The 1962 John Wayne film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is widely regarded as his greatest creation. It included everything you could want in a Western: dastardly outlaws, plenty of gunfights, and a larger-than-life hero, John Wayne. The John Ford film also birthed the iconic line, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
John Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, an unsung hero who’s already dead at the start of the film, while his co-star, James Stewart, is the perfect foil in slimy politician Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard. Senator Stoddard took credit for Doniphon’s defeat of Liberty Valance, a ruthless criminal terrorizing the frontier town of Shinbone.
The film was an adaptation of a 1953 short story of the same name by Dorothy M. Johnson. As John Ford was tasked with turning a short story into a feature film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance wasn’t exactly a mirror image of the original tale.
In the John Ford biography Print the Legend, author Scott Eyman describes the differences. “The point of the story is basically the same point as the film,” Eyman said. “The execution is quite different. Ford and his writers altered one crucial aspect.”
“In the story, the John Wayne character is kind of the fairy godfather to the Jimmy Stewart character, keeps nudging him along on the road from frontier lawyer to United States senator, constantly showing him the way and helping him out.”
“That doesn’t happen in the film,” Eyman continued. “Basically, the John Wayne character in the film commits two acts that alter Ransom Stoddard’s life and that’s all and that’s enough. So it made the Wayne character a little less proactive in the film as opposed to the story.”
John Wayne Wasn’t the Main Character in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a breathtaking film and an extremely memorable role for John Wayne. Because of the changes made to the story in the adaptation process, however, John Wayne wasn’t the main character of the story.
Given how important the film is to John Wayne’s career, and the fact that many consider The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be a John Wayne film, The Duke has surprisingly little screen time. In fact, it’s probably John Wayne’s most important role with the least amount of screen time.
James Stewart is the clear star of the film and plays the character the majority of the movie is centered around. It’s John Wayne, however, who took the film to legendary status, giving it that extra dash of Western magic. For Western fans, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a must-watch.
Because of John Wayne’s incredible performance, the end of the film is a true tearjerker. You know it has to end with Ranse taking credit for the heroic actions of Tom Doniphon. But it doesn’t make the final moments sting any less.
When it becomes clear that Doniphon will never receive his flowers, a newspaper editor who could’ve published the truth gives the line that’s now cemented in cinema history. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”