The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a ScreenOutspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. It runs Feb. 1 – Mar. 3, in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar.

Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 1962 Paramount Pictures
Lee Marvin (back to camera) threatens James Stewart (kneeling) and John Wayne. Note Marvin’s suave black villain’s hat.

We love a movie that gives you so much to enjoy, you even like the hats.

Yes, the hats. No two in this film are quite the same – and if you’ve seen this movie, you know what we’re talking about.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) has all the fixin’s you need for a good Western: gun fights, bad guys, John Wayne – and a terrific assortment of hats. It’s directed by the crusty John Ford, and features costumes (plus hats) by the fabulous Edith Head.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the story of a young(ish) lawyer (James Stewart), who journeys to the Wild West to open a law office. Alas, en route, his stagecoach is overtaken by the notorious Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a man as cold and unforgiving as concrete. Not only does he rob the stagecoach, Marvin beats Stewart and leaves him for dead. But all is not lost; John Wayne finds him the next day and takes him to Shinbone, the nearest town, for medical treatment.

Stewart is put under the care of Hallie (Vera Miles), a feisty woman who helps run the town’s restaurant. She and Wayne have an Understanding, although Wayne has not yet proposed.  However, now that Stewart has arrived in town, with his law books and his readin’ and writin’ ways, Miles finds herself in a quandary.

Stewart’s character is a strong believer in the rule of law, and is appalled at any suggestion of carrying a weapon. According to Stewart, if one is armed with the law, then one has the ability to resolve conflicts rationally and justly. Wayne and Marvin, on the other hand, believe that a gun is more efficient than the legal process.

Wayne and Marvin hold the balance of power in Shinbone, and in this film. Marvin is volatile, but Wayne’s presence keeps him in check, like an Old West version of Detente. Even so, we the audience know that a showdown’s a-comin’ between Stewart’s principles and Marvin’s thirst for blood and power.

We (as in, yours truly) believe that a great western has great characters, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has some of the best. In this movie, Wayne is the self-appointed Boss Of Everything, like he always is, and frequently uses the moniker “Pilgrim” when addressing Stewart. (Example: “Take it easy there, Pilgrim.” or “You gonna be alright there, Pilgrim?”) He also orders his steak with a simple, “Burn me a good thick one.”

Stewart is well cast as a man who loves the rule of law and abhors violence, but in Shinbone he smacks into his principles as though they were a brick wall. His character is smart and determined – and not entirely predictable.

And let’s not forget Lee Marvin as the wicked Liberty Valance, a man who would rather chuck furniture out of his way than walk around it. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Lee Marvin in this role, and even in his pristine Edith-Head designer duds, he is a perfect foil for John Wayne.

Our Edith was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in this film, but lost to Norma Koch for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an interesting study of friendship and sacrifice, love and duty. It’s a film that you think you can predict, but you can’t. It’s a Western that we – ahem – take our hat off to.

Academy Award Nomination (1962):

  • (the fabulous) Edith Head, Best Costume Design, Black-and-White

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: starring James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles. Directed by John Ford. Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck. Paramount Pictures, 1962, B&W, 123 mins.

A mega blogathon celebrating film honoured by the Academy.



  1. This is a favorite of mine, but next time I watch “Liberty Valance” it seems I’m going to have to pay more attention to the hats. Great piece on a great film for the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon.


  2. I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t a personal goal of mine to one day have a hat collection that resembles this film.
    I love this movie. It is one of those “don’t speak while its on” films for me and despite the constant line of disaprovers that seem to surround me, I think that it is one of John Ford’s 3 best films, one of Jimmy Stewart’s 2 best westerns and hands down my favorite and the most touching performance of Wayne’s in his lengthy career. Just talking about this masterpiece has made me want to put it on right now.
    The story seems so complex but it isn’t. Its right there in front of us the whole time just waiting for us to see what the film is really about. Not being a hero or defeating evil, but love. (And hats of course.)
    That’s it you convinced me, I’m going switch movies and watch Liberty Valance instead. Thanks again.


