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The Essentials - August 2011
Remind Me


Although most sources say The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was shot almost entirely at Paramount Studios, with exteriors on the Janss Conejo Ranch in Thousand Oaks, California, a documentary about the making of it revealed that the town and train shots were done on Lot 3 at MGM.

There are varying opinions about why The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was shot in black and white in the studio instead of location filming in color. Some accounts have it that Ford was forced to curtail his usual production methods because Paramount would not give him the financing he needed to shoot in one of his favorite locales, such as Monument Valley. Others, particularly critics and film analysts looking back to reclaim the film as one of Ford's major achievements, say the decision was entirely Ford's, a choice that zeroed in on a more intimate and intense character study. Most observers agree that black and white also helped ease the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept Stewart and Wayne as young men and Stewart in his make-up for the character late in life.

Ford himself once said he preferred black and white and that it is actually more difficult than shooting in color. "In black and white, you've got to be very careful. You've got to know your job, lay your shadows in properly, get your perspective right, but in color, there it is," he said. "You might say I'm old fashioned, but black and white is real photography."

According to actor Frank Baker, who played in several Ford movies (but not Liberty Valance), the director substantially improvised on the scenario from day to day.

Ford only shot just what he needed with very little extra coverage on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He also preferred to do a minimum of takes, saying that after the first few, the actors get tired and jaded and their performances lack spontaneity. That's why he liked to work with the same people over and over again (the famed Ford "stock company"), because he could count on them to know what he wanted and give it to him on the first take.

According to his grandson Dan Ford, many people involved in the shooting remarked on Ford's lack of energy and complete disregard for details such as background effects. Lindsay Anderson, in his book-length study of the director, says, "No doubt this was yet another instance of Ford's growing impatience with the business of shooting: it was no longer 'fun.' He resented the demands of narrative, of crowd-pleasing spectacle, the trappings of 'art.' And in places the work suffered."

If Ford was sick of filmmaking, it wasn't apparent to cast member Edmond O'Brien, who said, "I have never seen Ford happier than he was in making this; he came on the set positively beaming every morning, and that was not the usual thing with him." O'Brien also said everyone involved seemed to enjoy making The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

When he saw the set for the town of Shinbone, assistant director Wingate Smith remarked that it didn't looked lived in enough. Ford replied, "If they don't like it, we'll give them their nickel back."

During shooting of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Wayne was already suffering from the cancer that would take his life in 1979.

Wayne said Liberty Valance was "a tough assignment" for him. While everyone else seemed to have well-rounded characters, he saw his role as merely functional for the plot. "I just had to wander around in that son of a bitch [Tom Doniphon] and try to make a part for myself." When someone suggested to Wayne that his role was a complicated one, full of ambiguity, he reportedly shot back, "Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don't like ambiguity. I don't trust ambiguity."

Known for his tendency to be disagreeable at times, Ford was always rough on Wayne, who usually took the rough treatment with equanimity, but on this production, the abusiveness was raised a few notches. Some have ascribed it to Ford's age and increasing impatience with filmmaking; others say he resented Wayne because so few of the scenes Ford worked on without credit for Wayne's film The Alamo (1960) actually made it to the screen. In any case, the days when Ford, Wayne, and others would carouse or play cards all night or spend time on Ford's yacht were behind them, and the relationship was more strained than usual. Ford deliberately goaded Wayne repeatedly, hitting a particularly sore spot by pointing out publicly that many on the set - James Stewart, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode - had served during World War II while Wayne did not.

Jealousy might also have been a factor in Ford's treatment of Wayne, who was perhaps the biggest movie star in the world at this time while the man who helped him reach that status now had to scramble for work and depend on his star to get backing from studios. One day when Wayne casually suggested a minor scene change, Ford lost his temper and screamed, "Jesus Christ, here I take you out of eight-day Westerns, I put you in big movies, and you give me a stupid suggestion like that!"

