THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE ( 1962 )

“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.”

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I had resisted seeing THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE almost all my movie-going life. John Ford...hes 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-devineANDY 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. 


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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.

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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.

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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 STRODEwoody-iv ~ (Pompey~ works for John Wayne and is his right-hand man. He sees all, says very little. A man couldnt 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 hes unable to participate in himself. When he goes to get Tom Doniphon out of the bar to come back to the ranch after Libertys been shot dead, Tom wants Pompey to drink with him. The bartender is about to tell Pompey he cant be served but Tom shouts: “Who says he cant???!!!” and offers him a drink. Pompey doesnt drink, but I wish hed at least have taken a swig. Its sadly great how Ford shows Pompeys place in the West.

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The Marshall and Pompey take secrets to the grave

  

VERA MILESvera-ii ~ (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.

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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 hes 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.

wayne-ii
JOHN WAYNEwayne-i (Tom DoniphonI’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.
 
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JAMES STEWART ~ (Ransom Stoddard) ~ When we first see Ranse hes 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, its 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. 

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marvin-iiRanse 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’:

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“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:

liberty-valance-cast

“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:

marvin-v

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.”

stewart-iii stewart-wayne

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 

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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:

“He’s dead!”

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:

vera-i  vera-iii

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 

wayne-iii   vera-jimmy

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. 

woody-ii

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.

  wayne-iv

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:

john-wayne

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
the legend.”

 


(   H  O   M   E   )


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20 thoughts on “THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE ( 1962 )

  1. Theresa Brown… How well I remember your wonderful being and ways from a TCM Festival in Hollywood a few years back. I continue to be a shadow on your CineMaven wall and for the most part remain satisfied and silent with my fulfillment. However, with this post you have jumped over the barb wire fence into the western genre which has at least a 1/3 segment of my moving picture heart. Film Noir has another 1’3 and put all the rest in that which remains.

    John Ford and his THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is one of my favorite Ford westerns. I list MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, STAGECOACH, THE CALVARY TRIO (FORT APACHE-SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON-RIO GRANDE), and WAGONMASTER as my others. No, I appreciate THE SEARCHERS, but not to the general acclaim and high perch most have given it. I have my reasons. Note that I also do not put non-westerns in the equation. Ford was just an ultimate director.

    Now back to LIBERTY VALANCE. You are so right on in your review that I wanted to stand up and cheer. Step by step and word by word you are a creative writing disciple of the best of John Ford, and why this masterpiece is so well done. The film continues to stay around to magnetize new attracted film goers to the vintage creations of a man who made more than his fair share of truly classic films. Your broad, concise summary of the characters, incidents and story line was superb.

    In my mind John Wayne has never been better, and James Stewart and the supporting cast as impressive as you will ever find. There isn’t a hitch or a detour in any of the characterizations or details you relate.

    Tom Doniphon’s remark, “Cold-blooded murder. And I can live with it,” is an explanatory soft and simple side bar to disclose who really shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. You betch’um Red Ryder.

    Thank you for your continuing blog… Stay marvelous,

    Max of Dimitrios >

    Liked by 1 person

    • MAXIE!! Didn’t we sit next to each other at a screening of a film at TCMFF ~ ( You’ll have to remind me of the film, Sir. ) ~ My jaw dropped after reading your comment above. I don’t mean to sound falsely humble and modest but the praise you heap upon me has warmed my heart. Thank you thank you thank you sounds so inadequate but it’s all I got, and I hope you know I mean it sincerely.

      Westerns are not my go~to genre ( that’d be Film Noir ) but when I find one I like…I really like it ( “Duel At Diablo” “Warlock” “Tall in the Saddle” to name but a few. ) When I finally saw “…Liberty Valance” years ago, it left me weeping in the movie theatre at its depths of Regret. It put me on the road to appreciating Wayne’s acting and Ford’s heartfelt feelings for a topic. ( I’ll go non~western and bring up “How Green Was My Valley.” ) To receive your lovely compliments from a man whom Westerns mean a lot I feel plum honored.

      Thank you for lurking/staying in touch, reading my posts and taking the time to make a comment. If you ever want to write a piece for my blog, I’d welcome that. Thanks again, Max!

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  2. What a brilliant analysis of the film. I wish I could give you an honorary Oscar for writing!

