“Sir, I don’t want to intrude. But a United States Senator is news. I’m the editor of a newspaper with a state~wide circulation. I’ve got a responsibility to know why you came all the way down here to bury a man. You can’t just say ‘his name was Tom Doniphon,’ and leave it at that. Who was Tom Doniphon?!”
“He was a friend, Mr. Scott. And we’d like to be left alone.”
I had resisted seeing “THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE” almost all my movie-going life. John Ford...he’s a’ight.. Westerns…meh.
I finally saw the movie.
…and on the big screen.
A few years ago I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music ( BAM we New Yorkers call it ) as part of their feature of films made in 1962. The casting of John Wayne opposite James Stewart was inspired. It brought together two acting styles and two screen personas for the only time in their careers. I’ve seen Jimmy tough ‘n grizzled in those Mann westerns. He tamps down that toughness in this film. He’s all about Law & Order. Cerebral. Books. The Dude Out West. Then there’s the Duke. A Man’s Man. Physical. Thinks With His Fists. It was kind of wild seeing these two icons meet, two different acting styles meshing. Would it work? Yep. You could see the respect each actor had for the other. And in terms of the film, you could see the growing respect each character had for the other.
OMG! What took me so long?! DUH!! This is an incredibly rich film.
There were some wonderful archetypal Old West characters in this movie. And everyone played their part to the HILT:
ANDY DEVINE ~ (Link Appleyard) ~ a very hungry, very ineffectual Marshal…afraid of his own shadow but he’s not afraid of making babies. He’s all fluttery and nervous, a coward basically. Ford shows how ineffectual The Law can be.
EDMOND O’BRIEN ~ (Dutton Peabody) ~ the newspaper editor. Bombastic and town drunk. Ultimately a man of principle…but he’s gotta have a drink. I loved his blustering. He does a great job as a reluctant hero, and is proud as punch to get praised by Stoddard. O’Brien should have won or at least, hopefully, was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as the soused, but conscious conscience of what’s right.
JOHN CARRADINE ~ (Major Cassius Starbuckle) ~ has a small role as a politician. He makes the most of this part as the self-important blow-hard politico who speaks for the cattle ranchers who want to keep the status quo: an open territory for their own specific use instead of Statehood, a place for all to benefit from.
LEE VAN CLEEF & STROTHER MARTIN are Valance’s henchmen. Van Cleef, strong and silent. Strother…just a sick puppy. He gets off on Valance’s cruelty. Eeeeew!
WOODY STRODE ~ (Pompey) ~ works for John Wayne and is his right-hand man. He sees all, says very little. A man couldn’t have a better friend. He’s a student in Stewart’s one-room schoolhouse and sits on the sidelines while the men of the town are allowed to go inside to vote. He sits outside with his rifle protecting their right to vote in case the bad guys try to stop the democratic process he’s unable to participate in himself. When he goes to get Tom Doniphon out of the bar to come back to the ranch after Liberty’s been shot dead, Tom wants Pompey to drink with him. The bartender is about to tell Pompey he can’t be served but Tom shouts: “Who says he can’t???!!!” and offers him a drink. Pompey doesn’t drink, but I wish he’d at least have taken a swig. It’s sadly great how Ford shows Pompey’s place in the West.
The Marshall and Pompey take secrets to the grave
VERA MILES ~ (Hallie Stoddard) ~ Miles is usually so sophisticated in films, I was wondering if she could she pull off being a Western gal. She could. She’s a waitress in the town eatery. She’s loud and bossy and has control over the men in the restaurant. When she’s outed that she cannot read or write the hurt and embarrassment was palpable. Her hopefulness that maybe she could learn is wonderful. She is the object of the affection of both men (East & West). She does a lovely job of transitioning her feelings from Westerner Tom Doniphon (Wayne) to the Easterner ( Tom calls ‘Pilgrim’ ) Ransom Stoddard (Stewart). Perhaps for her to move forward in life, to make progress, she needs to transition.
