Several reasons have been put forward for the film being in black and white. John Ford once claimed it added to the tension, but others involved with the production said Paramount was cutting costs, which was why the film was shot on sound stages at the studio. Without the budget restraints, Ford would have been in Monument Valley using Technicolor stock. It has also been suggested that since both John Wayne and James Stewart were playing characters 30 years younger than their actual age (Wayne was 54 when the movie was filmed in the autumn of 1961 and Stewart was 53), the movie needed to be in black and white because they would never have gotten away with it in color. The age difference was particularly noticeable in Stewart's case, since he was playing a young lawyer who had only just graduated from law school and had moved west without even practicing law back east.
Valance addresses several characters as "dude." From the 1870s to 1960s, this was a pejorative term with the approximate meaning of "overdressed city slicker," usually applied to city dwellers visiting rural areas. In the 1960s, surfer culture adapted the term to mean "friend" or "companion."
Woody Strode frequently performed his own stunts, partly because he was such a good athlete and partly because it was hard to find a black double to match his build and looks (this had also been the case on Spartacus (1960)). In the scene where Doniphon sets fire to his house, Strode had to race in and drag him out of the building. John Wayne was using a double but the 47-year-old Strode wasn't. John Ford told his star, "Duke, Woody is an old man, and he's got to carry you and he doesn't need a double!" Wayne decided to do the scene without one.
Lee Marvin's first scene (the stage hold-up) presented problems for the actor--he couldn't seem to get a handle on his character. After several takes, John Ford instructed the stage driver not to throw down the cash box when Marvin demanded it. This had the effect of greatly notching up Marvin's anger, causing him to shout, "NOW!" The take was printed.
Edmond O'Brien said, "I have never seen John Ford happier than he was in making this; he came on the set positively beaming every morning, and that was not the usual thing with him." O'Brien also said everyone involved seemed to enjoy making the film.
While filming the stagecoach hold-up, James Stewart couldn't get a handle on it and kept flubbing his lines until John Ford walked over and repeated quietly in his ear, "You are not a coward, you are not a coward." That gave Stewart just the cue he needed to nail the take.
James Stewart related that midway through filming, John Wayne asked him why he never seemed to be the target of John Ford's venomous remarks. Other cast and crew also noticed Stewart's apparent immunity from Ford's abuse. Then, toward the end of filming, Ford asked Stewart what he thought of Woody Strode's costume for the film's beginning and end, when the actors were playing their parts 25 years older. Stewart replied, "It looks a bit Uncle Remussy to me." Ford responded, "What's wrong with Uncle Remus?" He called for the crew's attention and announced, "One of our players doesn't like Woody's costume. Now, I don't know if Mr. Stewart has a prejudice against Negroes, but I just wanted you all to know about it." Stewart said he "wanted to crawl into a mouse hole", but Wayne told him, "Well, welcome to the club. I'm glad you made it."
The one cast member who could get away with just about anything on the set was Lee Marvin. John Ford appreciated him not only for his acting and his World War II service as a Marine, but for Marvin's genuineness as a person. One day, Ford came on the set and Marvin whistled loudly through his teeth. The crew froze, certain there would be trouble. Instead Ford just smiled, because he recognized that what Marvin was doing was giving the admiral's whistle and piping the director "on board."
In the scene where Stoddard is carried into the "Peter's Place" kitchen wounded, Nora (Jeanette Nolan) gives him a cup of coffee laced with what she describes as "Akvavit, Swedish brandy"--the bottle is, in fact, a quite recognizable Akvavit bottle. It is from the Danish company: Aalborg Aquavit and it is their top selling brand called Red Aalborg (Aalborg being the home town of the company). Aquavit is made from potatoes and is closer to vodka than brandy. Aalborg Aquavit is probably the best known of all the Aquavit manufacturers and its products are sold all over the world. Mixing Aquavit with coffee is in Denmark known as a Coffee Punch. It has been consumed ever since coffee was introduced in Denmark in the 1660s. An old recipe says that to make a good Coffee Punch one should put a nickel in a cup. Fill the cup with coffee until the nickel cannot be seen anymore. Then top up with Aquavit until it is visible again. Judging from the amount which Nora pours into the cup in this scene it looks like this recipe is being used by her.
