Monday, July 7, 2008

#10: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Directed by John Ford
Written by James Warner Bellah & Willis Goldbeck (based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson)
Released April 22, 1962

"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact. . . print the legend."

Let's get the Not Exactly A Spoiler Warning out of the way immediately: Lee Marvin plays the titular Liberty Valance, and he does in fact get shot. The real question presented in the movie, and one I won't spoil for you, is, "Who shot him?"

The film stars Marvin, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, and was directed by the legendary John Ford -- whose resume stretches into the triple digits and dates as far back as 1917, including Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Rio Bravo, and possibly my favorite Western, The Searchers.

Valance is, in a way, a film about the death of the "wild" West. Ford deconstructs the genre he was most known for by, within the framework of his own movie, building up a legend and tearing it down before our very eyes.

The story is told in a long flashback, from the mouth of Stewart's Senator Ransom Stoddard, a grey haired windbag politician who has returned to the town where his career began for the funeral of an old friend. From the way the townspeople behave upon his arrival, you can tell Stoddard is a politician with a fair amount of legend to his name.

Seeing the casket of his old friend seemingly brings Stoddard back down to Earth, and he agrees to an interview with a local editor and reporter for the city paper. In a scene that will make any reporter laugh out loud, Stoddard waffles on whether or not he wants to talk. The reporter responds, "I have a right to have a story." Stoddard pauses, then replies, "I guess maybe you have." I'd like to suggest any reporter out there try that line on their next tight-lipped subject. I'll give my right hand to anyone who gets that kind of reply.

Stewart gives them their story, but probably not the one they wanted to hear.

The remainder of the movie, save for a few final scenes, is Stewart's tale, and it's here that we meet Marvin's ruthless, menacing Liberty Valance. Marvin pretty much steals the show, throwing through the windows and doors any scenery that he doesn't wind up chewing every time he walks onscreen. He's your classic Western baddie, but he amps the violence up by using a riding crop to whip the shit out of anyone standing in his way, including Stewart.

Valance pretty much fears only one man: Tom Doniphon (as played by John Wayne, in full cocky swagger), the town's one true above-the-law cowboy. Wayne is good here, especially in the second half of the movie as he begins to unravel. Reportedly, this film was the birth of the Wayne stereotype that he constantly called people "pilgrim" (he constantly calls Stewart by the name). In actuality, he only used the term in one other film, and spoke it only once.

Jimmy Stewart begins the film with his typical "aw shucks" good guy routine, which frankly put me off at first. He seemed totally miscast as the young lawyer (especially since he and the word "young" parted was long before this movie), but his performance gradually grows on you. The scene that turned it around for me was when Stoddard, angered by a trick played on him by Doniphon, knocks the larger than life Wayne on his ass. It's here that Stoddard learns that civility and law and order are foreign concepts in the American West.

While I was initially hesitant to like it, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance grew on me, especially once things took a darker turn. There are a few moments of comic relief that were, to me at least, somewhat unwelcome in that they seemed to disrupt the mood or interfere with the real story. I also found it odd that Valance, while made in 1962, seemed like an older film than Ford's incredible The Searchers, also starring Wayne, which came out the previous decade. Where that film felt epic in scope, this felt somewhat stagy and theatrical. Perhaps it was the black and white film stock, or the fact that this film features very little of what you typically found in Westerns: epic landscapes, chases, shootouts.

If you wind up watching it, keep your eyes peeled for my favorite scene, where Wayne delivers a hilariously timed kick to the face to one of Valance's henchmen in a restaurant. It's a very brief moment, but it's a blast to see Wayne delivering an effortless bit of Van Damme-age with a perfect mix of comic timing and machismo.

For more on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:
- More information at IMDB. Or, check out the Wikipedia entry, which contains a fantastic quote from Sergio Leone about why Valance was his favorite Ford film: "It was the only film where he learned about something called pessimism."
- Buy it at Amazon.

Lee Marvin on Valance, John Ford and John Wayne:

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