Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Year of Release  1962
Country  USA
Length  123 min.
Director  John Ford
Screenwriters  James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck (story by Dorothy M. Johnson)
Cinematographer  William H. Clothier
Editor  Otho Lovering
Cast  John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Woody Strode

No one did more to define and redefine the traditional cinematic western than John Ford.  With his breakthrough Stagecoach (1939), Ford created what could be considered the definitive western film, and also established John Wayne as the genre’s biggest screen idol.  Later Ford westerns (many of which featured Wayne as their star) functioned as much as “state of the western” addresses as actual films.  Ford was at the forefront of virtually every technical breakthrough or stylistic change in the traditional western during the genres late-‘30s to early’60s heyday.  John Ford was to the popular western as Miles Davis was to jazz.

So it is entirely appropriate that Ford would be among the first to break down the archetypes and tropes of the western, challenging the very ideologies that he had played a massive role in establishing and popularizing.  It might not be accurate to call 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance the first anti-western (a couple of Anthony Mann’s ‘50s westerns could reasonably fit that description, as could Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers), but the fact that it is directed by Ford and structured around the offscreen funeral of Wayne’s character gives it a profound air of authoritative finality that wouldn’t have been possible under different circumstances.  Though Ford went on to direct several westerns after Liberty Valance, and Wayne starred in quite a few more, this may as well have been the last time that either of them worked in the genre.  They are saying goodbye to what they are best known for in much the same way that Charlie Chaplin marked the death of silent cinema with Modern Times (1936).

 Ford goes about dismantling the myths of the Old West by establishing a ragged settlement called Shinbone that is basically a physical embodiment of the traditional western – a place full of saloons, cowboys, and random gunslingers (and the home to many of the notable members of Ford’s stock company of actors, such as Andy Devine and Woody Strode) – and then introducing a city-boy outsider (Jimmy Stewart) whose personal set of values challenge and confound those of Shinbone (and therefore the genre itself).  Before he even gets into town, the outsider’s stagecoach is held up by a trio of bandits led by a notorious criminal named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, in the performance that justly made him a star).  The outsider finds that nobody in Shinbone is particularly interested in getting in Liberty’s way; the local sheriff (Devine) is too cowardly to go after Liberty, while the area’s top gunfighter (Wayne) seems to enjoy having a near-equal around to compete with, and the rest of Shinbone’s citizens seem to accept that the Liberty situation is the way that things always have been and always will be.  Early on, Wayne mocks Stewart’s idea that Liberty can be brought to justice through legal means, and suggests that the crook will only be taken down the old-fashioned way – with a gun.  Ford spends the rest of the film asking the audience whether Wayne or Stewart have the right solution to the Liberty problem, and to his credit, he makes both sides of the argument seem equally valid.

Both sides of the argument are given extra weight by the audience’s knowledge of what John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart represent as screen icons.  While the actors are playing characters named, respectively, Tom Doniphon and Ransom Stoddard, what matters in this film is that they are the embodiment of all that John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart represent.  Wayne of course is the definitive western hero, a no-nonsense man of action with enough conviction is his black-and-white sense of morality to defend it with bullets.  Though Wayne was never a particularly skilled actor, he had screen presence in spades and usually excelled in roles that required him to be a stand-in for the idea of the Old West.  This is perhaps Wayne’s best performance, outpacing even his work in Rio Bravo (1959) and True Grit (1969), two other films in which Wayne was asked to essentially be the physical embodiment of the ideals he represented.  Stewart was a much more skilled and versatile actor than Wayne, and his extensive list of credits did include quite a few westerns – including several Anthony Mann westerns such as Winchester ’73 (1950) and The Naked Spur (1953) where he played Tom Doniphon-style roughnecks – but he was (and is) most frequently identified as the gentlemanly and idealistic Democrat of Frank Capra films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).  It is this polite version of Stewart that wanders into the outlaw world of Shinbone.

Stewart’s disruptive presence allows the film to get into some complicated and highly nuanced moral territory.  The risky ethical line that Ford is walking with this film – asking the audience to sympathize with a gruff redneck (Wayne) whose way of life is becoming obsolete, while making the kindly progressive (Stewart) occasionally seem like a weakling with unrealistic goals – is very intriguing, and forces the audience to engage in the film’s moral quandaries in a way that recalls Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  Wayne’s way of life allows thugs like Liberty Valance to function with relative impunity, but Stewart’s more modern viewpoint leaves Shinbone feeling a lot less lively. 

 Surprisingly, it is the gentle Stewart who finally comes to accept that Liberty can only be dealt with through force and decides to get the gun that will supposedly kill Liberty.  But everything comes to a head during a flashback that reveals that it was in fact Wayne who ambushed and killed Liberty from behind while Stewart and Liberty had their face-to-face showdown.  The legend of “the man who shot Liberty Valance” propels Stewart to the U.S. Senate, and presumably allows him to pursue his noble ideals, but it is a brutal act by Wayne that allows it to happen.  While it is shocking on a visceral level to see the traditionally heroic Wayne shoot the bad guy in the back of the head from a safe distance, what is really interesting about the scene is the way that it makes Wayne’s action feel simultaneously noble, cowardly, and tragic.  The last gasp of traditional western heroism is a primitive act of violence that paves the way for the modern form of legislative justice.  By the end of the film, Stewart is a famous and apparently well-liked politician while Wayne is a dead and forgotten soldier, and the film makes it clear that each man is in some way responsible for the other’s fate.

In addition to seriously grappling with some intriguing and complex moral ideas, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is simply a very entertaining and well-crafted film.  While critics of the time complained that the film lacked the epic visuals often associated with Ford – and it is true that there is nothing as memorably gorgeous in Liberty Valance as the Technicolor Monument Valley vistas of The Searchers or the fog-drenched final shootout in My Darling Clementine (1946) – it is still a well-shot film by any reasonable standard, and the lack of big widescreen setpieces is appropriate for this intimate, human-scale story.  Some people have complained about the film’s prominent use of studio sets as opposed to Ford’s typical location shooting, but the settings don’t seem any more or less artificial than in the average film – and even if they did, it could be argued that the phoniness of the surroundings reinforces the point that places like Shinbone no longer exist.

 For all of its formal pleasures, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance perhaps deserves to be best remembered for its engaging look at complicated issues of justice, legend, and progress.  Ford spends plenty of time pointing to the many positive aspects of the modern era that Jimmy Stewart ushers in, such as giving most of Shinbone’s citizens their first formal education, but he also conveys a profound sorrow for the lost world of John Wayne.  Ford acknowledges the best and worst aspects of both eras, and understands that the progress of democracy doesn’t ensure equality for everyone.  As Keith Phipps notes in his DVD review at the AV Club, “African-American actor Woody Strode recites the opening of the Declaration of Independence, as a portrait of Lincoln watches in the background.  Later, when the town meets to take a vote, Strode waits outside.”  Ford clearly loves the democratic principles that the United States was founded on, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance demonstrates his keen understanding that not everyone who fights for their freedoms will get to enjoy them equally – and that some will have no place in this new world at all.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance passes the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  Another film about changing times, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion

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