What a great title to revisit — John Ford’s ‘Kabuki’ western is less about action and more about form and tradition — especially the way the truth gets plowed under in ‘the West,’ which is of course America reduced to a mythological keepsake. John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin’s characters seem to know they are playing roles that never change. We might question the values but there’s no denying that said values prevailed as the country’s consensus self-image. Paramount’s new 4K makes a great-looking movie look even better, Pilgrim — and we don’t tolerate no disloyal debates ’bout film grain North of the Picket Wire.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
1962 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 123 min. / Street Date May 17, 2022 / Available from Amazon
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 Designera: Hal Pereira, Eddie Imazu
Film Editor: Otho Lovering
Original Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Written by James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck from a story by Dorothy M. Johnson
Produced by John Ford, Willis Goldbeck
Directed by John Ford
It’s a stone classic even if much of it is visually at the level of a TV movie. John Ford waxes bitter-sentimental 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? Besides, the jokes are funny and Lee Marvin’s villain is the best ever. And then there’s the assertive ‘print the Legend’ message that’s been hotly debated ever since.
“What, no Gene Pitney?”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has always invited us to enjoy the performances of its superannuated cast, particularly John Wayne. It has perhaps the star’s most iconic scene post- The Searchers. Instead of punching someone out every seven or eight minutes, the screenplay rations Wayne’s violent action for a few highly effective moments. One extended clash between Wayne and the bad guys is a marvel of effortless style. It takes place in a restaurant that serves slabs of beef weighing at least four pounds each. 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. We film students might criticize Wayne’s peculiar way of saying his lines, but we were well aware that his screen image was part of our identity — we grew up with Wayne as a father figure whether we wanted one or not.
John Ford’s postwar films were consistent even if his formalism sometimes made him seem old-fashioned. Some aspects of Ford’s worldview were very consistent — the military and anything Irish were sacred subjects, even as his westerns began to undermine old attitudes. He was the undisputed king of film directors during the heyday of the ‘auteur theory.’ Just the same, by 1962 Ford’s career was really all but finished. When his health permitted he continued to push through a few interesting personal projects. Only the ones with John Wayne did well, but we greatly admire his final feature 7 Women. It has the raw expressionist quality of his pre-war classics, like The Informer.
Liberty Valance is simply two hours of solid entertainment. Non- fans can jeer at its artificial aspects but the rest of us cherish the core spirit of the John Ford vision. One thing is sure — Ford doesn’t move his camera much, but it is always in the perfect place for each scene. 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.
In early 20th century Arizona, 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 a reporter the truth about how he based his political career on a wild west reputation as ‘the man who shot Liberty Valance.’ Many years before, as a dishwasher and aspiring lawyer, Ransom had encouraged the territory to stand up against Valance (Lee Marvin), an enforcer serving cattle interests trying to block statehood. Ransom also attracted the affection of Hallie Ericson (Vera Miles) away from rancher Doniphon, who could easily let Valance and his scum henchmen dispose of the interloper. But things instead took a wholly ironic turn. . .
“Liberty Valance is the toughest man south of the picket wire —
next to ME.”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a delight for those who wish to celebrate John Wayne’s appeal. His fractured diction, exaggerated theatrical pauses and shorthand gestures make this the key film for Wayne imitators, Pilgrim. Wayne interacts gracefully with a number of acting styles; by comparison James Stewart is constantly emoting, pumping in the energy to give the impression of youth. Whenever Rance Stoddard comes under pressure, Stewart reverts to tongue-tied Mr. Smith filibuster mode. It was never a secret that Stewart is far too old to play the role of a young college grad out from the East ( ♬ a lawbook in his hand! ♬). Wayne also looks more like a grandpa than a rancher just starting out, courting the woman of his dreams. We take it on faith that Hallie might want to marry either of these members of the Long In The Tooth Saddle Club.
