Friday, December 12, 2008

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

"Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance."

The town of Shinbone has a problem. An outlaw named Liberty Valance has the population under his thumb as the local sheriff is a pushover who mooches food at the local diner. Ransom Stoddard, green lawyer fresh from the east and recent arrival to the West, has an unfortunate encounter with Valance. He's rescued by Tom Doniphon, local tough guy and the only man not afraid of Valance. Both men are united against Valance though disagree as to how they should stop him. Doniphon thinks violence is the only answer while Stoddard believes the law can put Valance away. While these men may agree about Valance, they are at odds when it comes to Hailee Ericson, a woman who works at the local diner. All of this is framed in a flashback, revealing Shinbone's transformation and how legends are born.

The Good:

This pairs two of the greatest actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart star as representations of the old and new American West. John Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, Shinbone's protector and a leading example of the Old West where a gun is your best friend. Stewart is Ransom Stoddard as the New West, the representation of law and order. It's interesting to see the two opposing views of tradition and progress embodied in these men but as with almost all Westerns, this is a morality tale. Along with many of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, it's also about the slow death of the Wild West.

I loved how Stewart is almost always put in a position to look silly while Wayne embodies the idea of a powerful masculinity associated with the West. Despite how disadvantaged Stewart may seem, he possesses a quiet perseverance determined to bring progress and safety at any cost to Shinbone and this is where he manages to outshine Wayne, whose character seemed comfortable letting things lie.

Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance is perfect. He's a sadistic killer who carries around a silver-handled whip that he uses to enforce his hold over Shinbone. In fact, he uses it in his first scene with Stewart. They meet outside of town and Stewart is pitifully naive as to who's the real authority in the area. The scene is almost uncomfortably violent, despite Stewart being off camera. This is probably because he's a likable actor and yet on the receiving end of Valance's whip.

For those of you who are Disney fans, the actor playing Link Appleyard, Andy Devine, played Friar Tuck in "Robin Hood".

The Bad:

Wayne and director John Ford had made many movies together at this point, yet this was Wayne's smallest role in a Ford film. Even Lee Marvin playing Liberty Valance has a bigger role than Wayne. Also, when I first realized the two powerhouses that were starring in this movie, I expected more classic, memorable scenes, more fire between the two of them. This is the first time that Wayne calls someone "Pilgrim" though, when referring to Stewart's character.

John Ford is well known for the stunning vistas that usually accompany his films such as Monument Valley featuring heavily in "The Searchers". Alas, most of this film was shot on a sound stage apparently due to budget cuts. The film doesn't seem as grand without those shots but is far more balanced in terms of the story.

Almost everyone in this film has funny names. Liberty Valance sounds more like an aftershave from the 70s. We also have Ransom Stoddard, Link Appleyard and Cassius Starbuckle. I can only assume that as the town is named Shinbone, so must everyone in town or associated with it, have a silly name.

The Ugly:

Somebody find Eli Wallach.

Rating: 3.5/5

For your enjoyment I've included "The Man Whot Shot Liberty Valance" by Gene Pitney. It was originally supposed to be the theme song of the movie. I love the sound of his voice. It's well put together but I'm telling you right now that this is a *SPOILER* vid. Go see the movie and then come back to listen to the song. This song *SPOILS* the movie. Now you can't say I didn't warn you.


mister anchovy said...

I saw this one a couple years ago. I found it an enjoyable but not great flick. I think your review is quite accurate.

theduckthief said...


I too, was somewhat disappointed with the film. I knew it wasn't a classic but couldn't understand how two powerhouses like Wayne and Stewart couldn't make it work.

After viewing the film it feels as if it's trying to hit those notes that would make it a staple for movie lovers. It never quite gets there though.

Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

John Wayne's character is the most interesting person in this movie. He makes a lot of sacrifices - including losing the woman he loves - apparently for the greater good. If Valance had picked off Stoppard in a gunfight, Doniphon could have had Hallie for himself.