Stars: John Wayne and James Stewart
|I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.
There are parts of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance where legends fill the screen. One in particular has Lee Marvin causing trouble for Jimmy Stewart, with John Wayne interfering and Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef looking on. That's a heck of a lot of talent to fit into a single shot but it both works so well and feels so natural that the film seems to automatically warrant classic status. At least so I thought when I first saw this latter day John Ford western back in 2004. Since then I've seen Duel in the Sun, the biggest waste of a truly amazing cast I can comfortably imagine, so I know full well that just a cast is not necessarily enough. Fortunately this one has John Ford to put everything together and he was more than an experienced hand at such things by the time 1962 rolled around.
We begin with a United States senator, Ransom Stoddard, arriving in the town of Shinbone by train with his wife. He's news, of course, especially as nobody except former town marshal Link Appleyard seems to know he's coming, so he's quickly nabbed by young upstart journalist Charlie Hasbrouck to give an interview. Meanwhile Appleyard takes Mrs Stoddard out to a ramshackle old place in the desert, without needing to be told where to go. It's obvious that there's a story here but the folks at the Star are blissfully unaware what it is, just asking the senator about politics. It's only when Appleyard brings his wife back and he's about to leave that they get round to asking him why he's there. He's in town to go to a funeral, he says, but the editor of the paper is merely puzzled. 'Who's dead?' he asks, and the answer is our story.
Most of it's told in one long flashback that begins with a much younger Stoddard arriving in the very same place in a very different way. This time he's a young lawyer following Horace Greeley's advice to go west but he finds himself stuck in the town of Shinbone being cared back to health by Nora Ericson's spiked coffee. His stage had been held up, you see, just outside of town, and he was severely beaten by Liberty Valance, gunfighter, highwayman and all around heel, in the suitably swaggering form of Lee Marvin. He was beaten because he's an idealist, who believes strongly in the law over the gun and thus made a stand against oppression. Naturally he lost and he soon discovers that the entire town is scared stiff of Liberty Valance, with the exception of perennial hero John Wayne, playing Tom Donophon.
There are a few threads here, but the most obvious one is the transition from the old west to the new west, but from a very different angle to Once Upon a Time in the West. Ransom Stoddard and Tom Donophon are both tough men, but in utterly different ways and there's a great exchange early on in the film that highlights just how many. Even while he can hardly stand, Stoddard explains that he has something to do, something to do with Liberty Valance. Doniphon tells him he ought to carry a handgun, because that's the only law in Shinbone. Stoddard doesn't want to kill him, he wants to put him in jail. But the jail only has one cell, the lock's broken and Marshal Appleyard sleeps in it. With every comeback, the new west of law and order looks harder and harder to achieve but Stoddard is a determined man.
He's an irascible one, getting far angrier than I'm used to Jimmy Stewart being, even now. He's a hardworking one, paying his keep by washing dishes at Peter's Place, the town restaurant, working for Dutton Peabody at the Shinbone Star and even teaching whoever is willing to learn the rudiments of reading, writing and the Constitution of the United States. He's a stubborn one too, hanging his shingle on the Star's front porch even though he knows Valance will be back to shoot holes in it. He refuses to leave town even in the face of the harshest opposition, a hired gun who swaggers through Shinbone doing whatever he pleases without ever a care in the world. He even learns how to shoot, though he's terrible at it, and he meets Valance out on the street in a showdown.
However he's in the right place at the right time. The winds of change are blowing, bringing not just Ransom Stoddard, attorney at law, in on the stage but also bringing peace, education and a free press. The railroad is coming and it leads all the way to Washington, figuratively as well as literally because there's a Territorial Convention coming that will pit the big ranchers who want to keep the territory open against the townsfolk who want the benefits that statehood will bring. Sure enough, Stoddard, who we know from moment one ends up a senator, is picked to represent Shinbone and the rest is history. At least the rest is the history that the folks at the Shinbone Star know about.
We watch this progress through the rituals of the west that Ford was so fond of depicting. We see the new rituals, the rituals of law and order and the power of the people. We see the rather old kindergarten in Stoddard's class reciting their ABCs and the discovery that grown adults can't read and write. We see the town election where Stoddard closes the bar for the duration and Peter Ericson proudly shows his citizenship papers to get in. We even witness John Carradine's purple oratory to set up flamboyant political grandstanding and showboating at the Territorial Convention. It's impressive too, though due as much to a very well behaved horse as to Carradine.
We see the old rituals too, the rituals of the gun and the wild west. We listen to Lee Marvin call everyone dude and John Wayne call them pilgrim. We watch the women order everyone around, because even though they can't read and they don't know to put the fork on the left of the plate, they're still in charge indoors. We see the insanely large meals, steaks that would be eating contests nowadays. We watch the slow courtship of Tom Doniphon and Hallie, the waitress at Peter's Place. And of course we see the power of threat and violence, which ends with Stoddard and Valance out in the street in an attempt to find out who can draw quickest.
This may well have been my first John Ford, back in 2004. If it isn't then I saw the rest as a kid and didn't remember a thing about any of them. Ford is one of the greatest Hollywood directors of them all, the one who tends to get namedropped the most when talking about influence because he was around early on and he stayed around for a long while, turning out movie after movie that became definitions and reference points, not least when talking about westerns. In my reviews for both Once Upon a Time in the West and Yojimbo, I talked about Sergio Leone being directly influenced by Akira Kurosawa, but both were influenced by John Ford and they were both happy to admit it. Leone said that this was his favourite Ford picture. Western filmmakers in the States drank his movies straight and turned out whatever imitations they could while under that influence.
