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Reeling Backward: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Perhaps John Ford's most layered and haunting Western, it's now out in a terrific new Blu-ray/4K Ultra HD edition.
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“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is perhaps John Ford’s most layered and haunting Western. It’s also unlike most traditional examples of the genre, which perhaps explains why it hasn’t always gotten the respect it deserves.
It has very little in the way of shoot-outs or horse riding, having been shot almost entirely on Paramount sound stages, as opposed to “The Searchers” and other of his pictures that became iconic due in large part to the majestic landscape backgrounds. It was made in black-and-white in 1962, when color films were already the norm. Both of these restrictions were reputedly imposed by the studio in a cost-cutting move, but Ford insisted they were creative choices.
And it contains a whole lot of speechifyin’ about law and politics and freedoms, whereas most Westerns lay those things aside for the Law of the Gun.
Indeed, this is the very theme that Ford and his creative team centered the film around, based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson adapted by screenwriters James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck.
It’s now out in a terrific new Blu-ray/4K Ultra HD edition from Paramount.
Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard, a young attorney just graduated from law school who heads west to seek his fortune. After being waylaid, robbed and beat near to death by local villain Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), he winds up penniless in the frontier town of Shinbone in an unnamed state where the cattle barons still rule.
Valance works for them in between his highway robbery and other nefarious activities. He’s known for being an especially sadistic bully, using as his favored weapon a silver-handled whip. Marvin positively sneers and stoops throughout the picture like a barely-tamed mythological beast.
The only man tough enough to stand up to him is Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who runs his own little horse ranch with the help of his employee/partner/friend, Pompey (Woody Strode). But Liberty is at least smart enough to demur, recognizing his equal in brutality, so they’ve been building a years-long enmity that is interrupted by Ranse’s arrival.
The subtext of the story is simple: both Tom and Liberty take an instant dislike to the upstanding lawyer because he represents the impinging of Eastern society and rules on the lawless frontier men like them were responsible for carving out of the desert (and/or running off the native populace).
But Tom, because he is embraced by the people of Shinbone as their knight-errant protector against the worst of Liberty’s excesses, feels compelled to take Ranse into his fold. He sets him up with room and board at Pete’s Place, the only restaurant in town, run by Swedish immigrants Peter and Nora Ericson (John Qualen and Jeanette Nolan), where they cook ginormous slabs of steak for the rowdy cowpunchers who stagger back and forth between there and Hank’s Saloon across the street.
There Ranse falls in with Hallie (Vera Miles), the fiery waitress who is acknowledged by the entire town as Tom’s girl. But he’s been taking his own good while to pop the question to her, fixating on building an extra room and porch onto his tiny adobe cottage before he’ll marry her. It seems clear this process is more about preparing himself for the transition to settled life than romancing Hallie.
Indeed, the only outward expression of anything resembling affection Tom shows to Hallie is repeatedly telling her, “You sure do look pretty when you get angry.” Like much of Tom’s dialogue, he’s constantly needling others, friendly or foe, to establish his dominance.
Of course, Hallie soon takes a shine to the educated, courtly Ranse, first out of compassion for his injuries but later as someone to look up to. There’s not much call for lawyering in those parts, so Ranse gets by washing dishes at Pete’s and setting up an ad-hoc school to teach Hallie, the local children and a few cowpokes how to read and write. He insists he will get back at Liberty, but by seeing him arrested rather than confronting him with a gun.
Ranse also puts up a shingle outside of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper run by Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), who also doubles as the town drunk. He’s been writing increasingly brazen editorials about the need to rein in Liberty and supporting the territory’s vying for statehood, which the cattlemen oppose because it’ll decrease their ability to control growing communities like Shinbone.
Certainly, the town marshal is no help. The aptly named Link Appleyard, played by rotund, screechy-voiced Ford favorite Andy Devine, is petrified of Liberty and hides whenever he rides into town. All he really seems to do is consume steaks and eggs at Pete’s in prodigious quantities, which are provided “on the cuff,” aka on credit owing to his mostly titular position in Shinbone.
The tenuous peace is based on Liberty’s tacit agreement not to commit any capital offenses within Shinbone’s borders, with the understanding Tom would step in on Link’s behalf if he did. Ranse’s arrival upsets that delicate balance, leading to an inevitable showdown between them.
From the framing device that begins and ends the story, set several decades into the future, we know that Ranse married Hallie, became the state’s first governor and later senator, and that Tom lived out the rest of his lonely life in solitude, eschewing even carrying a gun. The Stoddards return to Shinbone for Tom’s modest funeral in a pinewood coffin, so completely forgotten that even the modern-day editor of the Shinbone Star (Carleton Young) doesn’t know who Tom is or why a U.S. senator would attend the service.
Ranse made his reputation by killing Liberty, but as is revealed in a flashback-within-a-flashback, it was actually Tom who shot him from across the street while Ranse was ineptly trying to face him off with a six-shooter. Ranse finally confesses this truth to the newspapermen, who declines to print it as it would overturn one of the greatest pieces of mythology belonging to the state.
The editor then utters what became the most famous line from the film, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" — meaning that the power of mythology far surpasses the ability of the historical record to constrain it.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is filled with a lot of that colorful sense of history. I love the language used in the movie. People continually refer to the state of the territory north or south of the Picketwire, which is a (fictional) river but an aptly named demarcation between the part of the West that is still wild and the part that is (slowly) civilizing.
If you knew nothing about the movie, you would presume that Liberty Valance is the name of the hero and Ranse Stoddard the villain, given their connotations of freedom and decay, respectively. Liberty taunts Ranse as “hashslinger,” owing to a brief confrontation in Pete’s when Ranse volunteered to fill in as a food server — women’s work beneath any respectable man’s dignity.
Tom uses the occasion of Liberty tripping Ranse to provoke the confrontation he’d been hoping for: an opportunity to finally kill Liberty and cement his place in Shinbone. Presumably he would then assume the duties of marshal and finally marry Hallie. But Ranse literally gets between them, insisting that it’s ridiculous to kill each other over something as measly as a spilled steak, and the moment is defused.
In a lot of ways, Tom is one of John Wayne’s most despicable characters, sharing a lot of shadings with the racist Ethan Edwards from “The Searchers.” He is outwardly upstanding but only as far as it burnishes his reputation. After secretly shooting Liberty, he goes into a drunken terror at Hank’s, beating up Liberty’s henchmen (the inimitable Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef in an early role) and busting up the place.
This scene takes on a different note after you learn the truth about the shooting. Tom is enraged because he has done the right thing, knowing it will result in him losing Hallie and in Ranse being elevated to the position he felt he deserved.
The movie is also notable for the shadowy photography (by William H. Clothier), which could have come straight out of a film noir detective story. I was also surprised at how much blood there is in the movie, and the overt sadism wrapped into Liberty’s various beatings. When he flays Peabody to within an inch of his life, literally stuffing his accusing newspaper down his throat, Strother Martin watches on while trembling with an orgiastic glee that is more disturbing than depicting the whip’s blows tearing flesh.
Both Wayne and Stewart were in their mid-50s when the film was made, well-creased and into their toupee years, and thus a little hard to swallow as youngsters. Though I think it gives the movie a subtle sense of heft, and the framing story signals that these are not supermen but ordinary figures who will grow old and perish.
Despite the film’s legacy, it was only a modest commercial success and received a single Oscar nomination, for Edith Head’s costumes. Critics were generally supportive but many lamented the last 20 minutes, saying it spells out the film’s themes and leaves too little for the imagination.
Seeing it again now for the first time in many years, I’m inclined to disagree. Indeed, the very fact that Ranse’s entire political career was based on a lie is what makes “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” so complex and enduring. I don’t think the movie would have its power if the outcome remained veiled in mystery.
Before Tom told him the truth, Ranse was ready to refuse the nomination to become the territory’s delegate to Washington D.C., saying you can’t build a life upon a killing — even one he thought was self-defense. Ranse ultimately lost his contest of wills with Tom, giving into violence instead of relying on the rule of law.
He was absolved of that sin, and used his false reputation — one stolen from Tom — to build upon the ideals he fought for. Meanwhile, Tom proved that you can’t enforce right without might, but it cost him the love of his life and his own place in the book of legends. He died a forgotten man, carrying no gun, his boots and spurs pilfered by a greedy undertaker.
Ironically, in a way Liberty Valance became the most famous of the three men.