The Western! Tales of heroic, womanizing cowboys taking aim at no-good trouble makers who kick puppies. Of course, the West itself wasn't so black-and-white, and eventually audiences got tired of the theme. This is probably why the genre as a whole puttered off after the first half of the 20th century. In their stead came the increasingly-popular gangster films, recently freed from the stifling constraints of the Hays Code. More recent western films have tried to add grit to the subject in order to make things a little less simple morally. (ie: Unforgiven, a film about a former outlaw) This week's film was a sort of early precursor to that type of practice, while simultaneously serving as a goodbye to the genre as a whole.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a 1962 Western film directed by John Ford. Unlike his then-recent films, he shot this one in black-and-white. There are many reasons given for this decision (stylistic choice, budget saving, disguising the ages of the main actors) which suggests to me that this was all around a good decision to make. Despite somewhat troubled production, the film would pay off big time: it grossed double its budget, and has become known as a classic movie, one of Ford's best.
The film is presented as a flashback, told in the 1960s. We follow United States Attorney Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) as he moves into a town in Arizona's Old West. There he encounters the gruff, bloodthirsty outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who beats him up. He also meets Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a heroic and cocky cowboy who makes fun of him. The film then follows Stoddard's efforts in modernizing the small Western town, introducing education and law, with the end-goal of bringing statehood. Surprisingly, Liberty Valance gets shot.
The script is well-made, balancing the serious themes of the film with very comedic elements. As a result, it becomes a film that is both enjoyable to watch and enjoyable to analyze. This is the type of film I really like to watch, providing a comfortable feeling without being complete fluff. For instance, there's Doniphon calling Stoddard “pilgrim,” which is intentionally funny and gives the film a lot of charm. It helps that the nickname relates to the themes of the film.
The acting is decent all around. Sometimes it edges towards being unintentionally funny, like when Stoddard is declaring that he is a United States Attorney. Still, the way he declares it only adds to the already pre-existing comedic of the movie while simultaneously showing the audience how out-of-place Stoddard is compared to the rugged know-all Doniphon. Plus, it doesn't come up during any serious sequences.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a film about legend, and how it is spread and preserved. At the same time, it is about the death of a legend: namely, the cowboy of the Western. This film cruelly deconstructs Ford's earlier tales of wandering heroes saving the day. Their stories come to an end, as legality and modernization sweep the Wild West and transform it. The arrival of law and order means there will be no more riding off into the sunset.
The New York Times review for this film had several qualms with the film. The reviewer complained about the film being anti-climatic, something I must disagree about. The film closes poignantly, with a line still quoted today. Everything comes together in a way that delivers a nice impact. There may also be more nuance to the character Liberty Valance than first appears, though it is more symbolic value.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an excellent watch. It's a perfect balance of entertainment and meaningful themes, and deserves its status as a classic film.
Bryan Mackay is a recent graduate from Carleton University. At his time at university, he minored in Film and thus learned a lot about the film medium and industry. He started this blog in order to post his thoughts on films made before 1970 that caught his eye for thematic or stylistic reasons, hoping that others may be interested in his thoughts and opinions on several films.