"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Behind the camera? John Ford, a director whose name is synonymous with "Westerns." Gathered in front of it? An ideal cast -- James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles and Lee Marvin. Now presented on two discs, with all-new special features, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance rides into town as classic entry in the Paramount Centennial Collection. Director Ford brings us to the lawless frontier village of Shinbone, a town plagued by a larger-than-life nemesis, Liberty Valance (Marvin). Stewart plays the bungling but charming big-city lawyer determined to rid Shinbone of Valance, and he finds that he has an unlikely ally -- in the form of a rugged, local rancher (Wayne). The two men also share the same love interest (Miles). But when the final showdown becomes inevitable, one of the two will attempt to get the gunman ... but the other one will wind up getting the gal.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance asks the question: can the moralist Jimmy Stewart civilize the west, or will it uncivilize him? Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin come together under the guidance of master John Ford in a film that appears to adhere to respective Hollywood persona's only to shatter them later on. Who ever expected to see Stewart pick up a six shooter and duel or Wayne shoot a man square in the back? Nobody.
By exploring these issues in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford was playing with History, and the power of (mis)information in legitimizing governmental institutions, He was suggesting that official explanations are often a sham and he invited the audience to play along with the experiment. This was a far cry from the usual western, representing a departure even for Ford in that he demanded his audience to think rather than be merely entertained. The film had a rather dark, sinister edge to it and Ford added to this by choosing to record it in black and white. As Edward Buscombe observes this had the effect of creating the belief that the film was dated but authentic, almost a documentary. (100 Westerns, Buscombe, 2006, 125), The result was stylised, deliberately creating a pastiche, an archaic vision of the past through a series of staged sequences similar to the early days of the Cinema. Some reviewers did not take to this at all, for it did not match their expectations.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a stark by Fords standards, it is challenging film, it was not just a part of History, it contributed to it. In this classic film Ford recognized what history was and is, and how works of Art like his contribute to it. It was a new slant for Ford: having distorted history by seeming to relate it, but in actuality celebrating and developing its myths, here he was giving the History student a lesson in methodology. In .......... My Darling Clementine and the Searchers, Ford had nudged his characters toward a final ascendance to myth; now, in the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he begins with the myth and methodically dismantles it. (Scott Eyam, Print the Legend, the Life and Times of John Ford, 1999, 491). Like many Ford films the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance focuses on the need to subordinate individual will to the collective struggle for the greater good. Unlike many Ford films the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance overtly questions whether the sacrifice is justified. (Scott Eyam, Print the Legend, the Life and Times of John Ford, 1999, 492. )