There are arguably no bigger cinematic icons of America than John Wayne – the right wing side of America steeped in violence and guns, and James Stewart – the left wing side of America rooted in humanity, understanding and intelligence. And there is arguably no finer chronicler of America’s mythology and past than John Ford. Put them together and you get one of the finest westerns ever made.
When high ranking senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart)returns to the town of Shinbone after many years away in Washington, it is with a great deal of surprise. After being put under pressure by the local newspaper he reveals that he is there for the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), and he begins to tell the story of how their lives intertwined when Ransom first came to town.
Ransom was a young lawyer travelling through Shinbone when his carriage was held up by the notorious bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who deals out a brutal horsewhipping to him when he refuses to back down. Recovering in the local saloon, Ransom vows to bring Valance to justice using all the legal means at his disposal despite the fact that Valance has the town in a grip of fear and the local Marshall, Appleyard (the Foghorn Leghorn voiced Andy Devine), is a fat lazy coward. This is highly amusing to Tom, a local rancher and tough guy who wants nothing more than a quiet life and to marry local girl Hallie (Vera Miles). Tom admires the fact that Ransom is principled and resolute in his beliefs, but also knows that if you want to defy Valance you don’t do it with books, you do it with a gun – an action that Ransom won’t consider. It’s a clash of idealism against pragmatism.
John Ford is never happier than when at home with a western. Despite the fact that none of his four Oscars came for a western, it fits him like a well worn glove, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has the tang of authenticity throughout. You can taste the strong liquor, smell the sawdust and practically feel the horse leather underneath your hands. He litters the film with marvellous small details such as Tom lighting cigarettes from a lamp or Appleyard’s ever growing slate of free meals, and blackly comic dialogue (“Pompy, go find doc Willoughby – and if he’s sober, bring ‘im back!”). This all ties together to create a western that could only be created by someone who knows the genre inside out. Ford’s sense of playfulness and creativity still comes through however. The horsewhipping scenes are unflinchingly horrific, the revelation of Valance and his men from a newly lit lamp is a touch of noir, and there’s a standoff between Valance and Tom that you only realise is tense because when it’s over you finally remember to breath.
Like another of Ford’s masterpieces, The Searchers, this isn’t just a simple western however. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an intelligent and thought provoking dissection of American history and western mythology. Ransom seems to be a man out of time as he is bewildered to discover that Shinbone is a town still ran by the gun and not by the law. This continues when he discovers that barely anyone can read here and no-one has taken up the option to vote either. This isn’t to say that Ford either favours Ransom’s point of view nor disagrees completely with it. As Hallie snaps at Ransom, what good are all his books when he’s wearing an apron as he helps out around the saloon? And Tom is always on hand to point out that Valance is a man who will never reach for a book, but a gun, and it’s pointless to try and escape that fact. But Ford doesn’t automatically side with Tom either. As Ransom’s attempts to set up a school and a council gather pace, Tom is increasingly left on the outside too. There are those who may not know who Valance’s eventual shooter is, so let’s just say that it’s as poignant as it is thrilling. Ideals of any kind are a great thing to have, but an even harder thing to cling onto.
This kind of social rumination is easily identified by the casting of Wayne against Stewart. Stewart’s character tends to pontificate, and even patronise as he finds out when he is incredulous at Hallie’s lack of education, but it’s because of Stewart’s natural authority, dignity and class, that he can sell such a highly principled character without making him sanctimonious. His natural flow of dialogue is keenly used here, as is his innate comic timing, such as when his lanky frame doesn’t quite fit around the debating table in the saloon. Miles is also excellent, and Marvin is a truly evil villain. The kind of vile bully that swaggers around feeling untouchable, we may know his fate from the film title, but Marvin makes it a fate truly deserving that we savour keenly.
Yet it’s John Wayne’s performance that lingers longest. Strutting through the film with an amused grin on his face, Wayne is as at home as Ford is and it shows with his character – standing still as a statue in an argument over a dropped steak with Valance, Tom lashes out with one leg to send one of Valance’s men flying, yet never lets his posture drop or break sweat. It’s a deceptively fast movement that you’d never expect from the always deliberately paced Wayne. By the end however, as events reach their climax, it’s clear that it is Tom who is the soul of the film. Left on the outside by the end as much as Ransom was at the beginning, Tom is a clear indicator that times were changing and civilisation was starting to take root in America. Men like Tom had to either adapt or be left behind and Wayne epitomises that brilliantly. He never had the greatest range as an actor, but he could find shades and subtle facets in his characters that he doesn’t get enough praise for. The Man who Shot Liberty Valance is an unexpectedly elegaic film, and it is through Wayne that we feel it.
Crammed full of comic incident, wonderful characters (look out for Lee Van Cleef), nasty violence and dialogue to savour (“Gimme a beer! A beer’s not drinkin’!”), The Man who Shot Liberty Valance is a highmark of the genre. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” may have been a creed of Wayne’s, but it’s never been meant with as much poignancy and as much thought as it has here.
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