Odd rumors once circulated that Liberty Valance had actually been filmed in color. Then it was suggested that Ford stuck with B&W because of its relatively elderly cast, as if that would hide the wrinkles. But it’s also possible that Ford’s not-so-hot b.o. track record may have been a factor. After paying for the expensive stars Paramount might not have wanted to invest more in a western with so little conventional ‘John Wayne’ action. Most of the action plays out on the western street on the Paramount lot, looking rather bare-bones for set dressing. In B&W, that’s not a detriment.
Everybody loves the faces and mannerisms of the Ford stock company: Vera Miles, Andy Devine, John Carradine, John Qualen, Willis Bouchey, Woody Strode, O.Z. Whitehead. Vera Miles’ Hallie is hearty and sweet, struggling through high-school level dialogue about wanting to read and write, etc. Demoted from star status in Sgt. Rutledge to playing a hired hand, Woody Strode provides a weak nod to Camelot-era inclusiveness. It can be argued that the impressive Lee Marvin got his biggest star-making break here as the dirty-rat Liberty Valance — the script encourages him to milk every reaction for maximum sneering nastiness. Behind Valance are the lizard-like Lee Van Cleef and the sniggering Strother Martin, 2nd stringers who would soon be elevated in rank by Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.
The broad Ford humor also extends to Andy Devine’s wheezing, cowardly chow hound of a sheriff. In the film’s weakest scenes the part-time schoolteacher Ransom teaches the ABC’s to multi-ethnic children as well as a stuttering comic character, Kaintuck (Shug Fisher).
It almost plays like a picture from the 1930s, which is in no way a complaint. The colorful characters are ‘orchestrated’ for overall appeal. Ken Murray’s Doc and Edmond O’Brien’s Dutton Peabody come directly from Dudley Nichols’ ‘Stagecoach’ school of ‘alcoholism-is-cute.’ The talented O’Brien successfully channels actor Thomas Mitchell, who might have gotten the role had he lived longer.
The ‘Print the Legend’ Debate.
Any TCM host will rush to clue us into the ‘profound message’ in Liberty Valance. The question of whether we should print The Fact, or ‘The Legend’ about important historical events gave armchair genre critics something to chew on. There had been few rules about what movie westerns could do with American history: John Ford listened to Wyatt Earp’s account of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and then spun his movie story out of pure wishful thinking. We don’t condemn the many movies about the O.K. Corral ‘drive by’ because they play fast and loose with the event, reports of which were likely distorted right from the beginning. The sticky angle to the ‘print the legend’ scene is that it might suggest that the principle should be applied to politics, history and American life in general. . . .
. . . except that John Ford really doesn’t endorse the ‘print the legend’ idea. Ford’s newspaperman makes that statement over Tom Doniphon’s coffin, but the final train scene reinforces Ransom Stoddard’s awareness of what only he, Doniphon and Pompey knew, that his glorious gunfighter reputation and subsequent political career was a gift from his romantic rival. Doniphon died a bum but was really a caring man who selflessly stepped aside, knowing that Stoddard represented the future. As The Searchers’ Mrs. Jorgansen predicts, “Some day this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.”
Undermining the glory of a respected politician might seem better suited for a subversive, revisionist western. The truth is that Ford has it both ways. We like the legend but he also shows us the truth. If we can’t sort it out for ourselves that’s our problem. Ford does this a lot. Before the 1970s few critics expressed concern over The Searchers’ overt depiction of raw race hatred in its settlers vs. Comanches conflict. For us Ethan Edwards’ psychotic racism was impossible to ignore: good grief, our own Father will kill us over over the issue of white purity.
And Ford had hit already hit the facts / lies issue even in the earlier Fort Apache. That movie spends two hours documenting Henry Fonda’s military stupidity and arrogance, and then shows John Wayne’s officer whitewashing the episode in the interest of Army pride, tradition, and politics. In Liberty Valance the ‘print the legend’ idea is a sentimental gesture, and perhaps an unwillingness to dig up old issues and smear reputations. In Fort Apache the official fibs seem more like a cover-up . . . “to please the Generals in Washington,” as Sam Peckinpah might write. In neither movie is there anything sneaky about Ford’s reveal of hypocrisy. He puts the deception right out in the open.
