for Liberty Valance’s death.  The legend propels him into a long career in office.   A single monumental event like this, however, would be enough to propel anyone in today’s politics as well.

There isn’t much to the scenic features of this film but the camera angles and lighting are solid.  The story even with knowing, by the title, that Liberty Valance will be shot, projects some mystery and suspense.  However, if one pays enough attention during the movie, one would know there is no way that Ransom could have shot Liberty Valance from that distance, especially with his opposite hand.  It seems evident all along that there was another shooter.

Noticeable Errors

A few scenes of noticeable cut offs where action had stopped and started.

Ransom is conducting class at school and asks a question concerning the US Constitution.  Pompey, however, starts to recite the beginning of the declaration of independence.

The direction of Liberty Valance’s fall is questionable.  It seems that if the shot that hit him came from his left, then the momentum of the impact should have carried him in the opposite direction.  Instead it carried him into the street back towards Tom.

The train in the last scene, according to the conductor, is going 25 mph; but the background is going much faster and is almost not viewable.  This would not be the case if you were only traveling 25 mph.


United States Library of Congress

United States National Film Registry



Update:  Because of comments from viewers, I have given this movie an additional 3 points.