Ford seemed to be determined to make bad blood between Wayne and Strode. Ford needled Wayne, who had attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship, by insisting that Strode, a decathlete and football star at UCLA, was "the real football player." Tensions came to a head during a scene in which Wayne was supposed to be driving a wagon back to his ranch with Strode in the back. Strode noticed that Wayne was having trouble controlling the horses and getting them to stop, so he reached forward to grab the reins to help. Wayne swung his arm and knocked him back roughly. When the wagon was finally brought to a halt, Strode jumped down, ready to fight Wayne. "Woody don't hit him! We need him," Ford said, likely antagonizing Wayne further. Shooting was halted a couple of hours until both men cooled off.

Strode frequently performed his own stunts, partly because he was such a good athlete and partly because it was hard to find a black double to match his build and looks (this had also been the case on Spartacus, 1960). In the scene where Wayne's character sets fire to his house, Strode had to race in and drag him out of the building. Wayne was using a double but the 47-year-old Strode wasn't. Ford told his star, "Duke, Woody is an old man, and he's got to carry you and he doesn't need a double!" Wayne decided to do the scene without one.

Strode was amazed that a man of Wayne's professional and physical stature was so subservient to Ford. "Sometimes [Ford] would holler, 'Duke!,' and whatever John Wayne was doing, I don't care if his pants were down around his ankles, he'd stop and come running," Strode wrote in his autobiography. "I told the other actors, 'You see Duke running? He's a millionaire. He doesn't have to do that. But that old man made him a millionaire. That's respect.'"

Although he had his problems with Wayne, Strode said Stewart was "one of the nicest men you'll ever meet anywhere in the world."

Wayne and Stewart got along very well during production. Stewart also liked Ford immensely and was glad to be working with him again after Two Rode Together (1961). He appreciated Ford's subtle direction, such as in the stage hold-up scene where Stewart's character first encounters Liberty Valance. Stewart couldn't get a handle on it and kept flubbing his lines until Ford walked over and repeated quietly in his ear, "You are not a coward, you are not a coward." That gave Stewart just the cue he needed to nail the take.

Stewart's ease with the director might have had something to do with the fact that Ford was easy on him, unlike the treatment of his co-star. Wayne used to ask Stewart with envy why it was that he never incurred the director's wrath. One day, however, Stewart made the mistake of giving his honest opinion when Ford asked what he thought of Strode's costume. Stewart said he found it a little "Uncle Remus-like." Ford then embarrassed him in front of everyone, saying, "One of the players seems to have some objection. One of the players here doesn't seem to like Uncle Remus. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure he even likes negroes." Wayne was visibly delighted.

Cast member Ken Murray called Ford an ogre and said he was scared of him.

The one cast member who could get away with just about anything on the set was Lee Marvin. Ford appreciated him not only for his acting and his World War II service as a Marine, but for Marvin's genuineness as a person. One day, Ford came on the set and Marvin whistled loudly through his teeth. The crew froze, certain there would be trouble. Instead Ford just smiled, because he recognized that what Marvin was doing was giving the admiral's whistle and piping the director "on board."

On Marvin's first day on the set, Ford called him over and said, "You just did a movie with John Wayne [The Comancheros, 1961]. Wayne did some directing on that, right? Well, that's not happening here. Duke's not doing anything on this picture but what I tell him."

Marvin's first scene (the stage hold-up) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance presented problems for the actor; he couldn't seem to get a handle on his character. After several takes, Ford instructed the stage driver not to throw down the cash box when Marvin demanded it. This had the effect of greatly notching up Marvin's anger, causing him to shout, "NOW!" The take was printed.

Cyril Mockridge was hired to score the picture, but Ford used a bit of music from his 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln score under some of Vera Miles's scenes as Hallie. Ford later told Peter Bogdanovich that he used Alfred Newman's "Ann Rutledge" theme for the same reason in both films, to evoke the feeling of lost love. He also told Bogdanovich that he made it apparent (through this music and other means) that Miles's character Hallie had never gotten over Tom Doniphon (Wayne) because he wanted Wayne to be the lead rather than Stewart.

Photographs exist of the entire cast of Liberty Valance seated around a table for what was a Ford tradition: formal tea time on the set.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was completed on November 7, 1961.

by Rob Nixon



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