The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – Centennial Collection Review

John Ford’s masterful western starring James Stewart, John Wayne and Lee Marvin gets the two-disc treatment from Paramount in a release reviewed here by clydefro.

(This is the second review for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on the site. The first, written by Mike Sutton, is at least equally reverent and a most likely superior take.)

The persistence of movement in the face of a stagnant human nature and the adaptation necessary to do so seem at least near the heart of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s a film where one man is perceived as weak until he resorts to violence. The character is steadfast in believing that order will overrule force, that the structure of the law is superior to the barrel of a gun. He proves himself both wrong and right, though the inconsistency isn’t as strong as it might seem. He’s right in terms of a larger picture. The rules and processes can work. They can result in a proper and fair path where decisions are made based on logic and analysis instead of raw strength. But the enabling agent can, with ease, be an unseemly product of fear. Reputations are made on achievements. People actually admire violent actions. Witness the number of war heroes who return from the battlefield with newfound fame and political aspirations. Ransom Stoddard, the role James Stewart plays in Ford’s film, is wrong to not realize that the greater public will always want its leaders to be men of a heroic nature, with heroism defined by who or how many he’s killed.

In a lengthy, almost feature-length flashback, Ford sets up Stoddard as a weakling from the East, an undefined and massive piece of land never flattering to have called home in a western. He’s passing through in a stagecoach near the town of Shinbone when some bandits become intent on robbing the few passengers. A recent widow is targeted, as is Stoddard, when the attorney from the East tries to defend the lady’s honor. He’s then beaten around and eventually subjected to a sadistic lashing by the notorious Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, relishing the vulgarity). Stoddard is later found and brought into Shinbone in much the same way Valance eventually leaves the town. His recuperation begins at a local diner run by a Scandinavian family, including daughter Hallie (Vera Miles), but his main goal is bringing Valance to justice. No one takes Stoddard seriously. Not the strong rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a contrast to the thin and brittle lawyer, or the bumbling coward of a town marshal (Andy Devine) or the alcoholic newspaper man Peabody (Edmond O’Brien). He’s clearly out of his league when dealing with Liberty Valance, the most feared man around.

Ford was, either intentionally or just by circumstance, doing something that remains fascinating here by using two iconic actors and painting them into corners perfectly representational of their screen reputations but inconsistent with reality. Wayne, an actor who never served in the military and who took the family dependency exemption out of World War II, is the confident, full-sized tough guy absent any fear of Valance (and, in his own right, Marvin was a Marine who’d been awarded the Purple Heart). Stewart, who rose to the rank of Brigadier General and served in combat during WWII after enlisting on his own despite being a huge, Oscar-winning movie star, plays the sapling to Wayne’s massive tree trunk. In the land of fantasy, the fake war hero is king. A film about heroism, particularly false or at least potentially false heroism, turned completely inward by playing into the Hollywood myth, by indeed printing the legend. Because printing the legend furthers our memories. The truth doesn’t stand a chance against popular opinion. If you can infiltrate reality with an enhanced version of what really happened then you’ve won. Those are the history books. What’s written there is what we learn and what we then teach to future generations. The “[w]hen the legend becomes fact, print the legend” line is thrown in almost at the end of the film but it’s the backbone of the entire thing.

Even this idea of Stoddard’s crusade against Valance being one steeped in law books and due process is reduced to the “print the legend” mythology. The lawyer initially wants Valance arrested but he catches on soon enough that things don’t really work that way in Shinbone. He gets a gun, attempts to learn to shoot it, and finds himself retrieving the weapon when the moment of truth happens. He’s not going to persuade the marshal to have Valance put behind bars. The answer is death, either Valance’s or Stoddard’s. The legend was sealed long ago and it’s only the details that have to be filled in for the paper. This gunfight is portrayed as being inevitable, as a legend in the making that will be framed by men other than the participants. Ford works up to the awkward duel for the entirety of what came before it. He then spends the rest, roughly half an hour, exposing an entire genre as an exercise in mythmaking. The western, including Ford’s own substantial contribution, gets battered as romanticized fiction that might or might not have happened. It’s grand, epic ideas on a Paramount soundstage.

This “print the legend” mentality, a view that Ford may have subscribed to but one that’s more important to be acknowledged than unequivocally supported, places a new perspective on almost the entirety of the western genre to this point (1962). We’re dealing with a dying breed of film. Very, very few movies with cowboys and horses have successfully come down the Hollywood pipeline since without placing a revisionist spin on things. Even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance doesn’t make use of the typical western landscapes. It was shot in a studio instead of Ford’s beloved Monument Valley. The West is effectively lost here. The romanticizing of a movie where American Indians are the de facto bad guys and men stand on dirt streets to kill other men simply because they can has ended. And it’s not Ford that ushered this idea in either. Anthony Mann, in a series of westerns including many that starred Stewart, hammered that nail in the genre’s coffin. I can’t watch a basic ’50s western without cynically undoing the psychological ribbon that should hold together the protagonist. When the film fails to include any hint of internal conflict within the lead character, I can’t take it seriously, and it’s because of Mann’s brutal contributions.

As Ford’s last great film, and he’d complete just three more, Liberty Valance is a premature elegy that leaves the viewer conflicted about what to make of nearly every western the director had previously made. There’s the violence angle, where Stoddard basically learns that gunplay will continue not just as a necessary part of life but as a kingmaking endeavor. This calls into question so much of the “might makes right” tenets found within the genre. There’s also the misdirection of stripping away some of the traditional western’s nobility. Losing a good guy to automatically root for makes things far less obvious and fun. Ford had subverted our ideas on how admirable a protagonist must be before with The Searchers, but here he offers two main characters in Stewart and Wayne, both of whom fail miserably in their personal quests. Stoddard had hoped to establish rules to live by and adhere to but he’s instead celebrated as the folk hero of the film’s title while privately recognizing that his legend is fraudulent. Wayne’s Doniphon wanted Hallie to be his wife but gets usurped, in large part because of an action he himself committed. I struggle to find the winners in this film.

Lurking in the background throughout is this additional notion of politics and statehood for Shinbone’s mother territory. The film makes such a big deal of the idea that it must be of some consequence other than a requisite plot device. Stoddard’s exercise in violence propels him, as we see, through various stages of political power, and it’s all dependent on gaining statehood. Ford seems to place little emphasis on the particulars, but he does care more for the consequences. With statehood comes additional rules, laws and order. More authority exists in terms of accountability. We’d seen Stoddard teaching the townspeople how to read and write, as well as some history apparently thrown in, and it’s clear that he prefers a more strict society where the rule of law is prominent. He doesn’t really bargain for the end result, though, does he? This character isn’t portrayed as overly ambitious. He only attains these positions through basic luck or circumstance.

Whether he killed Valance or not, there’s an extremely opportune side effect of the crusade. Stoddard is the victor and he obviously gets the spoils (Hallie, notoriety, positions of power) while Doniphon implodes immediately after the Valance episode. Wayne here elicits rare sympathy. Remember Gene Hackman’s dying words in Unforgiven? “I was building a house.” Intentions are irrelevant, if nonetheless humanizing. Ford brilliantly gathers these ideas together without providing any sort of obvious conclusion. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance takes on multiple meanings, with even its title playing on more than one interpretation. The relay is troubling, but not entirely without hope. The West is ostensibly already won. Shinbone’s territory has been a state long enough to let Stoddard serve a few terms as governor and senator. At what cost? Violence, basically. That’s the currency of power. Not just committing acts of physical harm, but succeeding in those attempts, at least for the purposes of lionization.

In the extra features for this edition we hear an audio interview Ford did where Peter Bogdanovich asks him about the increasingly dark turn his westerns took over time. Ford dismisses this in his typical way and answers, with some irritation, that maybe he’s gotten older. But perhaps it’s the constant realization of how things were and, more importantly, are that actually make us feel old as the aging process works its magic.

The Discs

Paramount continues its spine-numbered Centennial Collection releases, but a few changes are in place for numbers 8 (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and 9 (El Dorado). The retail price has been cut by about a third. Where previous titles were listed at almost $25, the two westerns come in below $17. The tasteful slipcase and gold-shaded keepcase art retain the same pattern, but one of the discs inside is now housed in a tray instead of having a disc on each side. The 8-page booklet is still there, reliably full of photos and a couple of pages’ worth of text.

An earlier DVD of this film was quite heavy in grain, but the new transfer has been scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed some more. The result looks somewhat unnaturally bathed in a bright silver sheen. A more happy medium (perhaps for Blu-ray) would have been nice. The Centennial Collection image also changes the aspect ratio to the widescreen television-friendly 1.78:1, enhanced for those displays, from the previous and more true 1.85:1. The brightness here is glaringly boosted in comparison, also slightly softening the image. This is what some people probably want, but it doesn’t greatly resemble the quality of actual film. Interestingly, it’s the older, cheaper disc that provides a higher bitrate than this new edition, though both are dual-layered. Damage is virtually nonexistent in the print used and the transfer is progressive.

I’ve matched three screen captures from the two R1 editions of the film, with the earlier release on top and the Centennial Collection beneath it:

(click to enlarge each)

Dolby Digital tracks for both English mono and 5.1 surround have been provided. The latter sounded to me simply like a louder version of the original mono that had been spread across all channels. I’m grateful to have the mono included and would consider it preferable. A Spanish mono dub is also included. Subtitles, rather large and white in color, are here for English, French and Spanish. The featurette is subtitled as well, including the archival audio.

A full commentary by Peter Bogdanovich includes his archival recordings of interviews he conducted with John Ford and James Stewart. Despite the extra voices, Bogdanovich manages to silently enjoy the film as much as he speaks over it. When he does talk, it’s sometimes thought-provoking and just as often repetitive or obvious. A few of the same exact comments made in the featurette on disc two are said again here, including an anecdote that allows for Bogdanovich’s always-simmering impressions of Ford and Orson Welles. Who keeps bringing Bogdanovich on for these classic film commentaries? A second commentary is also on the first disc but only covers selected scenes (22:43). The director’s grandson Dan Ford introduces the track of his archival recordings done with the elder Ford, Stewart and Lee Marvin in the early 1970s. Some of the audio can also be found later in the documentary, and only Marvin’s comments are really scene-specific. A fascinating listen regardless, particularly for some of what the always candid Marvin shares.

All the bonus material except the theatrical trailer (2:43) is new to this release. The other disc contains a 7-part featurette entitled “The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth” (50:51) where each chapter can be selected for playback individually or the entire featurette can be viewed with the push of a button. The chapters do vary in length. Interview participants include Richard Schickel, Peter Bogdanovich, Scott Eyman, Dan Ford, and audio recordings of John Ford, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin. This documentary is several notches above the lightweight supplemental features that have been on other Centennial Collection releases. Without relying too heavily on film clips, the lengthy featurette comes across as informative, casual and deeply focused on the film. This is not mere superlative swill disguised as something of value. I don’t want to say it’s worth picking up this edition just for the documentary, but it should definitely help tip the scales a little.

Galleries with stills of John Ford (25), the Production (21), Publicity (14), and Lobby Cards (8) finish off disc two. A short, 8-page booklet is inside the case.

Final Thoughts

No film directed by John Ford resonates with me as much as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Paramount’s Centennial Collection release has taken the grain out of its previous edition and brightened things up considerably. I think it goes a little too far in putting such a sheen on the film, but those less inclined as purists may be pleased. The reduced retail price in comparison to other Centennial Collection titles and an excellent documentary on the picture should also factor in to the purchasing decision.

clydefro jones

Updated: May 07, 2009

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