Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - John Ford

Ransom Stoddard's introduction to the Wild West. 
This scene never appeared in the final cut.  
Colorado is on the cusp of statehood, a place where a man with ambition can make something of himself. Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) is such a man. He has come west with his law books and idealism, hoping to help bring law and order to the territory. But it is still the Wild West, and Stoddard's stagecoach is waylaid by three outlaws, one the infamous Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). When Stoddard protests, Valance whips him savagely, leaving him on the trail to die. He is rescued by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a local rancher, and his reliable servant, Pompey (Woody Strode ), who take him into Shinbone where he is nursed back to health by Hallie (Vera Miles), the girl Doniphon hopes to marry.

Stoddard befriends Dutton Peabody (Edmund O'Brien), the publisher/editor of the local newspaper, the Shinbone Star. Peabody is one of Shinbone's leading citizens and a vocal proponent for statehood. He writes a harsh editorial decrying Valance and his ilk, men who continue to terrorize the town and are an impetus to progress. Valance seeks revenge by ransacking the newspaper office and lashing the newspaperman with his whip. Stoddard, though no hand with a gun, challenges the drunken outlaw to a fight. The outcome will change the lives of each character, and create a legend.

This is John Ford's last great Western, and in some ways his most resonating. It contains the most memorable line of any of his films: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It is an acute and accurate statement on how history comes into being. Over time, facts blur, or are intentionally hidden, and what we think happened may be only partially correct, or totally wrong for that matter.

Ford cleverly tells the story as a flashback. It begins with Stoddard, now a state senator, returning to Shinbone decades after the events of the story. He has come with his wife, Hallie, to attend the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon. When asked by a reporter who Doniphon was, Stoddard tells the tale.

A poignant scene takes place as Hallie visits Doniphon's ranch outside of town where she digs up a cactus rose. The ranch house is a burnt out shell. We will later learn why. On retuning to town she and her husband go to the undertaker. In a nice touch, Ford has Hallie stop abruptly and take a set back on seeing the plain wooden coffin. When Rance looks inside, he admonishes the undertaker for stealing the boots. It's an intriguing beginning, one that compels the viewer to wonder who Doniphon was and what his death has to do with the senator.

Lee Marvin as the dangerous Liberty Valance.

Wayne is the commanding presence in the film. In his familiar cadence, he tells Stoddard that Valance "is the toughest man south of the Picketwire ... next to me."  Marvin is truly menacing as the villain. The two have a tense confrontation in a restaurant when Valance trips Stoddard, working as a waiter and dishwasher. A plate of steak and potatoes crashes to the floor. Like all bullies, Valance backs down when challenged. Doniphon is the only one in town with courage to stand up to the outlaw, and it's clear Valance fears him.

Valance: You lookin' for trouble, Doniphon?
Doniphon: You aim to help me find some?

Edmund O'Brien has fun as the dour editor, who's too smart and reckless for his own good. He drinks too much and sets himself up for a beating from Valance. O'Brien more or less recreated the character six years later in Sam Peckinpah's brilliant The Wild Bunch.

There are no silly fistfights here similar to that Ford injected into The Searchers, but he does not altogether neglect his usual dose of humor, putting into the script.

Peabody: [during voting for the territorial convention] I'll have the usual, Jack.
Barman: The bar is closed, Mister Editor, during voting.
Peabody: Bar's closed?
Doniphon: You can blame your lawyer friend. He says that's one of the "Fundamental laws of democracy." No exception.
Peabody: No exceptions for the working press? Why, that's carrying democracy much too far!

Like all Ford films, the supporting cast is terrific and familiar. John Quinlan as a Scandinavian, craggy-faced John Pennich as a bartender, John Carradine, and Andy Devine as the timid sheriff are from Ford's often-used stock company. Marvin's henchmen are Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin.

Valance and his gang.