According to Woody Strode, John Wayne was so hurt by John Ford's abuse that he took it out on Strode. While filming an exterior shot on a horse-drawn cart, Wayne almost lost control of the horses and knocked Strode away when he attempted to help. When the horses did stop, Wayne tried to pick a fight with the younger and fitter Strode; Ford called out, "Don't hit him, Woody, we need him." Wayne later told Strode, "We gotta work together. We both gotta be professionals." Strode blamed Ford for nearly all the friction on the set. "What a miserable film to make," he added.
When Dutton Peabody stumbles back drunk to his newspaper office, he partially recites the Saint Crispin's Day speech from William Shakespeare's "Henry V". The speech, given just before Henry V's army defeats a superior French force, foreshadows the upcoming gun battle between Ransom Stoddard and gunslinger Liberty Valance.
John Ford was quite harsh on John Wayne during filming. Some have ascribed it to Ford's age and increasing impatience with filmmaking. Others say he resented Wayne because so few of the scenes Ford worked on without credit for Wayne's film The Alamo (1960) actually made it to the screen. One day when Wayne casually suggested a minor scene change, Ford lost his temper and screamed, "Jesus Christ, here I take you out of eight-day Westerns, I put you in big movies, and you give me a stupid suggestion like that!"
John Ford once said that he preferred black-and-white and that it is actually more difficult than shooting in color. "In black and white, you've got to be very careful. You've got to know your job, lay your shadows in properly, get your perspective right, but in color, there it is," he said. "You might say I'm old-fashioned, but black and white is real photography."
Gene Pitney released the Burt Bacharach-Hal David "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", which peaked at number four in the U.S. in 1962. Though it has the same title as this picture, it was not used in the film because of a publishing dispute between Famous Music and Paramount Pictures, and because the song was considered too modern for the film's 19th-century setting.
On Lee Marvin's first day on the set, John Ford called him over and said, "You just did a movie with John Wayne [The Comancheros (1961)]. Wayne did some directing on that, right? Well, that's not happening here. Duke's not doing anything on this picture but what I tell him."
In promotional posters for the film, James Stewart appears to be billed first; however, in the film itself, John Wayne's screen card appears first, followed by Stewart's. In addition, the studio ordered all theater managers to place Wayne's name before Stewart's on their marquees.
John Wayne said that this film was "a tough assignment" for him. While everyone else seemed to have well-rounded characters, he saw his role as merely functional for the plot. "I just had to wander around in that son of a bitch [Tom Doniphon] and try to make a part for myself." When someone suggested to Wayne that his role was a complicated one, full of ambiguity, he reportedly shot back, "Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don't like ambiguity. I don't trust ambiguity."
According to Lee Van Cleef, John Wayne was cast at the insistence of the studio. John Ford resented the studio's intrusion, and retaliated by taunting Wayne relentlessly throughout the filming. Van Cleef said, "He didn't want Duke [Wayne] to think he was doing him any favor".
The script followed Dorothy M. Johnson's story and viewpoint fairly closely with one notable exception. On the page, Tom Doniphon was more of a mentor to Ranse Stoddard,, easing him along the road from frontier lawyer to state senator. In the film, except for two notable acts that change Stoddard's life forever, Doniphon isn't quite so proactive with an eye to Stoddard's future.
John Ford only shot just what he needed with very little extra coverage on. He also preferred to do a minimum of takes, saying that after the first few, the actors get tired and jaded and their performances lack spontaneity. That's why he liked to work with the same people over and over again (the famed Ford "stock company"), because he could count on them to know what he wanted and give it to him on the first take.
The stagecoach which delivers Stoddard and Peabody to the political convention has a very faint legend on it which reads BUTTERFIELD STAGE LINES. It is very likely the same stagecoach used in 3:10 to Yuma (1957), loaned to Paramount by Columbia.
