The 50 greatest westerns

We count down the greatest westerns of all time


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Dir John Ford (James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles)

‘This is the west, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’

Five years after the entrancing bitterness of ‘The Searchers’, John Ford reached a kind of accommodation with his favourite mythologies in this bundle of contradictions. This western, that opens just a few years before World War I, is a tragedy shot through with mischief and boisterous humour. And it’s a film that comes to bury the Old West but can’t help but praise it.

The end of the frontier life is heralded by the collision of James Stewart’s principled eastern lawyer, Stoddard, with rancher Tom Doniphon, played with rough charm by John Wayne. Stoddard’s civilisation competes with Doniphon’s western gun law as they both try to free the town of Shinbone from the grip of outlaw Liberty Valance and vie for the love of the same woman. It’s a contrast that’s played out from the start, when Stoddard, now an ageing and respected senator, arrives back in Shinbone for Doniphon’s funeral only to find the great symbol of the west – it’s John Wayne in that pine box after all – is bound for a pauper’s grave. As Stoddard relates his story in flashback to the editor of the Shinbone Star, the layers of western legend are peeled away, exposing not lies but a collective will to mythologise and an amnesia necessary for progress.

Ford’s vision is remarkably unsentimental. He pays tribute to the Doniphons who built America while accepting that that their usefulness died with the frontier. Strangely, for all the director’s identification with The Duke, it’s Stewart who delivers what is surely a deliberate reference to the journey Ford has taken. ‘When I first came to Shinbone,’ he begins, ‘I came by stagecoach…’ More than 20 years after Ford’s own arrival with ‘Stagecoach’, he had reinvented the western again and in ‘Liberty Valance’ bequeathed a sad, warm-hearted reproach to modernity’s forgetfulness. PF