The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
We still love John Ford’s bitter-sentimental look back at the lost Myth of the West. John Wayne and James Stewart are at least thirty years too old for their roles, but everything seems to be happening in a foggy reverie, so what’s the difference, Pilgrim? Great comedy and Lee Marvin’s marvelous villain, plus the assertive ‘print the Legend’ message that’s been hotly debated ever since.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Warner Home Video / Paramount
1962 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 123 min. / Street Date October 13, 2015 / 14.98
Starring John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine,
Ken Murray, John Carradine, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen, Willis Bouchey, Carleton Young, Woody Strode, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef
Cinematography William H. Clothier
Production Designer Eddie Imazu & Hal Pereira
Film Editor Otho Lovering
Original Music Cyril J. Mockridge
Writing credits James Warner Bellah & Willis Goldbeck from a story by Dorothy M. Johnson
Produced by John Ford & Willis Goldbeck
Directed by John Ford
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
“What, no Gene Pitney?”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been a movie to enjoy (or jeer) the performances of an over-aged cast, particularly John Wayne. He was a slightly confusing figure for us back in the early 1970s. Few film students were willing to accept him as the very good actor he was, yet we admired his total command of every scene. One extended clash between Wayne and the bad guys takes place in a restaurant where everybody seems to be eating slabs of beef weighing at least four pounds. It’s a marvel of seemly effortless style – slimy bad guy Strother Martin volunteers to pick up a disputed T-Bone, and John Wayne’s smiling hero kicks him across the room without batting an eye. Still, we’d make fun of Wayne’s peculiar way of saying his lines, even as we realized that we had been invested in his screen image from an early age.
John Ford’s postwar films were all over the map in terms of quality, but his themes were pretty consistent, especially in his westerns. He was the undisputed king of film directors during the heyday of the ‘auteur theory,’ and the worship of past masters like Orson Welles has insured that his reputation hasn’t fallen. By 1962 Ford’s career was really
all but finished, but he continued to push through personal projects. The ones with John Wayne did well.
Film critics have always applauded Liberty Valance for having a profound message, wrapped up in the question of whether we were supposed to print the Fact, or ‘The Legend.’ It at least gave genre critics something to chew on, usually combined with the old “turning the desert into a garden” dream. The show offers an arresting story and sharp characters, and an affecting, emotional finish. There are certainly no regulations about what movie westerns do with the facts — John Ford listened to Wyatt Earp’s subjective version of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and then spun his movie story out of pure wishful thinking.
In Arizona, early in the 20th century, congressman Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) returns with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to the tiny town of Shinbone to bury an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). In respect for Doniphon, Rance tells reporters the truth about how he found fame as ‘the man who shot Liberty Valance.’ Many years before, as a dishwasher and aspiring lawyer, Ransom had encouraged Shinbone to stand up against the highwayman Valance (Lee Marvin), a thug who enforcing the will of cattle interests trying to block statehood for the territory. Ransom also attracted the affection of Hallie Ericson, much to the ire of local stalwart Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), whose jealous rage was more dangerous to Ransom than the wrath of Valance and his scum henchmen. But things turned out in a wholly ironic way…
“Liberty Valance is the toughest man south of the picket wire —
next to ME.”
Highly entertaining, if a bit slow moving, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a delight for those who wish to celebrate John Wayne. His fractured diction, theatrical pauses and shorthand gestures make this the key film for Wayne imitators, Pilgrim. Wayne interacts gracefully with a number of acting styles, and only James Stewart stands out as being possibly a bit too much for his role. Stewart is constantly emoting, pumping in the energy to give the impression of youth. He’s back in tongue-tied Mr. Smith filibuster mode. The truth be told, Stewart is absurdly too old to play the role of a young lawyer out from the East. But then again, so is Wayne, if we want to get technical. I believe the word is that Liberty Valance was filmed in B&W because of its relatively elderly cast.
Everybody loves the assembled company of stock faces. For a cantankerous director Ford arranges a really comfortable set of supporting characters. Vera Miles is professional, hearty and sweet, fighting through high-school level dialogue about wanting to read and write, etc. We rather wonder why Hallie would want to marry either of these members of the Long In The Tooth Saddle Club. It can be argued that the impressive Lee Marvin got his star-making break here, as the loathsome but fun dirty-rat Liberty Valance. The lizard-like Lee Van Cleef and the perverse Strother Martin hit the perfect notes that would soon elevate them into stardom with Leone and Peckinpah. Demoted from star status in Sgt. Rutledge to playing a hired hand, Woody Strode provides the movie with a weak nod to Camelot-era inclusiveness. More of that comes in the film’s weakest scenes, where part-time schoolteacher Ransom pushes the ABC’s on multi-ethnic children as well as a stuttering comic character, Kaintuck (Shug Fisher).