There are varying opinions about why the film was shot in black and white in the studio instead of location filming in colour. Some accounts have it that John Ford was forced to curtail his usual production methods because Paramount would not give him the financing he needed to shoot in one of his favourite locales, such as Monument Valley. Others, particularly critics and film analysts looking back to reclaim the film as one of Ford's major achievements, say the decision was entirely Ford's, a choice that zeroed in on a more intimate and intense character study. Most observers agree that black and white also helped ease the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept James Stewart and John Wayne as young men and Stewart in his make-up for the character late in life.
According to John Ford's grandson, many people involved in the shooting remarked on Ford's lack of energy and complete disregard for details such as background effects. Lindsay Anderson, in his book-length study of the director, says, "No doubt this was yet another instance of Ford's growing impatience with the business of shooting: it was no longer 'fun.' He resented the demands of narrative, of crowd-pleasing spectacle, the trappings of 'art.' And in places the work suffered."
John Wayne was still on location for The Comancheros (1961) in early summer 1961 when he began getting memos about their upcoming project from John Ford, who was eager to have his star back by summer's end to begin shooting. "For a change, no locations," Ford wrote on July 7. "All to be shot on the lot . . . Seriously, we have a great script in my humble opinion."
When he saw the set for the town of Shinbone, assistant director Wingate Smith remarked that it didn't looked lived in enough. John Ford replied, "If they don't like it, we'll give them their nickel back."
Although most sources say the film was shot almost entirely at Paramount Studios, with exteriors on the Janss Conejo Ranch in Thousand Oaks, California, a documentary about the making of it revealed that the town and train shots were done on Lot 3 at MGM.
At one point, hard-drinking newspaper editor Dutton Peabody refers to the bad guys as "Liberty Valance and his Myrmidons." The Myrmidons were figures of ancient Greek mythology, skilled warriors in Homer's Iliad commanded by Achilles. Because they were known for their fierce loyalty to their leader, the term came to be used in pre-industrial Europe almost as "robots" would be today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term has since come to mean "hired ruffian" or "a loyal follower, especially one who executes orders without question, protest, or pity--unquestioning followers."
James Stewart genuinely liked John Ford and was eager to work with him again, especially since he was less than happy about the development of his unlikable character in Two Rode Together (1961), but would be playing an upstanding citizen and idealist in this film.
Print the Legend, a phrase taken from the movie's famous quote, is the title of a crime novel by Craig McDonald about the death of Ernest Hemingway, a study of photography in the American West, and, of course, a book about John Ford by Scott Eyman. The phrase is often invoked in any writing or discussion about a person or event whose fame has surpassed the base realities.
On Two Rode Together (1961), James Stewart wore the same hat in the film that he had worn in all his westerns with director Anthony Mann, prompting John Ford to remark, "Great, now I have actors with hat approval!". Ford refused to allow Stewart to wear any hat in this film, while John Wayne wore the most flamboyant wide-brimmed ten-gallon hat that he'd worn in film since the 1930s.
In the cast as an uncredited townsman was Danny Borzage, brother of director Frank Borzage and something of a Ford mascot. Borzage had been playing bits in John Ford's films since The Iron Horse (1924) and was always on set to play mood music on his accordion for the cast and crew between scenes and sometimes during them.
The relatively small cast boasts an impressive share of Oscar winners. All four of the main players took home Academy Awards for acting during their careers, John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin and Edmond O'Brien.
The film presents James Stewart's character as a bookish weakling and John Wayne's as a man of strength and action. But during World War II it was Stewart who actually saw combat with the Army Air Corps, while Wayne stayed home and fought his "war" on Hollywood's soundstages.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) refers to Valance as " . . . the toughest man south of the Picketwire," then adds, "next to me!" The Picketwire is not a wire fence dividing line; it was slang for the Purgatoire River, which flows into the Arkansas. The line is appropriate as well pertaining to Doniphon actually being revealed as the man who shot Liberty Valance.
Tom Donophan does die in this film, although it is off camera and not in a gunfight or anything of the like. As such, this film is often erroneously omitted from lists of "films where John Wayne dies."