LEE MARVIN ~ (Liberty Valance) ~ is despicably and psychotically hateful. There is not one redeemable quality about him. The whip he uses to beat people with is almost more deadly than his gun…and much more personal. He gets a sensual pleasure beating people with it. There was nothing Cat Ballou~cutesy in Marvin’s portrayal. How ironic his name is Liberty in this movie because there is none while he’s around. He truly is a menace to society. He would beat down the law, the farmers, the press just b’cuz he could. He beats ANYthing in his way except John Wayne. The only man Valance would back down for would be Wayne’s Tom Doniphon.
JOHN WAYNE ~ (Tom Doniphon) ~ I’ve known John Wayne all my whole movie~going memory. But he’s never really touched me emotionally until this movie. He gets scary angry in this film; his eyes like two ice-cold slits when he faces Vance. But he’s full of love for Hallie. I liked the heartfelt way he tells Hallie she looked pretty when she was angry. But the poor galoot doesn’t make his move quick enough with her. Faint heart never won fair maiden. She would have been his…but he allowed too much time to pass without putting his claim on her, and her heart was open for someone else. To see his abject heartache when he loses his girl is a tough watch. I think he represents the passing of the West. He doesn’t care about the credit Ransom Stoddard gets for killing that very bad man, he had just wanted the girl. Tom saves the life of the man Hallie loves. And becomes undone by the end of the film.
JAMES STEWART ~ (Ransom Stoddard) ~ When we first see Ranse he’s a big~time Senator. Carries himself with the self~confidence of a man in power. But he was not always so. In the beginning of the flashback, it’s a little tough buying the “young” Stewart but as the movie unfolds, I accepted him. He plays another man of principle. Represents the future of the West, of the United States. He gets beat up, but he was determined… hard~headed. He doesn’t like getting pushed around, had an unwavering faith in The Law…in being Civilized. But he does come to terms with the idea a gun is a necessary evil. Or at the very least, a means to an end.
“…Liberty Valance” has a melancholy wistfulness of looking at the past. Hallie leads the way as she and Ranse pay their last respects to friend Tom Doniphon. The old Marshall is there. As Ranse goes to talk to reporters, the Marshall takes Hallie on a buggy ride to the past. He knows a truth, and is sensitive to her. He takes her to a burnt out old house with cactus roses growing all around. Back at the makeshift funeral parlor awaits faithful gray~haired Pompey. I like how Hallie takes his 19th century hand as they both sit before the coffin. Ranse tells the reporters the true story of who this friend was. John Ford takes us through Ranse’s… ‘confession’ [?] in flashback.
Ranse is brutally whipped by the evil Liberty Valance during a stage coach robbery. If I cared to ponder, I’d say Liberty was probably beaten within an inch of his own life as a child. But Ford doesn’t take us into his story ( even though his name is in the title. ) Liberty Valance is just a dark blot on humanity, who serves as a springboard for different world~views. The flashback is helpful because we get the significant meaning of things we see, not knowing what they initially mean. When we see these things again ( in flashback ), it makes their meaning all the more significant. (I haven’t totally confused you, have I? Good. I’ll continue.)
There are a couple of threads John Ford weaves through this tale.
Guns vs. Civilization:
When do we put guns aside and use laws to settle our differences? Can we back those beliefs with action? Easy now, Man of Principle. This is the Old West. Everybody was packin’:
“Well I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.”
“Do you know what you’re saying to me? You know, you’re saying just exactly what Liberty Valance said. What kind of a community have I come to here? You all seem to know about this fella Liberty Valance. He’s a no good, gun packing, murdering thief but the only advice you can give to me is to carry a gun.”
Education / Good Citizenship:
Education is the key to progress. Teaching people how to read and write and think critically is the key to uplifting civilization. Inside that little one room school house sat Black, white, Mexican, men, women and children, citizens and Immigrants alike, all there to learn. Actress Jeanette Nolan in the center of the photo below, so sophisticated and evil in “The Big Heat” with her mink on, plays the Swedish Nora who tells us what she’s learned:
“The United States is a republic. And a republic is a state in which the people are the boss. That means us. And if the big shots in Washington don’t do like we want, we don’t vote for them, by golly, no more!”
