Alright, in the interest of full disclosure, yours truly has seen bits and pieces of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance before. It was a film that “we” often used to run on the overhead screens behind us at the Movies Unlimited video store back in the day. However, I never saw the ending and since I was always working at the time (at least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it), I was never able to fully grasp what was going on, though, it “sounded” (remember, my back was to the screen) like a good movie. So, I figured that in tying up some loose ends and finally sitting down to watch the film in its entirety, that it would also be fair fodder for this particular feature. Anyway, I’m sure glad I did because TMWSLV is a rare thinking-man’s entry in the western genre by my estimation, therefore probably making it one of the finest westerns ever made.
OK, so TMWSLV was directed by the legendary John Ford who not only popularized the western genre, but who many folks credit with making tales of the Old West everything that we know them to be today. Anyway, I believe the rumor is that this effort was purportedly supposed to be Ford’s farewell to the western genre. It didn’t quite work out that way, as Cheyenne Autumn was released two years later. Nevertheless, I can’t think of a better way to go out in style than by pairing John Wayne (Everyone loves The Duke, right?) with James Stewart in a frontier epic as two embittered men with different philosophies who are still fighting for the same cause. Throw in an all-star supporting cast of Vera Miles, Edmond O’Brien, Strother Martin, John Carradine, Woody Strode, Lee Van Cleef, and Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance (Wow, Lee Van Cleef and Lee Marvin in the same movie?! No wonder I always get these two confused), and there’s a recipe for a true classic.
Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a popular politician who has returned home to the fictional town of Shinbone in the western U.S. to attend the funeral of his friend Tom Doniphon (Wayne). When a reporter (Carleton Young) presses Stewart for a story about why such a powerful, important and busy man would come all the way out west from Washington to bury an ordinary citizen, Stewart sits down and recounts the story of when he first came to Shinbone, at the time still a largely unsettled territory in the late 1800s. Stewart is a lawyer fresh out of school looking to start a practice out west when he’s robbed and beaten by Liberty Valance (Marvin, in a great villainous role that many cite as one of his crowning achievements). Wayne finds Stewart and ushers him to the restaurant run by Miles’ family who provide him with room and board. Stewart vows to put Marvin behind bars, but Wayne explains that a gun is the only law that’s recognized in Shinbone. Thus begins Stewart and Wayne’s strained relationship. Marvin continues to terrorize the town, with sharp-shooting Wayne providing the only protection. This is much to the chagrin of Stewart who claims that not only is Wayne’s attitude much like Marvin’s, but that he doesn’t need Wayne to fight his battles. Stewart eventually starts a school to teach the townsfolk how to read, including Miles who’s beginning to develop feelings for Stewart. Wayne doesn’t like this at all since he has set his camp for Miles as well. The school leads to a discussion about statehood, which inspires Stewart to start an election, with the winning delegate aiming to push for their territory to become such a state. Of course, this won’t sit well with Marvin, who works for powerful barons who wouldn’t benefit from the area becoming governed. Wayne informs Stewart that if he continues with this course of action it will cost him his life. Sure enough, when Marvin fails in bullying the citizens to elect him as the delegate, he essentially challenges Stewart (unskilled with a pistol) to a duel. This forces Stewart to confront a situation that he has desperately been trying to avoid all along.
Now, just in case there are those out there reading this who haven’t seen this film, I don’t want to relay any more details, though, I’m guessing the title will give something away. However, there are still some matters to layout. First, while I’m definitely a fan of the western, I do often find many of them to be very formulaic and typical of one another. It’s usually always the good town marshal taking down the outlaw in black, etc. Part of the reason why I enjoyed TMWSLV so much is that it delves into the mythology behind the legends of history, in addition to the legends of heroes. There’s a key line in the film when the newspaper reporter utters, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This supposedly means that the truth is only important when it agrees with public perception, and that we all have a need to create heroes in our minds even if none exist. Furthermore, this notion suggests that history is just a jumbled mess of such “legends,” and that reality is really only what our perception of reality is. It’s all very sobering to think about, and it clearly deconstructs the cowboy mystique (among other things), which is probably the reason why some critics panned the film at the time of its release, since it was a western that called into question the validity of the tough cowboy type as the hero, which was rarely done.
I was additionally piqued by the aforementioned newsman who, upon the learning the truth of Stewart’s story, refused to print it. In the modern age where every single person in the public eye is fair game to have every and any shred of their personal lives exposed to an unyielding media and laid bare on Perez Hilton or TMZ for all to see, the idea that a reporter would do the right thing instead of just “doing his job,” is a romantic (and probably outdated) one.
Ford’s choice to shoot the screenplay in black and white is another issue worth mentioning. Many actually seemed to believe that this decision was a budgetary one (black-and-white film is cheaper), but I really don’t think so. Bob Dylan said, “The times, they are a changin’” and in keeping with Ford’s theme of the unsanctioned nature of the Old West giving way to law, industry and general progress as the western territories of the U.S. were settled, the choice to film in black and white perfectly suggests a changing of the guard. It was a great aesthetic implementation, and yet even in the face of all this seriousness, there was still room for humor. Andy Devine as the hapless and spineless town marshal and especially Edmond O’Brien as the founder of the local newspaper provide tremendous comic relief. What’s my favorite line of the entire film? Upon hearing that the bar of the saloon where the delegate nomination ceremony is being held is closed without exception, O’Brien utters, “No exceptions for the working press? Why, that’s carrying democracy much too far!” It’s classic stuff. After all, “a beer’s not drinking,” and I give this classic four stars out of five. Few movies are perfect, but any problems that I have with TMWSLV would fall under the category of splitting hairs, so I won’t go into them here. Besides, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”