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'When The Legend Becomes Fact, Print The Legend:' Meaning Of The 'Liberty Valance' Line

Entertainment | January 23, 2021

Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance. Source: IMDB

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That iconic line comes from director John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s a great line and one that resonates more and more with time. Carleton Young uttered that infamous line in the film and it aged like a fine wine. Despite “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” becoming an immediate hit, the iconic line didn’t receive instant fanfare. Instead, it grew over time, like a song that hits the top 10 years after its first release. Today, it’s used by politicians or writers deifying athletes and everything in between. This is the story of “print the legend.”

'When The Legend Becomes Fact, Print The Legend,' Context

Politics today, a coward telling people what’s right.(americanrhetoric)

In John Ford’s film, Ranse Stoddard, played by James Stewart, incorrectly receives credit for gunning down the savage criminal Liberty Valance portrayed by Lee Marvin. In reality, John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, took down the marauding killer despite his insistence that it’s not his job. Stoddard then parleys the wave of praise into a wildly successful political career on the back of Doniphon’s courageous deed. 

Unpacking 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'

John Wayne and Vera Miles in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”(reddit)

Ford, the godfather of westerns, packs so much symbolism into the film you’d think it was Shakespeare. For one, Wayne and Stewart both go against type. Wayne plays Doniphon as an old fashioned tough guy who’s at the end of the line. That’s also precisely where Wayne was in his career in ‘62. Stewart, on the other hand, who normally played a nice guy subverts his typical archetype into a slimy politician, exploiting someone else’s feat. 

Ford’s Perspective On American Politics

The godfathers of westerns John Ford and John Wayne. (amazon)

Unlike typical westerns, there’s no nostalgia for a country gone by the wayside. Instead, the town of Shinbone is populated by uneducated, rude people just looking to get over on one another. Stoddard’s arrival to Shinbone, where he’s beaten like a dog, could be seen as attempted gentrification by a self-serving outsider. In the film, Stoddard bemoans the state of the town, "What kind of a community have I come to," and attempts to democratize them while failing to chivy the local authorities into action.

Meanwhile, the actual hero, Doniphon, wants nothing to do with the pompous outsider too afraid to get his hands dirty. The actual sheriff, Marshal Link Appleyard, remains even more ambivalent than Doniphon. Ford also takes time to focus on the contradiction of democracy. The town celebrates the evolution of their elevated civics with the implementation of voting rights and freedom of the press.

All the while, the women and black people of the town are conspicuously left out of the process. It’s also worth noting that Ford shot the entire movie on Hollywood sets, eschewing the usual evocative shots and vistas of the old west. It’s almost as if he thought the west had lost its luster. 

Is 'Printing The Legend' A Good Or Bad Thing?

Lee Marvin, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne. Source: IMDB

The movie is about the difference between the stories we all know and what really might have happened. The version of history we receive, whether from adults or history books, may describe idealized or glorified scenes and places that didn't really exist. The American west, as depicted in movies, particularly John Ford movies, is just such a mythical place. We see stories that have heroes and villains, noble causes and happy endings -- but the truth was likely much less cut-and-dried.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was Ford's last western with John Wayne, and it can be seen as the director's farewell to, and final statement on, the genre. Yet what is the nature of this statement? Tim Hunter wrote in the Harvard Crimson that

Ford gives us a capsule version of the world it took him 40 years to create, and then shows us how it died. Liberty Valance is a film about death, about a sad but inevitable transition from an old social order to modern society as we know it today. ... The characters in Liberty Valance are the archetypal figures of all Ford westerns brought together for a last reunion, in order that they might be destroyed. Almost no traces of the old Shinbone can be found at the beginning and end of the film. Ford bitterly laments the intrusion of reality on his legend.

That's one way of looking at it -- that the film is a eulogy for beloved legends. But maybe Ford was also tired of legends. He'd spent his career creating them, and here in the end he's revealing that they weren't always simple embellishments. It's kind to say that the movie is about a "legend" that becomes fact; it's actually about a lie. Brandon Soderberg, writing for the Baltimore Sun, called the movie a "bitter revisionist western" characterized by John Ford's "lack of sentimentality" for the genre. Soderberg feels that 

The oft-quoted line [is] almost always quoted for all the wrong reasons because the movie itself goes to great length to present the actual facts and subtly damn anybody who prefers the legend.

We can't ask John Ford, who died in 1973, to clarify how he felt about legends -- but it's possible to be nostalgic about them while tearing them down. Legends are like junk food from a vending machine -- we know they're loaded with artificial flavors and preservatives, but they taste good so we gobble them up anyway.

Is 'Liberty Valance' A Critique Of The Media?

Paul Birch, Joseph Hoover, and Carleton Young in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Source: IMDB

In recent years, as the national debate over media has heated up, some viewers have seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a cautionary tale about news, or fake news: You can't believe everything you read. Writing for Philosophy Now, Thomas E. Wartenberg opined that

In our current political climate, rewatching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance strikes an important chord. In 1962, John Ford seems to have been concerned that the media was no longer attempting to deliver truth to the public. Although a newspaper is featured in his film, it’s hard to avoid thinking about film itself as a target of Ford’s concern. He’s suggesting that in place of truth, the press – and movies – promulgate mythologies which support histories as false as the notion that Ranse Stoddard was the man who shot Liberty Valance. It’s for this reason that I think we ought to watch The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance again, but with a different mindset than we might have had years ago. We can still thrill to John Wayne delivering lines such as “Howdy, Pilgrim!” But we would also do well to heed the lessons the film delivers, about the idea of progress as a myth lying at the heart of a culture, sustained by docile news media more interested in serving the interests of the powerful than in exposing hard truths.

When The Legend Becomes Fact, Print The Legend

The man, the myth, and the legend, all in one picture. (pinterest)

When people, especially politicians, attempt to use the iconic quote. they completely miss the film’s intention. In our current feeble world of politics, legislators use the quote to accuse the other side of printing lies to boost their own standing. What they fail to realize is that Ford intentionally damned anyone in the film who adopted the legend over the facts. Ford presents the town of Shinbone and its democracy being run by swindlers, charlatans, and con artists. One might say it’s not all that different from our politicians today, who gleefully attempt to co-opt the movie. 

Tags: Famous Quotes From The 1960s | Jimmy Stewart | John Wayne | Lee Marvin | Movie Quotes | The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!