IMDB #236 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Another western, folks! This time it’s another Ford/Wayne movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The Key Players:

John Ford and John Wayne have been discussed in this here space already, pilgrim.

Jimmy Stewart is of course a Hollywood icon, wobbling his way through many diverse standards from Frank Capra classics like It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to three Alfred Hitchcock thrillers.

Lee Marvin, an Oscar winner for Cat Ballou and a That Guy! From plenty of other westerns and war-movies, plays the villain, while Vera Miles plays the love interest (she was Janet Leigh’s sister in Psycho! And was also in The Searchers (hey!)).

The Story:

Stewart and Miles open the film as a middle aged couple returning to a small town named Shinbone, in an unnamed state that Stewart is the Senator of. They’re back to attend the funeral of a friend, prompting a nosy inquiry from the local newspaperman. Stewart agrees to tell the story of his acquaintance with the deceased, in winding flashback form.

A long time ago, Stewart came to Shinbone as a young lawyer, wide-eyed and full of ideals (isn’t he always?). He was promptly robbed and beaten on the road by Lee Marvin’s psychotic Liberty Valance, to be rescued from death by Wayne himself, the town’s resident badass.

In the course of his recuperation, Stewart takes a shine to Miles, a waitress at the town mess hall, and Wayne’s presumed gal, who he’s just waiting to propose to until he finishes fixing up his house for her. Or something, he's hard to read, that guy.

Anyway, the local Marshall’s a nincompoop, so Marvin just runs around terrorizing everybody. Wayne and Stewart argue about which is might, the law or the gun, with the gun usually winning in practice. Eventually things come to a head when Stewart’s chosen to be a delegate to the territorial convention to determine a congressman.

The townsfolk want statehood, the local ranchers (and their guns for hire, which include Marvin), want to be an open rage territory, which means no one gets to keep their property. Marvin finally challenges Stewart to meet him in the street, Old West style. And the results of said confrontation change everyone’s lives…

The Artisticness:

I gotta say, after the wide-shot majesty of the desert in The Searchers, this film feels a little smaller in comparison. It’s in black and white, as well, which leads to some neat shadows during the climatic confrontation, but mostly a drab looking film.

The narrative is interesting enough, of course, especially in the conflict of ideologies between the rough and tumble Wayne and the heart on sleeve Stewart. What good is law and order in the middle of chaos? But what good is brute force without conscience? Not that it ever gets too verbose in the contemplating of said matters. Mostly there are gunshots and Marvin and Wayne having stare-offs.

Vera Miles sold being hung up on John Wayne okay, but she and Stewart seemed to have no chemistry. It made the love triangle aspect hard to buy. And the local townsfolk were largely annoyingly clownish caricatures.


So Stewart and Marvin face off in the street, at night. Marvin shoots our hero in the gun-holding arm, then tauntingly shoots near his good left hand as he goes to retrieve said pistol. Then, can you believe it, Stewart nails the bad guy with a left-handed crackshot, winning the immediate acclaim of the townsfolk (and Miles), leading eventually to his selection as the congressional delegate, Governor, and U.S. Senator.

Wayne, after seeing Stewart and Miles embracing, drunkenly goes home and burns down his spiffy new house. I wonder what he’s so cheeved about?

The big twist is, of course, that Wayne was standing in the shadows, and he is the man who shot Liberty Valance, but he realizes that the people need their nice guy hero, and he’s lost the fight for his girl.

In the present time, the newspaper dude agrees, and decides not to print the story. The film ends on a somber note, as it’s clear that Miles never quite got over Wayne, Stewart is eaten up to some degree by living a lie, and Wayne died never having fixed his burnt home years later, merely content to fill his garden with the cactus flowers Miles loved so much.

It’s a sort of pessimism most Westerns avoid, even when dealing with ostensible sadness: the lone gunman riding into the distance is at least accompanied by triumphant music. Here we just get some ironic adulation from the train attendant to Stewart as he and the missus head back to Washington. “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” the guy says. Aww.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I give this one a shrug. I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse. I liked the integration of the standard western gunplay with some political grandstanding, but the comic relief all fell flat for me. Let’s say lower, by a hair.

The Legacy:

Well, I suppose it’s right up there on Best Westerns lists, and it’s been included in the National Film Registry. Beyond that, I can’t think of many cultural references, but it’s high in the Ford oeuvre to be sure. Plus it got an Oscar nod for Best Costumes, so there’s that.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

I’d go with the big twist scene, even though it’s pretty predicatable, if only for the way Wayne sets Stewart the hell straight with as few words as possible, but a hell of a stern look. Plus, the revisit to the gun fight is framed in a cool way with the shadows and all.

Leftover Thoughts:

The time period this takes place in is never named, just like the state it takes place in.

On the night he gets shot, Valance has the “dead man’s hand” in a poker game (Aces and Eights) that Wild Bill Hickock was holding when he was killed. Woo, history!

The only intentionally comedic scene that made me laugh out loud: They call the doctor to look at the gut-shot Valance. He barks out: “Whiskey, quick!” takes a slug off the bottle, rolls Valance over with his foot, and just goes “Dead,” with a shrug. Hi-larious.

I swear one of the sets appeared in The Searchers as well. I bet that happened a lot when you made as many films per year as John Ford did.

0 Response to "IMDB #236 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"

Powered by Blogger