Out of either James Stewart or John Wayne, who was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and how does this alter the ending? John Ford is regarded as one of the great American filmmakers and has many classics to his name, including Stagecoach, The Quiet Man and The Searchers. It should be clear from that line-up that he often worked alongside John Wayne too, who credited the filmmaker with making him a star.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance from 1962 was one of their final projects together, though John Wayne was cast by the studio against Ford’s wishes. The character of Tom Doniphon was supposed to be a younger man, and the filmmaker relentlessly mocked and teased Wayne during filming. The story sees James Stewart’s idealistic younger lawyer Stoddard arriving in a remote town with the intention of introducing law, order and education to the townspeople. He quickly makes an enemy out of local bully and killer Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, The Dirty Dozen), who tries to force him to leave town.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance focuses on the love triangle between Stoddard, Doniphon and his girlfriend Hallie (Vera Miles, Psycho). After a brutal assault by Valance, Stoddard is saved by Doniphon and nursed back to health by Hallie, who form a romantic connection. The rough and tough Doniphon later tries to teach Stoddard to defend himself and shoot a gun, all to little success. One night Valance demands a showdown and toys with the lawyer, shooting him in the arm and taunting him before Stoddard finally gets off a shot and Valance drops dead.
Most of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s story is told in flashback, as Stoddard and Hallie return to the town over 25 years later to attend Doniphon’s funeral. The legend of how Stoddard stood up to Valance and killed him spread wide and helped him build a career in politics. Stoddard recounts the whole tale to a local newspaper reporter – and plans to come clean about that night. It turns out an unseen Doniphon shot Valance with a rifle from across the street and he later came to regret saving Stoddard as he lost Hallie to the lawyer, but he pushes him to pursue a career in politics to make Hallie proud.
This twist does little to impress the editor, who refuses to run the story revealing the truth, proclaiming “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ends with Stoddard and Hallie – who also knows the truth about Doniphon – on a train ride home. He asks if she wants to move back to the town when they retire, which makes her delighted as she states her heart belongs there. He then asks about a cactus rose that was placed on Doniphon’s coffin, and she reveals she placed it there; Tom had earlier given Hallie a cactus rose, with the strong implication being that she never stopped loving him.
The final line of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sees the conductor ensuring the couple of a smooth journey and stating nothing is too for the man who killed Valance. Stoddard and Hallie then sit in silence as the politician reflects on the life he built on a myth and John Wayne’s Doniphon sacrificing his own happiness for him and Hallie.