When we punk film students were pondering ‘the meaning of John Ford films’ we were concurrently being bombarded by the Presidential slime revealed by the ongoing Watergate Hearings. To us it was no stretch to lump the fictional fibs of John Ford’s heroes in with the reactionary politics of Stewart, Wayne and Reagan. “Trust us,” they said so paternalistically. “We have charisma.” But so what if Rance Stoddard’s political career was based on a bald-faced lie. . . we don’t think any less of him because he built on that legend 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 the desert into a garden,’ which represents Tom Doniphon’s hopes for his future with Hallie. Janey Place wrote about Ford’s vision of the West as a Garden of Eden, as did Jim Kitses. Doniphon seemingly wants that idyllic thatched house in Innesfree, but Shinbone and environs is no sylvan glade where making hay with Maureen O’Hara is the natural thing to do. A desert is a desert, Pilgrim, something that Los Angeles has remained in denial about for a hundred years. If Doniphon wants his garden, he’ll need to get in cahoots with John Carradine’s politician and steal it from somewhere. I hear Lone Pine has water . . .
Ford’s westerns are more concerned with history than most other major directors of his time. Howard Hawks’ heroes just earn a professional’s living, but Ford’s are almost always glorified as building a nation. The half-built Church in My Darling Clementine is symbolic of an American Utopia in the making. Strange, however, that these western movies are all set in the most barren of deserts, places that can grow almost nothing. The farms of The Searchers 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.
Away from Stoddard and Doniphon’s identity crisis Ford keeps his politics very simple. His O.K. Corral tale gives us Good Earps and Bad Clantons, making John Sturges’ revisionist Hour of the Gun a must-see. Here in Liberty Valance the killing of one larger-than-life villain solves 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 falsify the real world, where guns rarely resolve anything.
“What, we’re out of courage? You are in luck — courage can be purchased at yonder tavern!”
In terms of archetypes, John Ford’s westerns ARE the West. The western film movements that came afterward are a reaction to his pictures. Sergio Leone started with little more than abstract cynicism but eventually placed his masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West firmly, literally in John Ford country. Sam Peckinpah’s major westerns openly deconstruct the John Ford world, with frequent direct quotes from his films.
Enjoying movies doesn’t mean that we must always agree with everything in them. Ford’s best films have a ring of truth and pride. They certainly help us understand the American mindset, which has a strange relationship with its western myths. Cozying up to these myths is one way of finding harmony in a safe and secure past, where the big issues are already resolved and controversy is the tool of petty trouble-makers.
It’s impossible not to be charmed by Liberty Valance’s rich, broad characterizations. Curiously, Ford seems to have revisited the movie almost immediately, in a strange ‘sequel.’ His South Seas Navy comedy Donovan’s Reef brings back Tom Doniphon as ‘Guns’ Donovan, an ex- sailor retired to an idyllic French Isle. His best buddy and sidekick is Aloysius Gilhooley — Lee Marvin — an unpredictable nut. It really IS as if the ‘losers’ Doniphon and Liberty Valance died and went to a Polynesian Heaven, the kind with plenty of beer, women in sarongs and opportunities for massive fistfights in which nobody is hurt. In fact, that’s the best way to enjoy Donovan’s Reef, as an abstract daydream of Valhalla for two out-of-time gunfighters.
Paramount Presents’ 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance : 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.
Excepting the high-priced Wayne and Stewart, this was one economical 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 that we can see the blank studio wall behind the little houses along main street, pretending to be the sky.
Paramount adds a number of extras, some from an earlier Blu-ray edition. The list is just below.
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.’ Uh … I don’t think so. It’s almost certain that Ford bought his train shots from a stock library, and that his editor pasted on the best ‘going away’ angle he could find.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: New: Leonard Maltin introduction; Feature commentary by Peter Bogdanovich with recordings of John Ford and James Stewart; Selected Scene commentary with Dan Ford and recordings of Ford, Stewart and Lee Marvin; featurette The Size of Legends The Soul of Myth; trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD disc and one Blu-ray disc in Keep case
Reviewed: April 11, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson