The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Review

A harshly poetic study of the gulf between myth and reality, John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the finest films ever made in America. Nominally a Western, it's actually a thoughtful study of history; both the passing of the old into the new and the process by which legend becomes translated into fact. All of the themes which obsessed Ford throughout his career are blended here into a pure and deeply moving elegy to a time long gone, complemented by iconic performances from the leads and some brief but equisitely tense action sequences.

Ford's narrative was rarely complex in outline and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is no exception. In the last years of the 19th Century, a powerful senator named Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) returns to the town of Shinbone where he had his first legal practice shortly after the civil war. When quizzed about the reason behind his visit by the Star, the local newspaper, Stoddard reveals that he has come to pay his respects at the funeral of an obscure local named Tom Doniphon (Wayne). His reasons for attending become clear when he begins to tell the story of how he came to know Doniphon and, in particular, when he finally decides to reveal the truth behind the killing of an outlaw named Liberty Valance (Marvin). Legend has it that Stoddard shot him during a one-on-one gunfight, but the real story is rather different.

From this simple story, Ford develops one of his most eloquent films. The story is told as a series of contrasts; the rule of law against the rule of the gun; town versus field; truth and legend; and most significantly, Ford's favourite theme of the past versus the future, the irrevocable force of history bringing change as inevitably as day follows night. Stoddard, the cultured, educated man of the law arrives in Shinbone as a stranger to the way of the gun, where law is as much a matter of who shoots first as it is to do with justice. His is the way of the future, of a time a few years hence when the railroad will turn the town into a profitable tourist stop-off. Tom Doniphon, the gunfighter who acts as an unofficial peacekeeper, represents the past, his personal code of honour as irrelevant in the long run as his profession. The story of the killing of Liberty Valance is an allegory for the replacement of the gunfighter with the lawman, the irony being that the one relies on the other for their historical reputation. What makes this poignant is that Doniphon becomes aware, as change gathers pace around him, that he is mired in the past; indeed he eventually seems to welcome his own decline into obscurity, just as the destruction of the house he is building for him and Hallie (Miles), the girl who leaves him for Stoddard, reminds him that he has no place in the future. All that is left of Doniphon's world when Stoddard returns is the hardy, harshly beautiful cactus rose, a reminder of what was good and beautiful in the past, before a garden was made out of the wilderness. But paradoxically, Liberty Valance, as black-hatted a villain as ever appeared in a film, is also relegated to the past and Ford seems to have a hard time making him as dyed-in-the-wool-evil as he might be painted in another film. Valance is as much a representation of the past as Doniphon, without a home or an understanding of change - when asked where he lives he snorts "I live where I hang my hat" - and his livelihood depends largely on the robbing of stagecoaches, an activity which would soon be obsolete. No doubt that in a later time Valance would have adapted to mugging tourists or drive-by shootings, but in this context he is as much a mythical archetype as any of Ford's heroic characters, and it's entirely appropriate that his name is inducted into legend through the story of the man who, allegedly, killed him.

Yet, and this is why Liberty Valance is as much an optimistic film as an elegaic one, there is hope for the future all around in Shinbone; in the dreams for a better life of the immigrant owners of the eating house, in the proud attempts of Hallie and the townspeople to learn reading and writing, in the developing democracy of the public meeting to elect a representative to the Territorial Convention. It's as if Ford has come to terms with the past and is acknowledging how the forces of change can be kind as well as cruel. Somehow, the past, present and future have become interdependent - the past being known as much through myth, legend and tradition as through what actually happened. That's what seems to me to be meant by the famous line "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend", a comment which would apply to the genre as much as it does to Stoddard, Doniphon and Valance.

