|"That's my steak, Valance."|
Although it often ran on television in the 1960s and '70s, I didn't see John Ford's masterpiece, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) until I was in college. I don't remember the exact year (sometime between 1974 and 1979) but I do recall that I saw it with my good, life long friend Terry Porter at the Texas Union theater on the University of Texas campus. I thought the film was great that first time I saw it and after watching it again the other night for the umpteenth time, I still think it's a truly great film.
In fact (and get ready for this), I think it's John Ford's best film. Better than any of the four films for which he won Best Director Academy Awards: THE INFORMER (1935), THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940), HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941) and THE QUIET MAN (1952). I've never seen THE INFORMER, but I've seen the other three. GRAPES is a classic, as is THE QUIET MAN but I hope to never suffer through a viewing of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY ever again in this lifetime.
I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for STAGECOACH (1939) and THE SEARCHERS (1956) but in general (and here's some more film heresy for you), I find a lot of John Ford's films to be vastly overrated. He's an inconsistent filmmaker in my opinion, turning out just as many mediocre films (DONOVAN'S REEF (1963) anyone?) as good ones. Granted, I haven't seen every John Ford film but of the ones I have seen, I rank LIBERTY VALANCE at the top.
The first on-screen pairing of cinematic giants John Wayne and James Stewart, is an elegiac, sentimental, politically themed ode to the end of the wild west and the unstoppable tide of civilization, symbolized by statehood for an American territory and the coming of the railroad. Stewart is Ransom Stoddard, a naive, idealistic lawyer who's come west to set up his practice in the town of Shinbone. Before he gets there, he runs afoul of Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang during a stagecoach robbery. Was there ever a better band of bad guys in any western than the unholy trio of Marvin, Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin?
Robbed and beaten, Stoddard vows to bring Valance to justice using the law. He soon finds out that cowardly, obese Marshall Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) doesn't have the guts to arrest Valance. He also finds that there's only one man in the territory tough enough to stand up to Valance and his gang. That's rancher Tom Doniphon (Wayne), who admonishes Stoddard (Doniphon calls him "pilgrim") to learn how to use a gun.
Thus begins the battle between the forces of civilization, of law and order and of justice against gunslingers and outlaws and only one way of life can survive. Caught between Stoddard and Doniphon is Hallie (the oh-so-lovely Vera Miles), a cafe waitress whom Stoddard teaches to read, which goes against the wishes of her "man" Doniphon.
Violence simmers, stews and comes to a boil when Valance and his men brutally beat newspaper publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) and vandalize the newspaper office. Stoddard has had enough and he faces Valance on a dark street in a deadly shootout. Valance is killed but it's not until later in the film that we learn the true identity of the man who shot Liberty Valance. When that happens, these famous words are spoken: "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Shot in black and white and largely on sound stages and studio back lots, LIBERTY VALANCE has a cramped, claustrophobic look and feel that's light years removed from the breathtaking Monument Valley vistas Ford employed in THE SEARCHERS. In fact, the sets and cinematography used in VALANCE echo the look of numerous television westerns of the time. Many of the scenes take place indoors and there's very little physical action to speak of. Indeed, Ford subverts genre expectations by having the climactic shootout take place, not at the end of the film as in most westerns but at the end of the second act.
The screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck (based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson), is terrific with tons of memorable, quotable dialogue. The cast is uniformly brilliant with Woody Strode a stand out as Pompey, Doniphon's right hand man. Strode would later appear in two other classic western films, Richard Brook's THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) and Sergio Leone's masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN TsHE WEST (1969). As noted, LIBERTY VALANCE marked the first time Wayne and Stewart appeared together in a film. They were both in HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962) (the Civil War segment was directed by Ford) but they had no scenes together in that epic. They worked together again in Don Siegel's THE SHOOTIST (1976), which was Wayne's last film.
I don't know how many times I've seen THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. The other night was merely the most recent viewing. I'm sure I'll watch it again and again in the future. I think it's a truly great, classic American film. Highest recommendation.