The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Maxwell Scott

That single quote, uttered by newspaperman Maxwell Scott (Carlton Young), encapsulates the primary theme of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Truth is only accepted as long as it agrees with what the public wants to hear. The public needs heroes! So when heroes don't exist, it is necessary to invent them. And, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

John Ford, a filmmaker since 1914, already had given the movie-going public such classics as The Iron Horse, Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers. Ford's last great Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, makes explicit everything that was implicit in the genre which Ford himself shaped so heavily. By clearly showing that the conquest of the west meant the triumph of civilization (embodied in Jimmy Stewart) over wild innocence (John Wayne) and evil (Lee Marvin), this elegiac film serves as a film coda for Ford and also meditates on what was lost as progress and statehood marched across the West. The film's concluding aphorism has entered the American lexicon: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was added to the National Film Registry in 2007.

Tropes used in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance include:
  • The Alcoholic:
    • What happens to Tom. In the flashback, Tom had given up the demon drink to stay sober for Hallie's sake. When he loses her...
    • Ransom's flashbacks reveal half the civic leaders of Shinbone -- Newspaperman Peabody, Doc Willoughby for examples -- were drunk most of the time too.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: the whole point of the movie.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Tom, the real hero, dies drunk and alone. Ransom hasn't gotten over his guilt that Tom never got his credit, and that he took Tom's happiness away when Hallie fell for him. Worse, the legend that Ransom killed Liberty Valance -- a total lie -- remains. The only good thing at the end is that Ransom lived up to Tom's hopes of using that lie to give Hallie -- and the residents of Shinbone and the West -- a better life.
  • The Cameo: John Carradine shows up as an ex-Confederate orator representing the cattle barons during the convention for statehood.
  • Clear My Name
  • You're Cute When You're Angry: Tom to Hallie at least twice.
  • Darker and Edgier: This is one of the harshest Westerns John Ford ever made. It mocks his earlier works like My Darling Clementine, which wholeheartedly embraced the need for heroes. Only The Searchers can top this film's dark mood.
  • Dead Man's Hand: The titular character Liberty draws this hand right before being shot.
  • Eagle Land: Played with. The movie suggests that our Manifest Destiny of moving Westward was not as clean and heroic as the school books want us to think.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The title.
  • Faux Symbolism: The movie plays out the entire theme of The American West: The coming of civilization to tame the wilderness. Peabody's Rousing Speech for statehood towards the end of the film underlines the whole story.
    • It can also be read, should you wish, as a treatise on America's love affair with the Gun: while the progressive politics of Ransom Stoddard have made the real changes, what is remembered -- perhaps even pined for -- is the myth of a single well-placed bullet making all things right.
  • Flower Motif: the cactus blossom that Hallie places on Tom's coffin. Saguaro blossom is the state wildflower of Arizona, hinting at which territory the film depicts.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Liberty Valance is going to get shot. By a man.
    • The plot twist is that the man who got the credit did not do it.
  • Foreshadowing: Liberty is playing poker when Ransom calls him out for his lynching of the newspaper editor Peabody. He tosses down Aces and Eights -- The infamous "Dead Man's Hand". John Ford uses this often.
  • Framed for Heroism
  • The Gunslinger: Both Liberty and Tom are feared gunmen. Tom is the only one Liberty fears.
    • Ransom averts this for the most part because he wants to do things by the book, and doesn't enjoy Tom urging him to learn how to shoot -- pronto -- as Liberty is literally gunning for Ransom.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: Every major character is chewing the scenery like nobody's business. And the one-scene cameo by John Carradine tops them all in the Large Ham category. It's amazing by film's end that the soundstage they filmed on is left standing.
  • The Hero: Left open to interpretation.
  • Heroic BSOD: Played straight, both ways. Ransom feels guilty enough about shooting a man, even if it was a monster like Liberty Valance. Tom doesn't feel guilty about really shooting Liberty, but his life falls apart anyway when Hallie switches her affection to Ransom, whom Tom despises AND respects.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Tom refuses to take credit for killing Liberty Valance because Hallie loves Ransom now, and because Tom knows that Ransom can do better - and provide for Hallie better - with that reputation than Tom can.
  • Hey, It's That Guy!: Lee Van Cleef as the sane lackey in Liberty Valance's control.
    • Tom's sidekick/servant/Black Best Friend (heck, only friend) Pompey is Woody Strode (from Spartacus, Sgt Rutledge etc..
  • Hypocritical Humor: The orator arguing for the cattle barons' desire that the territory remains a territory (that they can control) denounces the settlers' attempt to promote Ransom as the Congressional representative to get them statehood. He argues -- while wearing the Confederate officer's uniform no less -- they shouldn't send the man who killed Liberty Valance to the same place where Abraham Lincoln died like a saint.
  • Ironic Echo: "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!"
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Tom Doniphon is a much better man than he'd like to be, and does he ever pay the price for it.
  • Karma Houdini: Subverted. Ransom gets a heroic reputation for killing a man, and that reputation can propel him into the White House if he wants. He didn't commit the killing in the first place. He gets rewarded for something he didn't do.
  • Love Triangle
  • The Obi-Wan: Peabody, to Ransom. Although Peabody is too drunk too often, he helps Ransom start a law office and eventually grows enough of a spine to denounce Liberty Valance in print. Liberty's violent reprisal is what drives Ransom to get his gun...
  • Rancher: Tom Doniphon had a small ranch. He was going to marry his sweetheart and grow roses cactus blossoms. She falls in love with Ransom instead.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: One of the leads is Jimmy Stewart, the other is John Wayne. Take a guess who is who.
  • The So-Called Coward: It's not that Ransom isn't brave, he just doesn't think a steak is worth dying for.
  • Technical Pacifist
  • Tempting Fate: When Doc Willoughby works up the nerve to denounce Liberty for all the harm he's done, and notes how happy he'll be when the day comes for him to perform his physician's duty of declaring the gunman dead, Valance laughs and tosses a stolen gold coin at the doctor: "Payment in advance!"
  • Throwing Out the Script: Subverted. The pro-rancher candidate claims to do this. However, when the "notes" he so dramatically screwed up and threw away are examined they turn out to be blank paper. The "words from his heart" was the speech he had memorized all along.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: While the title gives us a hint that Liberty won't make it to the final credits, and we see him being shot in the trailer -- the left half of the screen is blacked out, so you can't see who's firing the shot.
    • Which is actually misleading, because when the scene comes, and Rance shoots him, we find out that Tom was standing in an alley across the street and he fired the fatal shot. Although, to be fair, it looks like they both nailed him. So really, the title should be "The Men Who Shot Liberty Valance"...
  • The Western: Deconstructed. A man's heroic deeds in taming the West, which involve killing a killer, prove to be a sham, and worst of all when he finally tells the truth about how it happened, the people he tells it to refuse to accept the truth.
  • Whole-Episode Flashback