Directed By: John Ford
Starring: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin
Tag line: "Together For The First Time - James Stewart - John Wayne - in the masterpiece of four-time Academy Award winner John Ford"
Trivia: This was John Ford's last black and white film
Before Gene Pitney turned it into a hit song that reached #4 on the Billboard chart in 1962, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a top-notch western directed by John Ford. Starring John Wayne, James Stewart, and Lee Marvin, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance presents a less glamorous side of the American West, where heroes were sometimes forced to compromise their principles in order to survive.
Rance Stoddard (Stewart) is an East Coast lawyer heading out west, hoping to bring a little law and order to a lawless frontier. Before reaching his destination, however, the stagecoach he's riding in is held up by Liberty Valance (Marvin) and his gang. For trying to protect one of the female passengers, Rance is beaten senseless by Liberty and left for dead. Fortunately, Tom Doniphan (Wayne) happens by the scene, and takes Rance to the town of Shinbone, where he recovers from his beating in the home of Pete and Nora Ericson (John Qualen and Jeanette Nolan), which also doubles as the town’s only restaurant. Hallie (Vera Miles), who works there as a waitress, nurses Rance back to health, and Rance vows to use every means possible under the law to put Liberty Valance behind bars. Tom does his best to convince Rance that the law doesn’t yet exist in this part of the west, and the only thing a man can rely on is a gun in his hand. It's a lesson Rance learns all too quickly once Liberty Valance challenges him to a showdown.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance boasts one great scene after another, yet my absolute favorite is a sequence that enhances the personal intensity of each of the film's three main characters. It takes place in the restaurant, where Rance, who is still recovering, agrees to help out by waiting on tables. Liberty Valance comes wandering into the dining room, steals a table for himself and his men, and as Rance is bringing a plate of food to Tom, Liberty sticks his foot out and trips him, sending Tom’s steak dinner spilling onto the floor. As Liberty and his boys are laughing it up, Tom stands and says, “That was my steak, Valance. Pick it up”. Liberty, who immediately stops laughing, stands and faces Tom, preparing himself for the obvious showdown about to take place. Just then, the always-sensible Rance angrily intervenes, chastising both men for their willingness to kill each other over a simple steak dinner. He settles the dispute by cleaning up the mess himself. This is a tremendously tense scene, one played to perfection by the three leads, and establishing, in one fell swoop, Rance's respect for law and order, Tom's strength, and the volatile, violent nature of Liberty Valance. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a three-way battle of wills, and not one of these men is going to back down from it.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is second only to The Searchers as my favorite John Ford western. Presenting an intriguing conflict between the law of the land and the power of a gun, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance reminds us of a time when the American West was still in its infancy, and both a law book and a handy sidearm proved to be of equal importance.