The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Sho tLiberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – 1962

Director – John Ford

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin

In the westerns of the thirties, forties and fifties, there was a clear line of right versus wrong, good guy versus bad.  At the beginning of the film, when someone new rides into town, all you have to do is check out the color of his hat, and by paying careful attention, you can fairly reliably ascertain whether they are a hero or a villain.  In the films of the late sixties and seventies, the west is filled with anti-heros, outlaws, and characters whose motivations are all colored in shades of gray.  A good man and a bad man are harder to tell apart, both through their deeds and their choice of clothing.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is roughly halfway between these two extremes.  Our main character may be obviously good, but he has a limit and can be pushed over it.

A sort of companion piece to the earlier Jimmy Stewart film, Destry Rides Again, this film explores the somewhat darker side of being an upstanding citizen.  Where in Destry, Stewart played a character who overcame the danger and conflict through sheer force of will, never letting his ideals falter, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sees him as a strong-willed man left with no further options than to turn his back on his idealism and resort to violence.  Whether one film was a commentary on the other, or if it was just a sign of changing times is something I can’t say for sure, but together, each illustrates the glory and the grime of standing up for what you believe in using what is essentially the same character as a means of illustration.

Liberty’s story is a familiar one.  Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a well-meaning yet naive lawyer, who while on a stagecoach heading into the small town of Shinbone runs afoul of a local desperado and general bully, Liberty Valance (the one from the title).  Valance, played by the deliciously malicious Lee Marvin, beats Stoddard to such a degree that he is in need of treatment by the local nurse/doctor, which forces him into the lives of the local restaurant proprietors (including the love interest of local tough guy and town hero Tom Doniphan played by John Wayne).

As Ransom mends, he searches for a legal means of defeating Valance, educating the town, and unbeknownst to him he works his way into the heart of the restaurant owner’s daughter Hallie Stoddard.  As this affection becomes more and more plain, Ransom runs the risk of ostracizing his best and only chance of beating Valance at his own game.  Without Tom Doniphan standing in between the outlaw and himself, Ransom will be forced to either use violence and maybe live, and or stick by his ideals and likely die.

Well, hopefully the title of the film should explain that someone, at some point, actually does deal with Valance, but the grand question is who, and ultimately the question becomes Does it matter?”  The world is a violent place full of trials and challenges.  Is rising to face those challenges on those terms a failure of character?  Does it diminish the fact that you do what you can to find a better way, or does the need for self-preservation trump such minor concerns?  Not to mention if you go against your ideals, resort to violence, then find out that it wasn’t even you who ended up solving the problem, what then?  Are you still culpable for the choices you made, or do you get a pass?

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The film posits that it is all about perspective.  Ransom Stoddard, gets teased, taunted, beaten and worn down so low, that he finally picks up a revolver, squares off with Liberty Valance, takes aim, and shoots.  Liberty ultimately got what he wanted.  The high-minded, goody-two-shoes, was knocked from his high-horse and forced to come down to his level.

Ransom drew, shot, and Liberty ultimately died, but it wasn’t Ransom’s bullet that did the killing.  Tom Doniphan, watching from the darkness, made the shot that killed Liberty Valance and saved Ransom’s life.  The towns people held Ransom up as a hero, and by saving his life, Tom made sure the woman he loved was happy, but did it negate or tarnish Ransom’s sacrifice?  I think it did.  Ransom took the woman Tom loved, whether he meant to or not, so through his bullet Tom responded by robbing Ransom of  both his ideals and the ability to deal with the problem himself, although ultimately it cost him everything.

Tom tells Ransom what he did, freeing and trapping him with his choices at the same time, but it doesn’t change what everyone in the town thinks happens. The outcome is still the same.  The only ones affected are Stoddard and Doniphan.  Their perception of their own actions defines how they see themselves, and ultimately informs their actions on into the future.