Vera Miles is lovely as Hallie. She pines for Tom, but he has trouble adequately expressing his love. The best he can do is give her a cactus flower, but it clear by his mannerisms and long looks that he loves her. Ranse's arrival and demeanor presents a clear contrast. Tom represents the past, a West still violent and unrefined. Ranse, intelligent and considerably more cultured, represents the future. As Ranse's star begins to rise, Hallie latches on. The relationship between these three characters is a sad one. Ranse knows of Tom's feelings for the girl. Moreover, he is indebted to the man for saving his life, not once, but as it will turn out, twice. It is hard to like this character. Were it not for the fact he's finally the one to challenge Valance, he borders on contemptible, both for not stepping aside when it comes to Hallie, and for living a lie. Whether by intent or happenstance (probably the latter), it's easy to interpret the Ranse character as a statement by Ford that politicians can't be trusted; they put career advancement ahead of integrity.

Ranse finds out that Hallie placed a cactus rose on Tom's coffin, returning the gift Tom had given her many years earlier, shown in the flashback. Perhaps Tom was her true love after all and you and Ranse wonder if Hallie doesn't think she made the wrong choice. The ticket-taker then compliments the senator, saying: "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance." A hint of shame passes over Ranse's face. We never find out if Hallie knows the truth.          

Director Ford always had a fine human touch. It's one aspect of his films that make them so enjoyable and touching: Ward Bond's drink of coffee in The Searchers; Dick Foran's serenade and the noncoms' dance sequence in Fort Apache, the gift of a watch in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the barn-raising and dance in My Darling Clementine. Ford loved the romance and tradition of the Old West. The cactus rose appearing on Tom's coffin is another such subtle moment. We never see Hallie place it there.  

A second flashback is embedded in Stoddard's story, which reveals what really happened the night Valance was gunned down.

Doniphon cues Stoddard in on who really shot Liberty Valance

The story here is so good, both visually and in the performances, that you don't notice, or at least don't mind so much, that most of it was shot on a Hollywood sound stage rather than on location. Ford nearly single-handily is responsible for elevating the Western film to its iconic status, in large part by setting his action in majestic, panoramic vistas. Nine of his westerns feature the beautiful Monument Valley as a backdrop. (He would spectacularly return to the location once more after this film with 1964's Cheyenne Autumn.) Still, one or two outdoor moments would have enhanced the film, perhaps just a brief shot of Valance and his men crossing the river at dusk, on their way into Shinbone.

Besides the unexciting set, the only flaw in the film is Stewart; 52 at the time of filming, he is about 25 years too old for his character. It's particularly glaring since he's supposed to be a recent law graduate, with no legal experience. Of course, the same might be said of Wayne, but there's considerably more leeway with his character; a strong rancher would have needed to live in the Wild West a while before gaining his level of confidence and reputation. The 32-year difference between Wayne and Miles then doesn't seem quite so disturbing.

Ford rarely did much movement with the camera, letting the scene and characters tell the story. But in one instance here he employs a closeup. As Valance prepares to whip the prone Stoddard, the camera pulls in tight. Stoddard drops from the frame. We see Valance from the waist up inflict several strikes. Only later do we see the bloody effects. Another director might have been more gratuitous. Ford lets the viewer's imagination paint the scene. Ford understood the value of understatement.

And the decision to film in black and white was a wise one, even if forced on the director for financial reasons or to create a younger look for the leads. It gives the film an appropriate feel and mood. Edith Head designed the costumes, something you rarely notice in a Western. She was nominated for an Oscar, and the Duke does look terrific in spats and a ten-gallon hat.

Director John Ford with his two stars.

William Clothier handled the cinematography. A skilled cameraman, particularly with the Western genre, he was a long-time collaborator with Wayne, having been nominated for an Oscar for The Alamo. He'd work with Ford again on Cheyenne Autumn and earn a second nomination.

Ford was 68 when he made this film, an age when most successful directors had already hung up their megaphone. It was an extraordinary effort.

Pop singer Gene Pitney released a catchy song in 1962 based on the film. You can listen to it below. The film was named to the National Registry in 2007.


  1. When Wayne speaks the line "You didn't shoot Liberty Valance", it gives me chills - always will.

  2. These movie, but "creature from the black lagoon" they are not :)

  3. How about a movie that features "gentle ben"?