NOTE: This essay contains spoilers.
By the 1960s most of the really good westerns had ridden off into the sunset. Even John Ford, the foremost director of westerns, recognized the demise of the genre. Though he would make others, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is his swan song to the Old West and stands among his best work.
The film opens with the return of Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to the town of Shinbone to pay their last respects to their deceased friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Upon viewing the body, Stoddard is outraged that the undertaker has taken Doniphon’s boots and gun belt. In response, the retired marshal, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), replies, “He didn’t carry no handgun, Ranse. He didn’t for years.” Appleyard’s statement makes a key point. We’ll come back to it.
The film lapses into a flashback to earlier times as Stoddard tells his story to Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), the editor of The Shinbone Star. Stoddard, fresh out of law school, has taken the advice of Horace Greely, “Go west, young man.” The stagecoach carrying Stoddard is held up by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang. During the robbery, Valance severely beats Stoddard and rips apart his law books, the first of many assaults on literacy, especially written words.
Stoddard is found by Doniphon and taken in by Swedish emigrants, Peter and Nora Ericson (John Qualen, Jeanette Nolan). Their restaurant, Peter’s Place, feeds a rowdy bunch of cowboys. There we meet Hallie, who waits on tables and is Doniphon’s girlfriend. Hallie’s status is somewhat puzzling. She seems to live with Peter and Nora, and there is a familial feel to their relationship. Additionally, Peter and Nora refer to each other as “Papa” and “Mama.” However, Hallie shows no trace of their strong Swedish accent and never refers to them as her parents. As Stoddard recuperates, his law books are mended too, with highly visible swathes of tape.
Desiring justice, Stoddard urges the marshal to arrest Valance. However, Appleyard is mainly interested in avoiding his duties and grabbing a free meal whenever possible. Doniphon advises Stoddard to get a gun. “Out here, a man settles his own problems,” he states. Stoddard replies, “You’re saying just exactly what Liberty Valance said.” In scene after scene, Valance and Doniphon are aligned in their attitudes about frontier justice.
While washing dishes at the restaurant, Stoddard inadvertently embarrasses Hallie when he discovers she cannot read. At first, she spurns his offer to teach her. But upon reflection she embraces the idea, and will soon embrace Stoddard, the man. We already know from the framing story she will marry Stoddard. Hallie is changing, just as the Old West is beginning to give way to a more civilized society.
In a celebrated scene at Peter’s Place, Valance mocks Stoddard, who is doing “woman’s work” waiting on tables. Doniphon intervenes and confronts Valance. Violence seems imminent, but Valance is forced to back down when Pompey (Woody Strode), Doniphon’s dependable African-American hired hand, appears in the doorway behind Valance with a rifle. After the scene deescalates, Stoddard is forced to admit Doniphon’s and Pompey’s guns prevented bloodshed.
Stoddard is befriended by Dutton Peabody (Edmund O’Brian), the editor and founder of The Shinbone Star. In the newspaper office, Stoddard begins his quest to spread literacy by assisting Peabody and starting a school. Among his pupils are Hallie and Pompey. On the first day, Doniphon bursts in and disrupts the class. He sends Pompey back to work and brings news of killings committed by Valance and his gang. Doniphon, in effect, is dismissing the power of words which once again equates him, albeit unwittingly, with Valance.
As word of Valance’s atrocities spreads, Peabody denounces him in the newspaper. Peabody is the one character in the town that sides with Stoddard from the beginning. His passion for truth and willingness to stand up to Valance is a stark contrast to the other citizens of the town. Even Doniphon doesn’t confront Valance unless Pompey is backing him up.
We soon learn Stoddard is wavering in his beliefs that words can triumph over guns. He has been practicing with one of Peabody’s old guns. During a target shooting practice, Doniphon dowses Stoddard with a bucket of paint and mocks his lack of skill with a gun. Doniphon’s actions recall those of Valance when he ridiculed Stoddard at Peter’s Place.
When the town convenes to elect delegates to the Territorial Convention, Valance, who takes his orders from the cattle barons, tries unsuccessfully to strong arm his way onto the ballot. The town and farmers desire statehood while the cattle ranchers prefer to keep the territory wide open, ruled by their hired thugs. Valance, once more, shows his disdain for the written word by crumpling up an issue of The Shinbone Star, foreshadowing his destruction of the newspaper office. A gun (Pompey’s rifle, again) forces him to withdraw. Stoddard and Peabody are elected delegates.
After his defeat at the election, Valance takes revenge by wrecking the newspaper office and beating Peabody senseless. The assault propels Stoddard to face Valance in a shootout, thus falling in sync with western mythology. Valance is killed, and Stoddard wins Hallie’s heart in bargain. Most westerns end there. However, Ford is not content with a fadeout just yet.
The film leaps forward to the Territorial Convention where Peabody places Stoddard’s name in nomination to represent the territory in Washington. There, the battle is fought with words rather than guns, primarily between Peabody and the cattle barons’ representative, Major Starbuckle (John Carradine). The exaggerations and outright lies perpetuated by Starbuckle are referred to today as “political spin” or “fake news.” Whatever term is used, democracy is undercut.
But Stoddard is haunted by the notoriety that the killing of Valance has brought him and decides to withdraw from the convention. Doniphon shows up and privately confesses to a dejected Stoddard that he, not Stoddard, shot Valance from a dark alley with Pompey’s rifle. Doniphon’s actions hardly qualify as an honorable, face-to-face confrontation between good and evil. “Cold-blooded murder, but I can live with it,” he says. Stoddard, his conscience cleared, goes on to a stellar political career, boosted by his false reputation from which he continues to benefit. Meanwhile, Doniphon fades into obscurity.
The flashback concludes. However, Scott, the current editor of The Shinbone Star, cites his preference for Western mythology and refuses to print the story. He utters the film’s best-known line: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” One wonders what Peabody, with his passion for truth, would think of an editor who turns down a chance to set history straight.
On the surface, it may appear that guns have dispensed justice with the killing of Valance. But let’s take a step back and remember Appleyard’s line in the opening scenes: “He didn’t carry no handgun, Ranse. He didn’t for years.” In the long run, Stoddard’s view of justice has prevailed despite the lingering mythic shadow of the Old West.
It is interesting to recall that nearly a quarter of a century earlier, James Stewart starred in Destry Rides Again (1939), portraying a deputy sheriff who eschews guns while taming the rowdies in the town of Bottleneck. That film, however, played the situation for laughs.