(***End Spoilers***)

That’s pretty heady stuff considering that Destry Rides Again was really more of a typical hero cowboy story about men wearing white hats saving damsels in distress from the men in black hats.  Wayne’s Doniphan and to a different yet just as important degree Stewart’s Stoddard are each wearing multifaceted hats made up of constantly shifting shades of gray.  Each man is not what you might consider a bad guy, nor are they as undeniably good as compared to the heroes of earlier westerns, but I would argue that this makes them each more compelling characters, capable of a more realistic portrayal, and ultimately more relatable to the audience.

Definitely worth a look, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is leagues better, in my opinion, than another John Wayne film Stagecoach, but not nearly as good as some rather grittier and challenging westerns out there like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Oxbow Incident, and a film not on this list (though it should be), The Proposition.  Check it out.

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The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers – 1956

Director – John Ford

Starring – John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Natalie Wood

In my review of the another John Ford, John Wayne, western on this list, I complained about the fact that the story seemed shallow, the characters didn’t seem invested in what was happening to them, and that Wayne couldn’t act.  Stagecoach was a blueprint for most of, if not all of the westerns that came after it, The Searchers included.  But where Stagecoach attempted and (in my humble opinion) didn’t succeed, The Searchers passes with flying colors.  Everything from the scenery, the plot, and the acting was leagues better in this film.  Apparently I spoke too soon.

The Searchers, despite the trip that drives the plot, is really about the relationship between two men.  One, played by the perfectly crotchety Wayne is a hardened soldier, Ethan Edwards, who after having fought for the south in the Civil war, has an intimate knowledge of the evil that men can do to each other.  The other, Jeffrey Hunter, plays the slightly naive Martin Pawley, the adopted, half Native American son of Ethan’s only family.  At first, Ethan both distrusts as well as dislikes Martin because of his nationality, but eventually the two men find themselves working together when most of the family gets brutally massacred by Comanche indians, and the women are taken hostage.

Edwards and Pawley set out on an epic journey to find the two lost women, and in the process reveal a good deal about themselves.  Their ride takes them from New Mexico all the way north to the Canadian border.  They slog through the heat, rain and snow for 5 years looking for the elusive band of indians that are responsible for the massacre and kidnapping. 

The real revelation for me with this film, was Wayne’s acting.  He doesn’t just play a stereotype version of himself.  While Ethan is tough, and smart, he is also mean and wounded.  He’s been hurt before, by the Union, by Comanche indians, and he’s not about to let himself be hurt again.  Wayne plays him realistically, blemishes and all, flexing his acting muscle and in my eyes earning the notoriety that surrounds him.  Hunter’s Pawley is essentially the relief from Wayne’s gritty performance.  It balances the tone of the movie, keeping it moving forward on an even keel.  Hunter’s is not nearly as profound of a performance as Wayne’s, but it is exactly what is needed from his character.  The film both starts and ends with an image of Wayne in his element, and he is truly the character that changes the most.

Cinematographically, this film is miles beyond what we saw in Stagecoach.  One major element is the brilliant Technicolor that it was shot on.  The saturated blues and reds of the landscape mix and accentuate nicely with the passion of the character’s emotions.  Everything is bright, shocking, and powerful.  The vistas of Monument Valley have never looked as good as they did here (fully taking care of one of my complaints about Stagecoach), and the full range of climate, weather, and time of day was on display in this film.  Oppressive snow storms, rain, hot sun, and nighttime action are all on display here.  Our characters live in a hard scrabble, dangerous, yet beautiful environment, one that they must be wary of at all times. 

The aforementioned shot of Wayne that opens and closes the movie, is such a fantastic way to introduce the character at the start, and illustrate how he has changed by the end, it is by far my favorite part of the film.   Before I started it, I was more than expecting to see Stagecoach 2, but instead I got a thoughtful, elegant film with masterful performances by its actors, and subtle yet powerful guidance by its director.  The Searchers more than deserves to be on this list of best movies ever!