    I’m not a Ford fan but agree with all you say about Liberty Valance. And I hadn’t even thought about the irony of the name ‘Liberty’ for the villain.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “I said YOU, Liberty, YOU pick it up.” Just one of many memorable lines in this dark, brooding western. You gotta love it when the Duke shows Jimmy how it’s done vs. Liberty. What a deliciously despicable villain. Then there’s Vera Miles, who I had a crush on…
    Nice article, Tex.

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    • Hi there Rob. I’m happy you’re a fan of this film, and that I’ve caught up to everyone else who enjoys this movie. Vera Miles is always a honey, even when she’s a bitch ( “BACK STREET” ) As for Liberty…not a redeeming bone in his body. I wonder how Robert Mitchum would have handled this?

      Thanks again for coming by here. Would love to have you write an essay for my blog on a film that resonates positively with you. Please consider the offer. Wanna hear your voice.

      Like

  4. T of all your articles that I’ve read this is perhaps your best! You had me hooked from first word to last. You really understand this movie and it remains one of my favorite (Ford) Westerns. My favorite performance in this film is that of Lee Marvin’s which I think is the most engaging and he is just deliciously evil. The menace and fear he creates is palpable. John Wayne is a tower of strength (as usual) and touchingly fragile in his love for Hallie (Vera Miles) and I, as you remain greatly affected by his heartbreak, courage and loss. Speaking of courage, is anyone braver and more resilient than James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard in this movie. He is the voice, spirit and embodiment of hope and determination as well. Truly a great film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey hey. Thank you for the lovely compliment. I really get a lot from this very engaging movie. There’s a lot in there. I take away the Regret. Lee Marvin…”deliciously evil”? Ha! Yeah, you got that right. Gawd he was soooo bad. Heartbreak, courage and loss…you covered that well. What a movie!

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  5. The sadness of Tom Doniphon, the heartbreak. I get chills even thinking about this film. Of course, I’m a Fordian from way back.

    The richness of the film that you so appropriately illustrate make it an enduring classic.

    John Wayne and two lines in Ford films that go straight to my heart everytime:

    “Let’s go home, Debbie.”

    “You didn’t shoot Liberty Valance.”

    I admire a lot of actors, but I can’t think of another who can always bring the electricity when he needs to like John Wayne.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How lovely you write, Caftan Woman. His actions burning down that room and ultimately his house, AND sitting in it until Pompey pulled him out kills me. Hearing Tom say: “I said YOU, Liberty, YOU pick it up.” chills me to the bone of not being afraid. Tom telling Hallie she’s mighty pretty when she’s angry, his face looking like he’s gone to hell and back when we see him show up at the convention… so many moments. I’m playing closer attention to John Wayne now. I guess that’s thanks to John Ford.

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  6. This really is a brilliant analysis. I teared up a little reading it! You wrote so poetically. It’s my favorite western for precisely all the reasons you’ve listed (and I’m meh about westerns myself). The way you delved into each character, each of them so fully realized. I do love Liberty as a character (but I HATE him too). Just beautiful.

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  7. I enjoy “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” although every time I watch it that approval comes with some big caveats. I wish it had been made years earlier with a younger Stewart and Wayne (Stewart in particular comes off as way too old for the role). The indoor photography is disappointing. Vera Miles is okay (she was a favorite actress of my mother’s, so I always accord her a certain measure of respect) but I’ve never been able to shake Pauline Kael’s assessment of Miles playing in this as “proficient and colorless”. Some of the other players earn higher marks, the scenes at the political convention are great, and the finale is haunting.

    It’s probably worn better than some of Ford’s other late career films like “The Searchers” (the comic relief scenes in that one are nigh unbearable), but for me if falls behind his cavalry trilogy and “Stagecoach” which probably remains my favorite Ford film, with a very green and hearty nod to “The Quiet Man”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey there Shawn. I totally get your caveats adding my comments to those caveats:

      ( * ) Instead of making Jimmy Stewart a young man, maybe he could have had started law school later in life instead of making him a school boy. ( I know I know…he really wasn’t a school boy. )

      ( * ) I didn’t quite pay attention to the film’s cinematography, so wrapped up in the story I was. I did notice no Monument Valley.

      ( * ) Vera Miles. I’ve always been a fan, but tell me…who would you see in this role of Hallie? A warmer actress, no doubt. Give me some choices you’d prefer.

      ( * ) Wouldn’t you say classic film fans hold “The Searchers” in very high esteem…wearing well lo’ these fifty~odd years?

      ( * ) Yes his cavalry films are considered masterpieces. And I saw “The Quiet Man” for the first time two years ago and it snuck into my heart.

      Thanks so much for reading my work and stopping by here.

      Like

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