The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

When distinguished senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) steps off the train at Shinbone station with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles), local reporters at the Star are astonished and clamour to find out the reason for his visit. Stoddard explains that he's in town for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), an old rancher friend from the wilderness years before the territory was granted statehood. Pressed further, Stoddard recounts the story of his arrival in Shinbone as an idealistic young graduate on the Overland Stage (recalling Stagecoach, 1939), his savage whipping at the hands of local bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his attempts to establish the rule of law. Scorned by the conservative Doniphan, who insists that the only way men like Valance can be brought to justice is at gunpoint, Stoddard persists in his liberal efforts to civilise a town where the marshal (Andy Devine) is an ineffectual coward and both the doctor (Ken Murray) and newspaper editor (Edmond O'Brien) are incorrigible soaks. Stoddard sets up a legal practice and an informal schoolhouse while washing dishes at Peter's Place, a steak joint run by kindly Swedish immigrants (Jeanette Nolan and John Qualen). There he falls for head-strong waitress Hallie, whom Doniphon is also in love with. Soon Stoddard finds himself nominated as the territory's delegate to Washington to lobby for statehood, much to the chagrin of Valance who challenges him to a duel. To the surprise of everyone, Stoddard kills Valance despite his inexperience with a gun and distaste for violence. Hailed as a hero but wracked with guilt, Stoddard enters the world of politics, only to be confronted by Doniphon who reveals his own role in the shooting that made Stoddard's name.

A surprising film for John Ford to have made this late in his career, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson) was shot on the Paramount sound stages in drab black-and-white, rather than on location in Glorious Technicolor. The lack of colour might have helped hide Stewart and Wayne's wrinkles in the lengthy central flashback sequence and the decision to shoot on the lot might have saved a considerable portion of the budget but Liberty Valance nevertheless seems deliberately and determinedly old-fashioned. In the age of TV cowboy adventures, Anthony Mann's angsty, psychological horse operas and with Sergio Leone just around the corner, Ford turned in a consciously nostalgic, even "retro" picture (although such a modish, post-modern term would probably have made him spit). Perhaps most similar to My Darling Clementine (1946), Stewart's lawyer here is a more bookish, intellectual cousin to Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp, a man who, like Tom Doniphon, still believed the best way to clean up a rotten town was with a badge and a six shooter. Both film's also feature boozing quacks, although this is a less signifcant role here than Victor Mature's earlier Doc Holliday. Ford appears to be pointedly rejecting the contemporary psychodrama Western in Liberty Valance, stubbornly sticking with straightforward men-of-conviction and his usual themes of heroism, romantic melancholy and the passing of time. As the later Shinbone Star editor Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) says at the film's conclusion, "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has exceptional character actors in every part. Stewart does well with another role post-Vertigo (1958) that dares to question his familiar, morally upstanding persona (his professional reputation and marriage appear to be based on a lie) and Wayne has rarely been better than as Doniphon, a deeply sad man whose life is defined by his failure to adapt to changing times. There's no place for his brutal ways in the New West and as soon as Stoddard teaches Hallie to read, Doniphon loses her forever and is left behind. The subsequent scene in which he drunkenly burns down the ranch house he has been building for her, realising that all is lost, is downright heartbreaking. This was Wayne's last film with Ford, who apparently never left off bullying him on set, mocking his star's stalled football career and failure to serve in World War II by repeatedly asking him, "How rich did you get while Jimmy was risking his life?" Nice.

Of the supporting cast, Woody Strode is also very moving as Doniphon's trusty right-hand man Pompey, a non-stereotypical black character who endures his segregation from Shinbone's saloons and election meetings with stoical dignity. O'Brien does well in the Thomas Mitchell part of sozzled journalist Dutton Peabody, Devine is very amusing as quivering glutton Link Appleyard and John Carradine almost steals it with his cameo as Major Cassius Starbuck, a very hammy orator indeed. Lee Marvin is, well, Lee Marvin, chewing the scenery and washing it down with deep-dish apple pie. The fact that one of his henchman is played by Lee Van Cleef from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) tells you how close all this was to the rock 'n' roll era of Clint Eastwood and the Spaghetti Westerns.

Here's Stewart and Wayne posing with the mean old bastard on set and, below, Gene Pitney's rollicking theme song, written for the film by Burt Bacharach and Hal David but never used.

Gene Pitney - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.mp3

No comments:

Post a Comment