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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

  • Directed by John Ford
  • United States, 1962, 123 mins., English

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That most famous of lines from John Ford’s late-career masterpiece is an excellent summation of the mythological aspects of not only the American West—a subject about which Ford was the undisputed master—but of American-style politics and its tenuous relationship to the mainstream media. Foundation myth is at the heart of Liberty Valance: Valance (Lee Marvin at his vicious best), a drunken and violent maniac, terrorizes the small frontier town of Shinbone, which promising young lawyer “Ranse” Stoddard (James Stewart) experiences firsthand when Valance and his gang rob Ranse’s stagecoach upon his arrival in town. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a tough rancher who lives on the outskirts of Shinbone and wants to mostly be left alone, runs across the aftermath and befriends Ranse. But as Valance is left unchecked in a lawless town like Shinbone, a showdown looms and the critical question of “who shot Liberty Valance?” comes to the fore, and the origin story of Ranse Stoddard, US Senator, is born. “The greatest American political movie. . . a movie about the moral burden of a life lived in the name of a myth and the ethical implications of direct action. Implicitly, the subject of the film is also that of a nation founded in this way.”—Richard Brody, The New Yorker.

Appears in: Print the Legend

Genres: Western

Other Films by John Ford

The Grapes of Wrath

Ford’s classic humanist masterpiece, an adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel, stars Henry Fonda in one of his most memorable roles as the laborer Tom Joad, who undergoes an ideological awakening during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Initially released from prison and set adrift, Joad returns to his Oklahoma family farm only to see

My Darling Clementine

One of John Ford’s finest Westerns, and possibly the best known cinematic telling of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral myth, My Darling Clementine quietly shimmers in its focus on the lyrical side of the American West. Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, the legendary yet reluctant lawman of Tombstone, where he and his brothers stop during

The Long Voyage Home

Between 1939 and his departure for the war in 1942, director John Ford was in the middle of a remarkable string of masterpieces. Gregg Toland, one the greatest-ever cinematographers, was revolutionizing film style with the deep-focus camera techniques that would culminate in his work on Citizen Kane. Together, Toland and Ford transformed this adaptation of