This was the first film to match John Wayne with James Stewart and it's fascinating to see their different personas on screen together. In some ways, these are archetypal roles for the pair of screen icons and they play them for all they are worth. Stewart dithers delightfully while Wayne is a solid rock of heroism and courage. But then Ford deliberately subverts expectations by revealing the bravery behind Stewart's insistence on using the law rather than a gun and by revealing the apprehension and sadness within Wayne's familiar image. One can imagine Doniphon as an Ethan Edwards who found and accepted a home but is now finding himself unseated by changing times. Wayne's performance is particularly good at this gentle sadness, especially in his scenes with Vera Miles, and I love the way his famous walk seems to be slightly bowed with the weight of experience. We do, as I've said before, tend to project our own image of Wayne's screen history onto every character the actor played and I think this is a process which Ford appreciated. For all his hatred of the intellectualisation of cinema, Ford was as intelligent and genre-savvy a director as America ever produced and his handling of Wayne's image in his films demonstrates this perfectly. Stewart is also extremely good, although I could do with a little less of his trademark drawling, especially in the last half hour of the film. That's a minor niggle though; I can't think of another actor who could do this part justice. The supporting cast is a gallery of Ford's favourites and there can't be many viewers who can miss the affection he holds for his actors. I particularly relish Andy Devine's hopelessly incompetent marshal and John Carradine's irrepressibly windy politician. Vera Miles is a bit of a pain though, much as she was in The Searchers - Ford's love for the women characters played by Maureen O'Hara doesn't often extend to other young actresses - and I think Lee Marvin is a little too broadly pantomime as Valance. An interesting footnote here is the presence of actors who would be prominent in Westerns by Ford's admirers and the men who would take his Western crown; Lee Van Cleef and the wonderful Strother Martin (used by Leone and Peckinpah respectively).

Ford's direction is relaxed but with his usual relish for character - such as the Shakespeare quoting newspaper editor - and for small historical details - references to sodbusters and bushwhackers will perplex some viewers but are entirely appropriate for the period. There are few of his expansive landscapes in this largely interior film since it was largely shot in the studio but it never feels enclosed or claustrophobic. The monochrome photography by William Clothier has a harsh beauty which is also just right for this sad, reflective film. It's hard to imagine a reason to criticise The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It takes the best of Ford's westerns and points forward to the elegaic westerns of Peckinpah and Eastwood, managing to be entertaining and genuinely thought provoking in the process. Better still, you don't even have to listen to Gene Pitney's hit song, which doesn't appear on the soundtrack. It's certainly slow moving and perhaps a little too sentimental for some viewers, but Ford's vision of the West comes through with immense grace and power. Unreservedly recommended, this is essential viewing.

The Disc

Paramount haven't spent much time making The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance a tempting package for anyone unfamiliar with the film, but to their credit they have given us superb picture quality. The film can't have looked this good since its first release back in 1962.

The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 format. The image is clean and crisp with superb contrast and virtually no artifacting - I spotted a couple of instances at most. There is a small amount of grain but this is not a serious problem. I found the blacks to be rich and deep and the level of detail is excellent. The film was restored in 1999 and the care taken has proved to be very worthwhile.

There are two soundtracks supplied on the disc. The original mono track is present along with a newly mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 version. How you feel about this will depend on your views about messing around with the soundtracks of old films. Personally I preferred the mono version but there's no denying that the soundstage is used in a much fuller way than is normal with this sort of remix. All the channels are used to some extent for ambient effects and to enhance the music score. The problem is that it still, despite the expertise, sounds stubbornly like an old film with a jazzed up soundtrack and I find this a bit distracting when it's a movie I am familiar with.

The only extra supplied is the amusingly bombastic original theatrical trailer. Nothing else, which is scandalous for such a great film. Perhaps Paramount are saving up their efforts for a big special edition this year for the 40th anniversary - but almost certainly not.

Although there is nothing on the disc to make this an even remotely special edition, the sheer quality of the film makes it worth buying. Fans of John Ford or westerns in general will need no recommendation from me to get this, but anyone interested in American cinema should make it their business to get hold of a copy.

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Last updated: 11/07/2018 15:26:13

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