U.S. Senator Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (Stewart) has returned to Shinbone with his wife Hallie (Miles) to pay respects to a local rancher named Tom Doniphon (Wayne). Stoddard’s political career has been built on his reputation for shooting Liberty Valance (Marvin), an outlaw who had terrorized the residents of Shinbone. Now a local reporter wants to know why a state Senator would make the trip to Shinbone to pay respects to a simple rancher. As Stoddard begins to tell his story, the pasts of himself and Doniphon reveal themselves to be more connected than anyone knew.
Jimmy Stewart made three films with the legendary director John Ford (How Green Was My Valley). The first of the three films was the largely forgettable Two Rode Together. The second was this movie, perhaps one of the highlights in the careers of Ford, Stewart and co-star John Wayne (Red River). The movie was refined from the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson (A Man Called Horse), with a screenplay written by James Warner Bellah (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and Willis Goldbeck (Sergeant Rutledge). The cast included big names like Stewart and Wayne, as well as Vera Miles (The F.B.I. Story), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), Andy Devine (Two Rode Together), and Woody Strode (Once Upon a Time in the West).
This movie seems to be written for the actors who starred in it. For John Wayne it meant playing a strong man with an unwavering drive and personality. For Lee Marvin, it was a great chance to display his wonderful intensity. Vera Miles also gives a wonderfully emotional performance that seems to balance out the male-dominated cast. She also brings a sensitivity and intelligence to her role that helps to make her a bigger part of the story. Adding in typical good performances from Woody Strode and Andy Devine helps to push this into the realm of classic Westerns.
John Ford was a master of great visuals, and this film is no exception. His decision to use black-and-white film created a wonderful world where light and shadow dominate every scene. Like most of his films, there is a sense of the world outside of the film that seems to creep into the story. This time, the film seems to acknowledge that the outside world is a different place than the small town of Shinbone. This allows for the transformation of Ransom Stoddard to feel somewhat natural. In addition to the nice work from Ford, the film also features a wonderful score, written by Cyril Mockridge (Miracle on 34th Street). The music is a driving force of the movie, with moments that seem to bring added intensity to the film.
For Jimmy Stewart, this was a wonderful chance to display a range that seemed to get broader with every film. His performance helps to display the evolution of Ransom Stoddard, from the naive country lawyer to the strong and confident fighter. Stewart also benefited from the working relationship he developed with Ford. The director was notoriously hard on his actors, but somehow Stewart seemed to avoid much of the criticism while they worked together. When Ford finally decided to push Stewart, John Wayne is said to have remarked “Well, welcome to the club. I’m glad you made it.” Unfortunately, Ford’s treatment of the actors would create other problems on the set. His contention with John Wayne led to disagreements between the cast members as things moved forward. Woody Strode later said that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a “miserable film to make.”
Despite the challenges and conflicts on the set, this film was an immediate success. Fans and critics seemed to enjoy the wonderful story and the chance to see Stewart and Wayne together in a movie. Audiences would get the chance to see them together in another film that year, with the release of How the West Was Won. Later in their careers, Stewart and Wayne would work together on The Shootist, John Wayne’s last motion picture. The movie received an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design (Edith Head), a rare nomination for a Western. The film was also financially successful, making far more than the cost of production. This success has continued for the more than fifty years since the initial release, thanks to television and home video releases.