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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Remind Me
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Sen. Ransom Stoddard and his wife Hallie, visitors from Washington, D.C., arrive in the Western town of Shinbone, where they met and married years before, to attend the funeral of their old friend Tom Doniphon. The couple finds the town changed from the lawless frontier they once knew. Except for a few old- timers, no one in Shinbone even remembers Tom, once the toughest and fastest gunman in the territory. Yet, everybody has heard about Stoddard, the man who shot Liberty Valance, a murderous outlaw who terrorized the town until his death brought law and order to the district. While Doniphon's simple coffin is readied for a pauper's burial, reporters gather around Stoddard with questions about his life and past deeds. But the senator insists on setting the record straight about the incident that made him famous.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The most memorable line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance might also be the motto for John Ford's career. Although he directed in a wide range of genres, Ford is best known for his Westerns, and along with writer Zane Grey, artist Frederick Remington and perhaps a few others, no one did more to forge the myths of the Old West ­ its heroes and villains, its codes and philosophies, the look and sound and feel of it. Ford's perspective is often a romantic, even sentimental vision of our historical past, but it's a viewpoint that confirms the indomitable nature of America's Western pioneers.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance predates by just a few years "revisionist" Westerns like Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) and even Ford's own Cheyenne Autumn (1964), in which the brutality and ambiguous morality of America's relentless drive across the continent were thrown into a harsher light. This film is not exactly a reversal of Ford's vision of the frontier, but it is shot through with the darkness, regret and a touch of cynicism of an older and wiser man. Once again, as in two of his greatest works, My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Searchers (1956), we get the struggle between individual and society, between wilderness and civilization, between wild nature and tamed garden (represented here by the desert rose cactus bloom Tom brings to Hallie and by Sen. Stoddard's massive irrigation project). What's missing are the elegant vistas of Monument Valley, a place Ford immortalized on screen, and the strong sense of destiny and history. The film is dark and confined, shot on a sound stage instead of the outdoors. Destiny here is more a matter of accident and misunderstanding, and history depends entirely on who's telling it and why.

Ford's decision to shoot the entire film in black and white at the studio was taken by some reviewers of the time as a sign that the venerable filmmaker was becoming lazy and careless in his twilight years. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who had criticized Ford's Western films of the forties for overemphasizing the pictorial beauty of the frontier, disliked this film for never venturing outdoors. But many have reevaluated the look of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, seeing in its murky darkness and confined spaces a reflection of the story's thematic gloom and pessimism. Foregoing the historical sweep of his cavalry films and other classics, Ford concentrates here on the characters and their often-suppressed emotions, motives, and truths.

Even in this, however, the film came under fire for employing actors (notably Stewart) who were far too old to play themselves in flashbacks to their earlier days. A look back, however, reveals not a cavalier casting decision but the effect of playing with the notions of truth, legend and history inherent in the story. We don't see the characters realistically as they were years earlier but as projections of their memories which have been distorted by legend and the fateful acts from which there is no escape.

Director: John Ford
Producer: John Ford, Willis Goldbeck
  Screenplay: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson
Cinematographer: William H. Clothier
Editor: Otho Lovering
Art Director: Eddie Imazu, Hal Pereira
Original Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: John Wayne (Tom Doniphon), James Stewart (Ransom Stoddard), Vera Miles (Hallie Stoddard), Lee Marvin (Liberty Valance), Edmond O'Brien (Dutton Peabody), Andy Devine (Marshall Link Appleyard)
BW-124m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Rob Nixon



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