    • Ha! Your comment has prompted me to want to see the movie again – and I just watched it!

      I agree with you about Stewart, Ford and especially Wayne. I’m a huge John Wayne fan, but this movie has a special message as you’ve pointed out. No one else – and I mean NO ONE else – could play this role.


  3. Ruth, dare I say “Hats off to THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE!”? 🙂 It’s been a long time since I watched this movie from start to finish, but your great review and cheeky focus on millinery was most enjoyable indeed! Surely I’ve mentioned elsewhere my dear late mom’s love for awesome hats, as well as Edith Head in particular? And of course, who can forget the classic line about not stating the facts: , “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. ” BRAVA on a swell post, Ruth, as always!


  4. I first watched, and fell in love, with this movie about 30 years ago when I made a copy of it and dozens of other movies to accompany the VCR I gave my parents for Christmas. All but a few were recorded “blindly” and I didn’t watch them. For some reason, I started watching this one and was hooked. I actually made my own copy, long gone along with the VCR. It’s been quite some time since I’ve thought about this movie. Thanks for the reminder. I need to watch it again — and this time I’ll pay more attention to the hats.


  5. Great post and one of our absolute favorite westerns. So ironic that Jimmy Stewart (in real life during WWII) was way more ballsy than almost any other Hollywood actor…


  6. Good review, Ruth! Frankly, I’m not the biggest fan of LIBERTY VALANCE…it’s the only Ford western I didn’t buy on DVD (I did receive a free copy as a gift, though). It’s a good enough film but not really my kind of western, I’m afraid, and less interesting visually than usual for Ford. Great cast, though!


    • I agree that the shots are not as carefully composed as some of Ford’s other films, but I love the story and the characters in this film. I like the fact that there aren’t lengthy chasing and shooting scenes, which always make me lose interest.

      Thanks for stopping by, Jeff!


  7. Well, I never would have thought BABY JANE would get a nomination–let alone win–for Costume Design! This is one of my favorite John Ford movies, a thoughtful film about many things, including the making of legends. And you’re right about mean ol’ Lee Marvin.


    • No kidding!! (re: Baby Jane costume design)

      This really is a thoughtful film about how a legend is made, and the sacrifices that are made. John Wayne is completely credible as a man who makes a thankless sacrifice.


  8. I’m fixin’ to give you a compliment there pilgrim! Great post on a great film – one of my favorite darn tootin’ westerns. Wonderful characters and varmints!

    As always, a fun read, PIL-GRIM!


    I can’t stop, PIL-GRIM.


  9. Must agree with everyone else that this is one of Ford’s greatest – and both Wayne and Stewart are magnificent. I do agree that it isn’t a film where you can predict what is going to happen, and yet, once it has all happened, it seems inevitable. You make me want to watch this again very soon!


  10. My husband and I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for the first time last month. I think it is now one of my favorite Westerns. John Ford told an incredible story with such gifted actors. Great review!


  11. One of my favorite westerns, with my all-time favorite actor Jimmy. Now, dagnabbit!, I’m gonna have to go back to this one and figure out what’s going on with all the hats!

    Thanks for the very witty writing and unique take on some great films!


  12. This and Shane are perhaps my favorite westerns of all-time. Even so, I never paid the hats much mind. Next time I’ll try to!

    This film is such a great, tragic story when you think about it and so expertly told. So many little things I really appreciate here. Like how viciously Valance beats Stoddard. They didn’t treat it with kid’s gloves. I can feel each lash. Also little lines that leave a lot to chew on, like when Ranse is so upset about the absence of Tom’s gun belt and he’s told that Tom hadn’t worn a gun in years. I’ve managed to fit, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” in jest into daily conversation a couple times, not that anyone knows where it’s from or what it truly means unless they see the film. And they should.


    • This is a remarkable movie, and it deserves a better review than the treatment I gave it here. Like you said, there’s a lot going on in this film, and I will be revisiting it in the future. Thanks for dropping by! 🙂


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