He's represented in the IMDb Top 250 by four movies, three of which are westerns, dating back to 1939's Stagecoach which both revitalised and reshaped the genre and made a star out of John Wayne in the process. This one came late on though, made after Ford had earned no less than four Oscars as Best Director, though curiously only one of those four, The Grapes of Wrath, appears in this list. When he made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford had 45 years as a Hollywood director under his belt and three more working his way up to the director's chair. While there were a few more movies to come, this is his last truly great film.
He wasn't the only experienced hand here, most of the actors being well and truly established by 1962. James Stewart had already appeared in six films on this list before making this one, and had earned his Oscar over two decades ago too, for The Philadelphia Story in 1940, often regarded as a consolation for losing out for Mr Smith Goes to Washington in Hollywood's greatest year. He was a huge star and this was a rare occasion that his name didn't come first in the opening credits, though he got top spot on the posters instead. He had to take second spot on the screen behind John Wayne, who may have been still waiting for the Academy to honour him, which they finally did in 1969 for True Grit, but at 55 years of age he had already reached iconic status as the epitome of stubborn American heroism. This was a deep and surprising role for him, given that he doesn't end up with the girl and he doesn't end up the hero, at least not overtly.
Only Lee Marvin was still building his career, being a generation behind his two fellow stars and with only a decade of films behind him, but that still included a number of key parts. While I knew Wayne and Stewart from films made before this one, I knew Marvin from Cat Ballou, The Dirty Dozen and Paint Your Wagon, all of which came later. Only since watching this have I caught up with earlier gems like Bad Day at Black Rock, The Big Heat and The Wild One. All three stars are memorable here. Jimmy Stewart has the hardest role, hating guns yet being forced to learn how to use one, teaching people to read yet being constantly interrupted, standing up for the rule of law in a town with an incredibly weak marshal. Lee Marvin is in full swaggering effect as the bad guy who feels untouchable and John Wayne is just as tough as he's ever been, though his age was beginning to show.
They're far from the only people in the film, as this really is an ensemble cast worthy of note. Vera Miles, for whom Hitchcock had written Vertigo, is the love interest, both for Stewart and Wayne. She has her own depth as a young woman who recognises a kindred spirit in Ransom Stoddard, learns how to read and write and moves on up from being a waitress in Shinbone to being a senator's wife. The difference between the young and old Hallie is as much as anything the story of this film, because the two are vastly different but you can see the future lady in Peter's Place and you can see the Shinbone waitress in the elegant Mrs Stoddard.
Edmond O'Brien, a highly underrated actor who I first noticed in the original DOA, plays the local alcohol sodden newspaper editor who gets to make a stand in his own way against Liberty Valance, a worthy addition to the long honour role of great drunken Hollywood pressmen. 'I'm your conscience. I'm the small voice that thunders in the night. I'm your watchdog who howls against the wolves. I'm your father confessor! I'm... what else am I?' he orates while protesting his own nomination to the Territorial Convention. 'Town drunk,' adds Tom Donophon. O'Brien is one of those names that slips by far too often along with his face, which changes from film to film, but he's always worth focusing in on and paying attention to.
John Carradine, father of four Hollywood stars, was himself a star long before I saw him in many B-rated horror movies late in his career. He had worked with Ford before, in Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath, and he joyously channels the Bard here as Maj Cassius Starbuckle, his oratory living up to the grandeur of his character's name. Woody Strode is here again, as Donophon's sidekick Pompey, but at least he lives through this one to bear witness to the change of the west; he only lasted long enough in Once Upon a Time in the West to meet Charles Bronson and take a bullet. Denver Pyle appears long before he won the hearts of many as Uncle Jesse in The Dukes of Hazzard and before he got hijacked by Bonnie and Clyde.
Strother Martin is a weasel of a sidekick to Liberty Valance, so much so that the folks who made Who Framed Roger Rabbit must surely have taken notice. There's just no way Floyd wasn't a key influence for the weasels who accompany Judge Doom. By comparison his fellow henchman Lee Van Cleef doesn't stand out too much. He hadn't quite grown into himself yet and he gets very little to work with. Finally there's Andy Devine, who I'd never heard of at the time I saw this but who plays a very weak marshal with a particularly memorable voice and a rather ample frame. Since watching this I can't miss that voice every time I hear it and I get plenty of opportunity given that he was a prolific character actor with roles going back to 1926.
All of these actors get plenty of opportunity to shine, except Van Cleef, but we know where they're all going to end up because we see the ones who are left as much older folks at the beginning of the film. This whole story is one long flashback, as Sen Stoddard tells his tale of why he and his wife are back in Shinbone without any fuss or fanfare, just to pay tribute to Tom Doniphon by visiting his body. This framing story makes it utterly clear how the west changed, the fortunes of the people changing alongside the fortunes of the land.
In open country it's Doniphon who is dominant, rescuing Stoddard at the outset, getting him back on his feet and consistently being the one man who can stand against Liberty Valance and the cattle barons. Once that open country wins statehood and joins civilisation though, it's Stoddard who rises and Doniphon retreats so far into obscurity that the new Shinbone Star editor initially can't understand why someone as important as a Senator would come to his funeral. The long flashback is the explanation, but when Stoddard explains and the film's seemingly clumsy but actually rather deep title becomes clear, this editor rips up his story and demonstrates to us in no uncertain terms how we see the west. 'When the legend becomes fact,' he says, 'print the legend.'