“When a Classic Western becomes a 4K UHD, purchase the 4K UHD”
In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, aging famed Senator Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) returns with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to the small town of Shinbone where they first met. They’re set to attend the funeral of obscure rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), but Ranse finds himself beleaguered by the local press who have come to hear him recount how he once gunned down vicious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) on the eve of their unnamed state’s ascendancy to the Union. Ford’s film flashes back to how Ranse and Tom became allies in their quest to bring Liberty to Justice for all—but as we quickly learn, there’s far more to just how Liberty Valance got shot, with just who did it equally brought into question.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the most memorable Westerns of all time by any metric, whether in the filmographies of all those involved or in a greater sense of a Western film canon. What makes it so memorable is how just nearly everyone involved—from John Wayne to Jimmy Stewart to Ford himself—is seemingly driven to set fire to their own legacies. Wayne and Stewart begin the film very much typecast: Stewart as a downtrodden yet courageous man of the law and Wayne as a heroic figure of the West, driven to tame it by force.
As the film progresses, though, the central act of courage morally corners Ranse and Tom, and where they must live with a series of deceptions and consequences in order to uphold the valiant image they’ve created for themselves. Stewart’s reputation as a law-abiding citizen feels like nothing more than a hollow mask, forged wholly by the sacrifices of people like Wayne’s Tom. Likewise, Tom knows his days as a wild ranger are coming to an end simply by the presence of people like Ranse—once the West is tamed, it can never be un-tamed. The killing of Liberty Valance, as celebrated and necessary as it may be, is a major turning point for both men; once they take action, they’re trapped with the reputations they forge out of that one split-second decision, destined to reap what they sow both in and out of the public eye.
The film represents a complicated morality for a Western that stands only in comparison to The Searchers, which Ford and Wayne had received acclaim for less than a decade previously. Even so, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes far beyond that film. It’s absent a xenophobic depiction of Native Americans as major antagonists, and what black-and-white villain it has is shot dead halfway through the film. What’s left, then, is a major tension between those who rise or suffer as a result, calling into question the nature of heroism that draws audiences to Westerns in the first place. It’s a far cry from the thrilling comforts of Ford’s Stagecoach, which kickstarted Wayne’s career as a Cowboy Hero, and even Stewart’s own Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Here, ideals of heroism pale in the shadow of gunsmoke, with true acts of courage going unnoticed by necessity. The real heroes of the West aren’t remembered; all that matters is that the villains are dead.
Shot during the rise of color film and changing American tastes (not to mention a small role by a rising Lee Van Cleef of eventual Sergio Leone Western fame), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a film out of time in more ways than one: It’s a John Ford Western that harkens back to the old-fashioned production methods of his classic films, with a story and themes that acknowledge that the days of the West (and the Western) are reaching a complex and melancholic end.
The film’s availability on physical media has been checkered, to say the least, with varying qualities of transfers made available across DVD and Blu-ray. Paramount Presents has revived The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as the latest in their 4K UHD line, boasting a picture quality that finally does the classic film justice alongside a roster of archival special features making their HD debut.
Paramount presents The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in Dolby Vision 4K UHD. The accompanying Blu-ray disc isn’t the same problematic and extras-free disc from 2015 and 2017, but contains a 1080p HD transfer of the 2022 restoration as well as the film’s special features. Both instances of the film are presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. A restored Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Audio English Track is the default selection for both discs. Mono tracks in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish (Castilian & Latin) are also available on the 4K disc. On the Blu-ray, there are also accompanying Mono tracks in English, French, and Spanish. English SDH subtitles are available for both the film and accompanying special features. The 4K disc also includes feature subtitles in English, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin (Simplified), Norwegian, Polish, Spanish (Castilian & Latin), and Swedish. The Blu-ray disc also includes subtitles in French and Spanish.
While past transfers have varied in quality across physical media releases, Paramount’s latest restoration of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is pretty stunning, even if it has its own shortcomings. Re-scanning the film’s materials has brought out a level of detail missing from past releases. The shorn wood of the film’s sets to the fabrics of the costumes are well represented in texture and quality, while longer shots may lose their focus as a result of digital enhancement across the board. Also, it’s clear from the consistency of the film grain across shots that something may have been added in after the fact (and not inherent to the materials themselves), which results in an experience that is by far the best Liberty Valance has looked in years, though one that may be errantly distracting for a handful of shots. While this may be critical, this doesn’t stop Paramount’s package from featuring a transfer with plenty of room to boast as far as picture quality goes—this is quite a transfer across the board, and is definitely a step up from heavily DNR’d past releases.
The film’s audio tracks are quite robust, from the film’s original monaural elements to a remixed dynamic 5.1-surround track. Crisp, impactful dialogue and Foley work make up the most prominent elements, with Cyril J. Mockridge’s plaintive score taking more of a supporting role in surrounding channels.
Note: All of the package’s special features are on the film’s accompanying Blu-ray disc.
- Filmmaker Focus — Leonard Maltin on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: The famed film critic gives a brief yet impactful new introduction to the film, framing it within the careers of its stars and director as well as its evolving place in Western cinematic canon.
- The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth: An archival seven-part documentary on the genesis and production of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, putting Ford’s film in the context of the tumultuous and evolving studio-director-star relationships of the time. Features interviews with Ford (audio), Peter Bogdanovich, former Paramount executives, and Ford’s grandson, Dan Ford. While this is a fascinating and in-depth look at the film’s complicated production, it’s frustrating that this documentary doesn’t have a “Play All” function; each part must be played individually.
- Archival Commentary with late filmmaker and film historian Peter Bogdanovich, accompanied by archival interviews conducted by Bogdanovich with Ford and Stewart. Surprisingly, this isn’t an option for the 4K transfer of the film, which seems like an unusual oversight for a release like this, given the option of many other language tracks on the 4K disc. Not subtitled.
- Archival Selected Scene Commentary for seven scenes in the film, with an introduction from film historian and John Ford descendant Dan Ford, accompanied by archival interviews conducted by Dan Ford with John Ford and stars Stewart and Marvin.
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Sleeve containing fold-out original theatrical art.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is now available on Paramount Presents 4K UHD courtesy of Paramount Pictures.