“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a 1962 western directed by acclaimed golden age filmmaker John Ford. The film stars James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard, a lawyer who’s robbed by the outlaw Liberty Valance and left in the town of Shinbone. While there, he meets the archetype Wild West antihero Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Stoddard wants to defeat Valance using the law whereas Doniphon relies on violence, and the two debate this throughout the film as Stoddard also works to modernize Shinbone.
I’ll be honest: I’m not a fan of John Ford. In fact, I think he’s one of the most overrated filmmakers of all time. He represents the style of old Hollywood without the creativity of films like “The Wizard of Oz,” “12 Angry Men,” or “Paths of Glory” which were also released during his time. Of the ones I’ve seen, Ford’s films are sluggishly paced with bland characters and forgettable narratives. His work is exactly the type Hollywood had to shift away from in the late 1960s, as foreign cinema was running laps around American films and the audience started to want more mature, edgy stories.
That being said, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a good film. This is a surprisingly mature western, at least in comparison to Ford’s other work. Without giving away spoilers, it has a genuinely surprising ending which defies the laws and expectations of the western story formula. It’s no “Unforgiven” — not even in the same stratosphere — but it’s a fascinating deconstruction of these kinds of characters, exploring when, if ever, lies and murder are necessary for the betterment of a struggling society. It’s an intriguing morality tale which keeps you thinking.
The story is also carried by James Stewart’s terrific lead performance. He’s so great at being the relatable everyman with his goodhearted nature and ability to make his dialogue feel natural and in-the-moment. I love seeing George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life” in a western. Unfortunately, John Wayne is nowhere near the caliber of performer as Stewart. I’ve never been a Wayne fan; he has almost nothing underneath his stare and smirk. He’s just generic cool western guy, a stereotype he plays exactly the same in each and every one of his films.
I also have to address the elephant in the room: the ages of Stewart and Wayne. Both were in their mid-50’s at the time of filming and you can really tell. Stewart is noticeably too wrinkled and hunched for his character that’s implied to be in his 30’s. Likewise, Wayne is overweight and slow in the joints. Whenever they’re required to do something physical or romantic, it gets distracting and oftentimes creepy.
While this film generally holds up and kept me invested throughout, it certainly could have been shorter. It’s 20 to 30 minutes too long; every scene can be trimmed down, some of which should’ve just been cut all together. Like Ford’s other films, pacing is an issue here, but it’s by no means grueling.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is an intelligent western that possesses both the rebellious excitement you expect and the maturity needed to make for a more memorable story. It suffers from plenty of issues, but it works well enough as a whole.