Stage-bound and talky, Liberty Valance reserves its action for a few powerful moments. It almost plays like a picture from the 1930s, which is not a complaint. Colorful characters like Ken Murray’s Doc and Edmond O’Brien’s Dutton Peabody come directly from Dudley Nichols’ ‘Stagecoach’ school of ‘alcoholism-is-cute.’ Considered Ford’s final word on the western genre, most of the ideas here are depressingly retro, after Ford’s (assumed) liberalization that began with The Searchers. Revealing that the colorful reputation of a noble politician is based on a lie might sound like a subversive for the maker of great westerns. At the finish, however, it is smugly declared that inconsistencies with the ‘official story’ are best swept under the carpet. As a truth-killer, it’s the equal of the ending of Fort Apache, where military stupidity and the slaughter of native Americans are whitewashed in the interest of Army pride, sentimentality, and tradition. ‘When the the legend becomes fact, print the legend,’ has a sentimental appeal to everyone who wants history to be a rosy tale of
simple conflicts, nobly resolved. But it’s the same ideal that made the politics of beloved actors Stewart, Wayne, Reagan, and others come off as oppressive to my generation. “Trust us,” they said so paternalistically. “We have charisma.” The movie reveals that Rance Stoddard’s political career was based on a bald-faced lie… yet we don’t think any less of the politician, because he used that lie to do good for the State. Or so we’re told.
“Okay dude. This time, right between the eyes.”
The second major western theme is the turning of the desert into a garden. Ford’s westerns make more overt claims to historical relevance than those of other major directors of his time. Howard Hawks’ heroes are just earning a professional’s living, but Ford’s are almost always glorified as building a nation. Even his
My Darling Clementine has a profound symbol, in its half-built Church, of an American Utopia in the making. Strange, however, that these western movies are all set in the most barren of deserts, a place that can grow almost nothing and can barely support goats for grazing. The farms of The Searchers may look photogenic, yet are crop-challenged sand pits. Are the denizens of Shinbone all miners, perhaps? Tom Doniphon brings Hallie a cactus rose, the symbol of the fantasy garden (read: love nest) he’s building for her a mile or two out of town.
Ford keeps the politics very simple. His simplification of the O.K. Corral into Good Earps vs. Bad Clantons, makes John Sturges’ revisionist Hour of the Gun a must-see. Here in Liberty Valance we’re handed the old idea that eliminating one demonized villain (wonderfully played by Lee Marvin) will solve all of Shinbone’s problems. As in the most basic of westerns, there are no complex issues to study and debate, only demonized baddies to eliminate. It’s the way westerns have taught us Americans to look at the world.
“What, we’re out of courage? You are in luck — courage can be purchased at yonder tavern!”
The western genre doesn’t even begin to come into focus without the foundation of Ford’s West; the movements that came afterward are a reaction to his pictures. Sergio Leone started with abstract cynicism but eventually made his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West as an anti-capitalist response to the world of Ford. Sam Peckinpah’s major westerns deconstruct the John Ford world, with frequent direct quotes from his films.
John Ford IS America, they used to say. And they’re right, as his sentiments smooth over the rough edges of American society. Enjoying movies doesn’t mean that we must agree with them. Ford is honest to his own way of thinking in Valance. His best films have a ring of truth and pride that comes from clan loyalty. They are still the best filmic vehicles for understanding the American mindset, which has a strange relationship with its western myths. Cozying up to these myths is the conservative’s way of finding peace and rest in the safe and secure past, where the big issues are already resolved and controversy is the tool of petty trouble-makers.
I personally place The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in the same category as the big western Shane. George Stevens’ beautiful film is a delight to watch, even if there isn’t a fresh idea in it. With the exception of a couple of scenes, Ford’s movie is dull-looking, and I consider its main theme to be bogus, an excuse for the old guard to hold on to outmoded ways because of tradition. The movie is considered Ford’s big political statement about history, but his message is not very constructive. “This is the West, sir. When the truth contradicts your self-serving illusions, print lies.”
Yet Valance is a great entertainment, with rich characterizations. Ford’s direction enhances the drama, and John Wayne is once again excellent as a ‘dark’ character without a future. Lee Marvin is the first villain since old War Chief Scar bit the dust to really stand up to John Wayne; the casting combo was so good that Ford made another film with them.
Paramount’s Blu-ray of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is being distributed by Warner Home Video. I’ve never seen a bad-looking copy of this B&W feature, with its wide compositions, mostly flat lighting (the flashback is a major exception) and overall gray look. Paramount’s 35mm prints showed no appreciable grain whatsoever, a quality retained in this handsome transfer. The audio is crystal clear as well. It’s probably for the better that John Ford didn’t use the Gene Pitney AM radio hit composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David; I’ve not read that it was ever seriously planned to be part of the film.
Except for the high-priced Wayne and Stewart, this must have been one cheap movie. The plain-wrap western street set was still standing on Hollywood’s Paramount as late as 1977, when I was attending studio screenings for a couple of years. This transfer is so clear, we can see the blank studio wall behind the little houses along main street, pretending to be the sky! Ford uses his camera much the same as he did in the 1930s, keeping his editing invisible until he has a major dramatic point to underscore.
We’ve always been bothered by the film’s last angle of a train going away from the camera. It’s a wholly atypical hand-held shot, which looks even jerkier because ‘The End’ is superimposed over it. I’ve actually read a critique of Liberty Valance theorizing that Ford did this intentionally, as a way of saying that, without the great men who built the West, the future is going to be ‘unstable.’ I’ll bet that Ford’s editor lacked a planned ending shot, and threw in the best angle he could find.
The disc is nicely matted to 1:85. It has additional audio tracks in French, Italian, German and Spanish, and all those subtitles plus several from Northern European countries. John Wayne’s performance just isn’t the same en Español, however. There are no other extras. The nearly colorless, dark cover graphic looks nothing like original posters. My dialogue quotes above in blue are not accurate. “When the dialogue becomes legend, print whatever reads the best.”
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Blu-ray
Sound: Excellent English, French, Italian German
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, + several Northern European languages
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 17, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson