The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Director: John Ford
Screenplay:James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck
Stars: James Stewart (Ransom Stoddard), John Wayne (Tom Doniphon), Vera Miles (HallieStoddard), Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance), Edmond O'Brien (Dutton Peabody), Andy Devine(Link Appleyard), Ken Murray (Doc Willoughby), John Carradine (Maj. CassiusStarbuckle)
MPAA Rating:NR
Year of Release: 1962
Country: USA
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Poster

The tensions between wilderness and civilization, personal justice and the legal system, theindividual and the community have always fueled the Western genre, but they have neverbeen laid quite so bare as in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The majority of the story is told in flashback by an old Senator named Ransom Stoddard(James Stewart), who returns to the small, but bustling town of Shinbone in order to attendthe funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon, who no one in town seems to know. At theurging of the local newspaper editor, Ranse begins to tell his story, which starts with hiscoming to Shinbone many years earlier when he was fresh out of law school, an idealisticyoung man heeding Horace Greeley's admonition to "Go West, young man."

At that time, Shinbone was caught between honest, struggling farmers, who wanted theterritory turned into a state so they could enjoy benefits such as roads and railways, andcattle barons, who wanted to keep the range free from federal intervention so they couldcontinue to impose their own rule. The stagecoach Ranse comes to town in is robbed atgunpoint by a sadistic local bully with the ironic name of Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).Once Ranse gets to town, he quickly learns that everyone lives in petrified fear of Liberty, noone more so than the town marshal, a cowardly, but lovable buffoon named Link Appleyard(Andy Devine).

Ranse finds that his attempts to set up a law practice are futile, as no one in Shinbone seemsto be interested in the federal legal system. He ends up washing dishes at the local tavern,where he meets a young woman named Hallie (Vera Miles). Here is also where he becomesacquainted with Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who saved his life the night his stagecoachwas robbed. Doniphon, who has his eye on Hallie for a future wife, is the only man in theterritory who could possibility stand up to Liberty Valance.

Much of the film is devoted to the increasing tension between Ranse's idealistic desire tobring Liberty to justice (that is, have him arrested and tried in a court of law) and hisdawning realization that, in this part of the world at this particular time, the only way forLiberty to get what he deserves is in the realm of personal justice, where the fast-drawnpistol replaces law books.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is interesting in this respect, as it is an earlyexample of the genre one might call "Re-Educating the Liberal," in which nonviolent, oftensocially liberal characters are shown the error of their ways in an ultraconservative narrativethat forces them to realign with reactionary violence in order to survive. Both the originalCape Fear (1962) and Martin Scorsese1s 1991 remake would fit this subgenre, aswould Straw Dogs (1971) and Walking Tall (1973). The screenplay forLiberty Valance by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck tries to balance thisto some extend by portraying Ranse's killing of Liberty as both a triumph and a burden tobear. And, as the story makes clear near the end, not everything is as clear-cut as it seems,which leads to the rightfully famous, but utterly cynical, line, "When the legend becomesfact, print the legend."

When John Ford directed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (it was one of hislast films), he had already won four Best Director Oscars and directed so many Westerns thathis name was virtually inseparable from the genre, despite his experience directing dramasand war films. He had also worked with John Wayne 11 times previously, including two ofhis most celebrated roles in Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers(1956). One of Ford's greatest strengths as a director was his ability to bring out more inWayne than other directors could. Wayne was a one-dimensional hero in the majority of thefilms in which he starred, but Ford gave him an edge and allowed him to flex some of theacting muscle he couldn't elsewhere.

As Tom Doniphon, Wayne is both hero and antihero; he stands up for what's "right," but healso represents lawless violence in contrast to James Stewart's upstanding idealism.Doniphon is cynical, yet also romantic, as is depicted in his fondness for Hallie. Yet, there isnothing sentimental about him, as he tends to be selfish and, at times, misogynistic, treatingHallie as if she were an object to be owned, rather than a woman to be loved. In many ways,Doniphon represents the tear within Ford himself between the conservatism that fueled hisearlier films and the more liberated outlook that began to surface in some of his later work,most notably the complex racial dimensions of The Searchers.

James Stewart is somewhat troublesome in the role of Ranse. His physical appearanceimmediately sets him as out of place in the untamed West, yet, at the age of 54, he was fartoo old to convincingly play a young man just out of school. The James Stewart fromMr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) would have been more appropriatealthough, by the early 1960s, especially after working in the subversive world of AlfredHitchcock (especially 1958's Vertigo), Stewart's persona was already toocomplicated for him to revert back to his youthful idealism. It feels too much like he'sreaching back to a long-gone past (plus he tends to overact the more emotional scenes).

Yet, despite this weakness, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is still one of thecrucial films of the Western genre. It is especially crucial for understanding John Ford as anauteur, as it is arguably a film that distills the essence of his entire body of work. Beyondthat, Liberty Valance foregrounds the tensions that fueled not only the Westerngenre, but also much of American literature. Yet, this in no way simplifies the film, as itremains a complex work that is both a nostalgic look back to a simpler time and a deepexamination of the role of myths and legends in the painful struggle of a young nation as itmoved from the wilderness into modernity.

©2001 James Kendrick

The Man Who ShotLiberty Valance DVD

AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsOriginal theatrical trailer

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is presentedin a gorgeous anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer that appears to have been taken froma near-pristine print. The image is sharp and finely detailed, with strong black levels andbeautiful gradations of gray that really emphasize the depth and clarity of the black-and-whitephotography. Nicks and scratches are almost nonexistent, and there are only a few, barelynoticeable vertical lines from time to time.

The soundtrack has been nicely restored and is presented inboth a new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix and the original one-channel monaural. Bothsoundtracks are exceptionally clean, with almost no audible hiss and a complete lack of anypops or crackles. The 5.1-channel surround soundtrack does what it can with the originalsource elements, which isn't much in terms of expanding the soundstage. There is somewell-done imaging from time to time, such as the sound of Liberty Valance's horsesapproaching during the election in Chapter 9. Otherwise, the majority the soundtrack ismaintained on the front soundstage.

The only supplement included is the original theatricaltrailer, which is presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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