Sunday night, I attended a screening at the Pacific Film Archive of one of my favorite western’s, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–another film on my A+ list of movies that I’ve loved dearly for decades.
The PFA screened it as part of the series Cinema According to Víctor Erice.
In his last masterpiece, John Ford summed up the myth of the American west that he had weaved into the fabric of his long career. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays almost all the tropes of a Ford western–the drunk doctor, the dead man’s hand, the shootout, and the conflict between the wilderness and civilization. But this time around, we know it’s a myth. Ford knows it’s a myth. And even the protagonist knows that this isn’t the true story.
In Liberty Valance¸ Ford and his screenwriters (James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck) split the conventional western hero into two men, neither of which is complete without the other.
The most important of these, the character through whom we see the film, is Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart)–an idealistic young lawyer newly arrived in the west. Rance, as his friends call him, has none of the skills we associate with western heroes. He can’t shoot a gun or ride a horse. But he knows right from wrong, objects to the macho posturing around him, and in the end proves braver than anyone.
Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) has all the skills that Rance lacks. He’s the toughest guy around. He’s basically descent, in that he’s not a criminal and will occasionally help people in need. He pretty well fits Winston Churchill’s description of America: You can count on him to do the right thing–after he’s tried everything else.
Let’s consider those names. Who would name their newborn son Ransom? And the shortened version of his name suggests rancid. As the story unfolds, and we learn that he’s been living a lie for decades, we can see how the guilt from that lie has rotted him, making the word appropriate. And the name Doniphon sounds like a mispronunciation of Donovan–as if something is just not right.
And then there’s the name Liberty Valance. Why give the movie’s villain a name that suggests a swashbuckling hero? Especially this villain. As played by a not-quite-yet famous Lee Marvin, he’s one of the craziest, most sadistic thugs ever to grace an American western. Everyone except Tom is terrified of him.
Of course if Tom was sheriff, or just civic-minded, Valance would be dead or in jail. But Tom isn’t interested in any battles but his own, and town marshal Link Appleyard (another strange name; played by Andy Devine) seems only interested in saving his own hide. It’s absurd that this broad comic character would have a position of power, and it’s never explained. But the story requires an ineffectual sheriff, and making him funny helps us accept the absurdity.
Ford fills the town of Shinbone with memorable characters. Consider Dutton Peabody (an almost unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien) as the talkative, muck-raking, Shakespeare-quoting, yet alcoholic newspaper man. Or Tom’s handyman Pompey (Woody Strode)–apparently the only African-American in town. Dignified and uneducated, he bears the weight of entranced racism, eating dinner in the restaurant’s kitchen rather than the dining room.
I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance four or five times before I realized that Tom Doniphon is an alcoholic. We don’t see him drunk until quite late in the film. But twice, people who know him well go out of their way to keep alcohol from touching his lips. What’s more, we learn early on that he died penniless.
That’s not a spoiler. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens decades after the main action., when Senator Stoddard and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles as the film’s ingénue) return to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Most of the film is a flashback–an old man’s memory of his youth.
And what a memory it is. The film has two severe beatings, a political convention, a showdown in a frontier restaurant, and a one-room classroom scene where men, women, and children–black, white, and Mexican-American–learn about democracy.
What the John Ford western doesn’t have is Monument Valley. Ford went out of his way to avoid anything visually beautiful or epic here. This is a western morality tale set on a soundstage, not the vast expanses of Utah. And on the rare occasions where the films goes on locations, the background looks like an undeveloped part of the Los Angeles basin.
In the end, Ford reminds us that he’s spent his career weaving a mythology, and that while a myth can contain a grain of moral truth, it is always a lie. Rance has carried that lie in his heart for decades, and he will never be free of it.
Unlike Rance, Ford was able to expose that lie, and even to some degree validate it. He would make four other films after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but he never made another masterpiece.
Up until Sunday night, it had been more than 30 years since I last saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on the big screen. Although it’s not a visually beautiful film, it was still a major improvement over my DVD. I could enjoy the details of the town. And the audience laughed and gasped in all the right places.
The 35mm print, supplied by Paramount, was serviceable but disappointing. Some scenes were washed out, and much of it was scratched. I can only hope that Paramount will one day take the time to restore it properly.
After the movie, I hung around with other members of the audience and discussed the movie. We all agreed that the PFA should show more westerns.