( Her husband is played by the perennial Scandanavian~in~Classic Moves: John Qualen )
Electing Progress ~ No Thugs or Bullies Allowed:
Instead of just being a territory, these good people want to become a State. We see the townspeople conduct a meeting to elect delegates and how a bully and thug tries to take over the process ( sound familiar? ) with not~so~veiled threats. Only his stooges to back him up. The townsfolk fight back…with their votes. And make note to look at Doniphon sitting on the side, beaming with pride at Ranse. He is also the arbiter of keeping things on the up and up. ( “The bar is closed!” ) And look at Ranse come into his own here when he’s asked to take over the meeting to elect delegates.
“You know the issue. The cattle interests want to keep this territory an open range. Ruled by their high~minded ideas, whatever they are. And we, and that means everybody in this room, we’re for Statehood. We want Statehood because Statehood means the protection of our farms and our fences. That means schools for our children and it means progress for the future.”
And because Liberty is voted down, because Ranse has shown up Liberty in front of the whole town, Liberty calls him out to a gun fight. Ranse can no longer avoid not using a gun. ( He’s even been practicing when noone’s looking, and doesn’t cotten to being made fun of by Tom either ). He has to face Liberty knowing he’d never
win in a fight against the gunman. But he’s got to fight or die for his principles. Liberty uses Ranse for target practice, and when he’s ready to take the final shot, Ranse guns him down. Oh he’s shot up, but he vanquishes the Evil Bad Guy. And after a swig of whiskey, Doc Willoughby puts a period on Liberty Valance’s life:
This brave act spearheads Ranse’s notoriety. Ford takes us to this 19th century convention, full of whooping and hollering and roping and yelling. The Cattle Ranchers vs the Townsfolk both yelling and spinning their points of view to make their case. A look into The Future in electing representatives for the People.
Two Men + One Woman = Heartache:
Both Tom and Ranse woo Hallie in their own way. Tom is a bit brusque, aggressive. He softens when he tells her how pretty she is. Dresses up for her. Brings her a cactus flower. She knows he will protect her. But he’s waited a little bit too long to ‘claim’ her as his own. Ranse on the other hand is gentler. He can help her learn to read and write and open her world that way. He’s been beaten up a couple of times where Hallie’s had to nurse and mend him. Was it a bit of oneupsmanship he asks her if she’s ever seen a “real” rose. Or
does he offer her more authenticity? He needs her. She leans towards him to protect him. But she keeps going back to Tom to get him to bail out Ranse. How fair is what she asks of him. When she does make a definitive decision…poor Tom. Poor poor Tom. This is the heartache of the movie for me.
He puts an end to the idea of being together with Hallie in a heartwrenching way. And by his side, as always, is Pompey. It was startling the cut Ford makes from the house on fire to the political convention. Tom shows up at the convention grizzled and worse for the wear.
I love Ford’s reveal of the flashback within the flashback; the change in the p.o.vl. of the gunfight. Upon looking at the film again, I notice the Marshall. As everyone runs towards Ranse and the dead Liberty, check it out…the Marshall is looking down the dark alley:
Tom: “Cold~blooded murder. And I can live with it. Hallie’s happy. She wanted you alive.”
Ranse: “You saved my life.”
Tom: “I wish I hadn’t. Hallie’s your girl now.”
I can not imagine what his life was like once Hallie left Shinbone with Ranse.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” has an ironic sadness that coats the film…from its title, from the bad guy being named Liberty when he was anything but…from Tom’s self~sacrifice where he practically hands Ranse his career as a Statesman based on his killing a bad man. This movie makes me emotional. John Ford puts it all together wonderfully. Is there any doubt, that one hundred years from now his name will still be known, not just for this film but for his other masterpieces: “How Green Was My Valley” “The Searchers” “The Quiet Man” “Stagecoach” just to name a scant few. He gets his messages across (racism, immigration, politics, journalism, the ironic film title ) without bopping US over the head with that whip Liberty uses. He doesn’t let the story get lost in the fabulous vistas of the west. He lets our hearts get lost in the entire story. The sad train ride back to Washington, D.C. for Hallie and Ransom Stoddard will be full of unspoken truths. But you know, there are all kinds of truths.
“This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print
( H O M E )