THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE A
USA (123 mi) 1962 d: John Ford
USA (123 mi) 1962 d: John Ford
This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
—Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), newspaper editor
—Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), newspaper editor
The last great work by Ford, which interestingly looks back at characters who are themselves reflecting back upon their lives, making this something of a memory play where Ford not only examines his own role in revitalizing the American Western, using some of his own stable of familiar stars to do it, he also questions the truth about our own history, raising some interesting questions about the role of newspapers, government, literature, cinema, and other artforms, showing how truth is often buried in order to form a more perfect and idealized legend, which becomes the substitute for the truth, but instead of an examination of the misperceptions of history, much of this film unfortunately feels like a rationalization for the director’s own actions. Certainly Ford is guilty of elevating heroes to mythical status, like the iconic stature of actor John Wayne, seen as the great American hero, the man who boldly stands above all others as an example of hard grit and that individual frontier spirit, always seen as the toughest guy and the fastest gun in the West. But despite his penchant for so-called accuracy and historical authenticity, Ford also negatively stereotypes the West, creating racial stigmas that have lasted through generations for more than half a century, where his repeating stream of derogatory stereotypical images have contributed mightily to the racist depiction of Indians as savages in order to make way for the coming white settlers, where his own mythology has not only proven inaccurate, but helped perpetuate the myth of white superiority in a historical era of the American West when Indians were subject to attack by the U.S. Cavalry and forced to a life on isolated reservations, or total annihilation if they refused. Surrender often led to starvation, rotten food, or worse, as so many Indians died from infection and contagious diseases. This bleak inevitability coincides with the slaughter of the plains buffalo to near extinction, all but eliminating their food source and the Indian way of life, a nomadic existence that followed the buffalo herds. You won’t find any cultural reference to Indian genocide or extermination in a John Ford movie, with the exception of the apologetic Cheyenne Autumn (1964), which instead focuses on the legendary white heroes who settled the West.
One of Ford’s best films, as it’s likely his most provocative and self-reflective work, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is a different kind of western, as it’s not shot in the great outdoors of the Monument Valley and doesn’t include a single Indian, instead it’s a chamber drama that moves indoors as it looks back at the first vestiges of democracy and government in action, as represented by a feisty but thoroughly domesticated James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard, a man hell-bent on bringing what he learned from East coast law school to the savage wilderness of the West, pitted against notorious gunslingers and outlaws like Lee Marvin’s deranged Liberty Valance, a sadistic killer turned monster, hired by the wealthy cattle barons to force their will upon the populace, as they believe in open range as far as the eye can see with absolutely no government intervention. Stuck in the middle of so-called progress is John Wayne as Tom Doniphon, given the reverential treatment here, as it’s his funeral that brings an ominous tone of solemnity to the opening of the film, told nearly entirely in flashback. Doniphon is seen as a man already forgotten, as time has passed him by, yet he’s the heart of the story, as the West would never have survived without men like him. Ford absolutely loves paying tribute to characters like this, unsung heroes that fought the pitch battles in a lawless frontier out in the middle of nowhere to make the world better for those that followed, laying the groundwork for a progress yet to come, eventually becoming a reality through the construction of the railroad, which changed the West, as humans came in droves afterwards. This western is not interested in the Wild West, which Ford has already shown before, where men like Doniphon and Liberty Valance prevailed, but in the taming of the West, showing the first signs of civilization, when men put down their guns and attempted to reason with one another, developing the first laws of the land, where the idea of an endless frontier instead emerges into the first arguments on statehood, becoming a highly entertaining piece of feelgood, patriotic Americana, the kind of thing you can watch on the 4th of July along with Cagney’s YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942).
Something of an auteur project, Ford located the property, developed the script along with long-time associates Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah and raised half of the money needed himself, while choosing an all-star cast, including the first time John Wayne and James Stewart worked together in a movie. The film represents an older and wiser man in the twilight of his career looking back, having already made MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) and THE SEARCHERS (1956), critically acclaimed works that suggest something of an alternative mythology while accentuating the struggles between the individual and society, or chaos and civilization. The decision to shoot the film in Black and White was startling to some, as the western genre in the 60’s tended to glorify the West by emphasizing the beauty of the landscape through panoramic Cinemascope vistas, like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) or Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962), but this film was shot in the murky darkness of confined spaces, creating a claustrophobic, character driven world where Stewart, for instance, spends the majority of the time wearing an apron and washing dishes with Vera Miles as Hallie and the other women in the restaurant kitchen. It’s quite a contrast to Wayne’s swaggering outdoor independence, a man who wouldn’t be caught dead doing women’s work. Interesting enough, both men are vying for the same woman (outside of a Mexican cantina, she is the only available woman seen in town), though their lives are on different trajectories, as Doniphon is doomed to live in a world where he cannot adapt, while Stoddard becomes one of the West’s first schoolteachers attempting to eradicate an epidemic of illiteracy. The already outdated western hero loses his girl and fades into obscurity while the lawyer from the East, a veritable Lincoln among the ruins, marries Hallie and rises to political power, becoming a 3-time Governor before ascending to the United States Senate. Meanwhile, in the ultimate showdown between good and evil, order and violence, or truth and legend, the awkward tenderfoot Stoddard stubbornly faces off against the gleefully overconfident Liberty Valance as the rest of the town shirks its responsibilities, hiding in the crevices and cracks in the dark, best expressed by the over-eating, freeloader sheriff Andy Devine as Marshall Link Appleyard, a man who stays alive by continually avoiding confrontation.
