The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The coming of civilisation brings an end to the wildness of the west in John Ford’s elegiac late film teaming John Wayne and James Stewart.

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“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about as fine a thesis on the intermingling of western fact and fiction as has ever been filmed.”
Tony Thomas, A Wonderful Life: The Films and Career of James Stewart, 1988

John Ford’s recent westerns, such as The Searchers (1956), had luxuriated in Technicolor open spaces, but for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance he returned to shooting on sound stages and in monochrome. Fittingly so, as this late work is a sombre reflection on what was lost when education and morality – incarnated by Stewart as East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard – crept westward as civilising influences.

Told within a flashback framework, as Stoddard comes clean to the press about who really shot outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), Ford’s classic waves a bittersweet adieu to the bygone values of the Old West, typified by the rough justice of rancher Tom Doniphon (Wayne). The paper-men ultimately opt to “print the legend” – famous words that have been taken as a maxim for Ford’s own myth making.

Ford was one of three directors credited on How the West Was Won (1962), a mammoth epic of western progress featuring both Wayne and Stewart.

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