Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, Dorothy M. Johnson
Starring: John Wayne, James Stewart

Black & White, 123 minutes

Grade: A+

The changing of the guard, the measure of a man, and the need for a hero are all themes running deep through John Ford's classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Tighter and more elegantly confined than most of Ford's westerns, Liberty Valance is the only team-up of two of the cinema's biggest stars. Wayne, the larger than life movie star, and Stewart, the "aw shucks" good old boy who had more range than any of his contemporaries, size each other up in one of Ford's best films, and one of the finest westerns ever made.

In the late 1800's an aging Senator by the name of Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) has just returned to the town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (Wayne). Everybody in Shinbone has heard of Stoddard, but none remember the recently departed Doniphon. Borrowing flashback elements from Citizen Kane, Ford has Stoddard tell the story of his friend to a local newspaper reporter, and over the course of two hours we are slowly sucked into a tale of two very different men who have enough common interests to coexist.

Stoddard is a young law school graduate with dreams of changing the world. He is traveling by stagecoach to the town of Shinbone when he is violently attacked by a gang of men led by the ruthless hellraiser Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, making sure to leave an impression). Somehow managing to make it into town, Stoddard is cared for by Hallie (Vera Miles), a woman who runs a local restaurant. While recuperating, Stoddard earns his keep as a dishwasher for Hallie. It is here that he meets Doniphon, a cowboy/gunslinger who laughs at the notion of law and order, preferring to let his six shooter do the talking. Of course Stoddard, the bleeding heart, and Doniphon, the old school hardass, are going to butt heads, but they both share a love for Hallie, and a disdain for Valance.

Stoddard eventually begins to find his place, and he starts a small school to teach the townsfolk not only the three R's, but History as well. He begins to instill a sort of civil pride in the citizens of Shinbone, and when delegates are chosen to lobby for statehood, Stoddard is nominated with due praise, much to the chagrin of Valance, who challenges Stoddard to a duel. Although afraid and inexperienced with a gun, Stoddard accepts the challenge and ultimately kills Valance. Or does he? If you don't know, I certainly won't spoil it for you, and don' let anyone else either. Just know that the answer leads the film to one of the most bittersweet and satisfying conclusions to ever come out of Hollywood.

The most amazing thing about this film is that it hasn't become dated in the least. It actually works almost in spite of itself. Every review I have ever read on this movie has given away all the major plot points, yet I was still enveloped in the story. In the first five minutes, we know that Stoddard has went on to a lucrative political career, while Doniphon has died, alone and forgotten. We know that Stoddard gets the girl, and we know from the title that Valance gets what's coming to him, but we are so completely caught up in a tale that on the surface seems incredibly simple.

Why? For one, Wayne was never better than his performance here, not even in The Searchers, and Stewart, who is always great, stands his ground and provides a very interesting contrast to Wayne's roughness. Stewart's character is meant to be the more effeminate of the two, and he even wears an apron through much of the picture, including the shootout with Valance, to prove it. The extremely stark cinematography by William H. Clothier gives the film a harsh, almost noirish atmosphere, and Ford, as always, makes great use of his typical stock company of actors, especially Woody Strode. I think it works, however, because of the contrast between two very different men, one devoted to change, one adamantly against it. Unlike most westerns, Liberty Valance tells us that the west wasn't won with violence, but with a change of ideals, and an acceptance of basic human rights. The gunfighters gave way to the politicians, and democracy began to flourish. Now, I don't know if Ford actually believed this way, but this is basically what we were taught in all of our history textbooks, reinforcing the classic line from this particular film, "When legend becomes fact, print the legend."


Cinepinion said...

"Print the legend" is one of the finest movie quotes of all time!

The encroachment of civilization of an uncivilized West, usually represented by a railroad, is a common theme in the Western, but Liberty Valence does a great job

Cinepinion said...

ooops I wasn't finished; Liberty Valence is interesting because while Ford happily allows the man of law, Stewart, to win out you can tell he simultaneously feels mournful about the loss of the tough John Wayne man of guns. You could even elevate it to an allegory for Hollywood or America itself, where masculine tough guys like John Wayne were being pushed aside, for good and bad, by sissies like Jimmy Stewart.

Clayton L. White said...

I'm glad you pointed out the Hollywood parables, I honestly meant to mention that. It's true acting was changing, and so was the meaning of being a Star. It's Ford's elegy not only for the western genre, but for his and Wayne's career at the same time.

Marilyn said...

I just rewatched this film yesterday, John Wayne's 100th birthday. It has always been a favorite of mine, but I was surprised to be somewhat disappointed in it this time around. Maybe it was all the famous actors doing their shtik, from Andy Devine's whining, to John Wayne's "pilgrim". One thing that does seem interesting is that whether Stewart killed Valance or not, Wayne made it possible for him to do good in the world. This film is filled with moral ambiguity; nobody's really very good, not even Stewart, who can't wait to accept the nomination after he talks to Wayne. Still, I think the film is kind of a victim of its genre, too black and white. For an elegy of the West, I prefer Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country.

Clayton L. White said...

I think the black and white actually makes it more powerful. The cinematography is extremely moody, more like an Anthony Mann film, and the noirish aspects really come through. As far as an elegy for the west goes, I prefer Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Marilyn said...

I meant moral black and white, not the cinematography. I do agree that B&W has a lot of power

Clayton L. White said...

Hahaha! I'm sorry. Then yes I can see your point about it being too black and white. I've always kind of had that problem with Ford's films.

Anonymous said...

This review makes one error. "Liberty Valance" is not the only pairing of Wayne and Stewart. They were also in "The Shootist," though Stewart's role was fairly small.

Clayton L. White said...

I stand corrected. "The Shootist" totally slipped my mind.

Scott said...

I don't see this movie as 'morally black and white' at all. For it's time, 'Liberty Valence' portrays character flaws quite well.
As for what I take away from this film, it clearly depicts the struggle to bring order to a lawless wilderness, but that is only on the surface.
At it's heart, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" is about how we become civilized, and who is responsible. Jimmy Stewart's character arrives in a town where might makes right. Where the fastest, (or most) guns decide any argument. He fights this system, and learns some hard lessons.
The owner of the town's newspaper does his best to help, bringing to light the evil and corruption associated with Liberty Valence and his ilk, and also pays dearly.
But the truth of this story is this: Our laws, our courts, our freedoms are completely uselss without men like John Wayne's character to back them up, and in the end, it still comes down to the fastest, (or most) guns.
In this day and age, many people cringe at this idea, but take away our military, our police force, even an individual's right to bear arms, and see how long society lasts. The bad guys are out there, waiting for a time when we all become 'Jimmy Stewart's' and there are no 'John Wayne's' left. It may not be the most palatable lesson to swallow, but one as true today as it was in the 1800's.
In the closing scene, it's said; "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valence." Uopn hearing this, Jimmy Stewart looks down, clearly shamed because he knows John Wayne is the man responsible for ridding the town of its troublesome burden, but has taken the credit all these years. (Isn't that just like a politician.)
The newsman decides to bury the truth as well, knowing a revalation like that will do more damage than good, and that John Wayne's character never wanted any credit.
He did however want the girl, but gave her up for the good of the territory as well, and because he knew she'd have a far easier life with Stewart. (Now that's sacrifice.)
By the way, I feel the flattest character in the whole movie is Liberty Valence, and I think its for a reason. The point is, that evil is evil, and to glorify it, to make it sexy or somehow romatic is to belittle the people who defend us. Something many of today's movies do all too often.
That's why this film is so great, and unfortunately why so many people will never see it. Guns for good is so very out of vogue.