One interesting aspect of the film is it never shows the audience definitively who kills Liberty Valance, though most would assuredly think it does, but it’s impossible to tell from the footage provided just who’s gun the bullet came from, nonetheless, a legend is born, as Stoddard most certainly takes all the glory and credit which stays with him throughout his lengthy career, immortalized throughout history as the two men remain inseparable. What Ford pessimistically shows is how fate is more of an accident or even a misunderstanding, while history depends largely upon who’s telling it. By the time this film opens, at the end of Stoddard’s illustrious career, the West has already been settled and the myth of the western hero is remembered only in storybooks and flashbacks. Stoddard may have attempted to bring the civilized values of the East to the town of Shinbone, but he only does it through deception and violence, earning his reputation not through the law, but by killing an evil incarnate. At a nominating convention for statehood, his name is dragged through the mud as a murderer and his reputation sullied by the flowery language of the cattle baron’s mouthpiece, none other than John Carradine as Major Cassius Starbuckle, whose own candidate is nothing more than a grotesque spectacle. But Stoddard has his own image-maker in the form of newspaper publisher and town drunk Dutton Peabody, Edmund O’Brien, whose own overly verbose, chiché-ridden performance nearly ruins the film with such an obnoxious, self-inflated sense of ego, where at one point in a rambling drunken stupor he even resorts to quoting (incorrectly) Shakespeare’s Henry V. Yet it’s Peabody that sings the praises of Stoddard, anointing him to his new career as a mythical western hero, a noisy, frenetically wild sequence of pure mayhem and pandemonium where Ford seems to enjoy mocking the origins of the American political process with the same cynical tone reserved for the equally empty rhetoric of today.
What’s truly groundbreaking about this film is the way Ford reverses the wheels, turns his back on his success, and makes a film that challenges the same assertions that led to his success in the first place. This suggests a man confident enough of his place in history that he can challenge it while he’s still alive. The stark look of the film, taking place entirely in one’s mental recollections, makes it almost an anti-western, where Doniphon’s bold and reckless man of the West has already outlived his time. Usually placed just after THE SEARCHERS among Ford’s greatest works, it’s an interesting critique of his own mythmaking career, one that suggests history is filled with quasi-heroes, men whose public image and persona have been beefed up to hide and obscure the far different private lives behind the image, where suppression of the truth is a natural byproduct of the mythmaking process. In this manner, the nation’s confidence is propped up by political lies and distorted exaggerations, where one assumes this is preferable to hearing the unwholesome truth. But it also suggests “official” explanations may be leaving out what actually happened, case in point The Tillman Story (2010) or The Invisible War (2012). While this rather dark and sinister film is itself closer to the truth, it’s also highly entertaining and often hilarious, such as when young Ransom Stoddard shuts down the bar, by law, while voting is in progress at the territorial convention, calling it one of the “Fundamental laws of democracy, no exception,” and Dutton Peabody is repeatedly reminded by Tom Doniphon that the bar is closed, yet he keeps squirming for just a beer, as “a beer’s not drinking!” Reminded once again that there’s no exceptions, he quivers, “Why that’s carrying democracy much too far!” The film’s maniacal violence from the whip-wielding Liberty Valance, who has to be held back by his own men, actually anticipates even greater, exaggerated choreographed extremes from Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and even Clint Eastwood, where ironically Liberty Valance’s two henchmen include Peckinpah’s Strother Martin and Leone’s favorite villain, Lee van Cleef. Nowhere in the film, by the way, does Gene Pitney sing “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” though it is advertised in the film’s posters and movie trailer. Almost overlooked in the structure of the film, due to the central tension focused between Stoddard, Doniphon, and Valance, is the film’s concern with American politics and the birth of civilization in newly formed western towns, showing democracy in action at such fundamental levels by showing the significance of the role of the press, a town meeting, a debate over statehood, and the influence of education—all indoor preoccupations.
Something should be said about Woody Strode, Tom Doniphon’s black sidekick Pompey, who worked in five John Ford movies, from his final film going all the way back to STAGECOACH (1939). Though Doniphon treats him like he owns him, viewed as his loyal and obedient lackey, being John Wayne’s confidante in this film also gives him a certain elevated status with the audience, as they know his loyalty is not in dispute, that he always has Tom’s back, but he’s still not allowed into the saloon in Shinbone, as the bartender won’t serve a black man. This little bit of racial harmony among friends, but disharmony within the larger society, is interesting, as Ford is intentionally bringing attention to this racial disparity, pointing out the injustice, something he failed to notice with his own belittling portrayal of Indians.