There's a train that runs through the town of Shinbone. What used to be a desert — a Western outpost divorced from civilization and the boundaries of the law — has become a town. Not a city, or a metropolis, but a town, with roads and shop windows, and trees and grass, with schools and a courthouse and a newspaper. Modernity may not have entirely engulfed Shinbone, but the whistle of the train is a constant reminder that it's coming and that things are changing. Or, perhaps more appropriately, that things have changed.
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And into Shinbone, on that train, comes Rance Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), Senator, former governor, and former ambassador. Now, Stoddard represents decency and the respectability of the law, but to the residents of Shinbone, he represents something more. In Freudian terms, he's the return of the town's repressed Western consciousness. In literal terms, he's the return of myth and legend to a community changed forever by modernity.
While John Ford would make several films after 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he probably should have quit while he was ahead. Liberty Valance was the ultimate final word in a genre that Ford helped create. Over a decade before Clint Eastwood would begin his process of demythologizing the Western, Ford gave it his go. While the dark, disturbing, and brilliant The Searchers may be the finest film of Ford's late career, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a summation.
The train running through Shinbone may have put the town on the map, but it also killed something deep inside. Like so many towns popping up around America in that period, the railroad opened the door to the future, but perhaps closed the door to the past. When Rance returns to Shinbone, he opens that door a crack. Soon, reporters are crawling all over the Senator and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) clamoring for information on his return, but when Rance says he's back for a funeral, none of the newsmen know what he's talking about. And even when he says that the funeral is for a man named Tom Doniphon, they're at a loss. Doniphon has been erased from the official history of the town. The legitimate lawman remains famous, but the outlaw hero, the center of the Western legend, has been forgotten. So Rance sits the newspapermen down to tell them the story — his story and Tom Doniphon's.
Rance's story begins years earlier, before the railroad and even before statehood, when the area was defined by those who lived North of "The Wire" and those who lived South of "The Wire." One area was controlled by lawless cattlemen who believed the territory to be their own private grazing ground to be defended by any means necessary and to be free from the restrictions of the Federal government. The other side of the wire, the common people, wanted statehood because of the schools and roads and legitimacy that went with it. And even though the West was still wild, many people were flooding in from the East, following Horace Greeley's advice, "Go West, young man..."
On of these Manifest Destiny travelers was young Ransom Stoddard (still Stewart, though at fifty-something, Stewart was much too old for this part), fresh out of law school and laden with a bag of law books and nebulous dreams of growing with the country. But reality hits home when Stoddard's coach is hijacked by a gang of outlaws, led by the nefarious Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his stooges (Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin). Rance protests against Valance's treatment of a woman and threatens to have him thrown in jail, to which Valance responds, "Lawyer, huh? Well I'll teach you law — Western law." And with his silver whip, beats Rance within an inch of his life.
When he comes to, Rance finds himself in Shinbone, in a restaurant run by a couple Swedes and he comes to meet two people, the beautiful Hallie (Miles) and rancher/gunman Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the fastest gun in the West and the only man who Liberty Valance fears. Rance also gets to know the fearful town Marshall, Leek (Andy Devine), the town drunk and newspaper publisher Peabody (Edmond O'Brien). Rance remains determined to prosecute Liberty Valance by legal means, even though the entire community lives in fear of him.
The film sets up Tom and Rance as the ultimate binary of Western iconography. Tom represents the West, while Rance is the East. Tom is pragmatic, strong, physical, largely illiterate, and a loner. Rance is idealistic, weak, mentally able, and civic minded. Tom is an ace with a gun, while Rance relies on his books for power. Rance begins working at the local eatery and wears an apron and he might as well be wearing a dress compared to Tom's Western garb and gunbelt. Rance is the encroachment of civilization, while Tom is the embodiment of the open prairie. And, as we know from the opening scene of the movie, Rance is life, while Tom is a dying breed all-too-soon to be forgotten.
It takes Rance a while to learn where he his and what rules apply in his new home. Shinbone only has one jail cell, for example, and the lock is broken, so throwing Valance in prison won't accomplish much. Rance also discovers that Hallie can't read, which is followed by the discovery that barely anybody in Shinbone can read. Rance must push the community forward, opening a school and teaching the residents of Shinbone about the Constitution and the possibilities of the Republic. But all the while, it's becoming increasingly inevitable that Rance and Liberty Valance will meet. And on the side, there's a love triangle forming between Tom, Hallie, and Rance. In old Hollywood Westerns, perhaps there would be room for both Tom and Rance, but at the beginning of the film makes clear, things are changing. The profound sadness at the core of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is representative of this change. Rance becomes a Senator and a legend, while Tom is forgotten. We know this before the story even begins. The fame of the New World, sometimes comes at the expense of the old.
With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Ford is tearing down the structure on which he built he career, even if he's using many of the same pieces. Wayne and Stewart were, of course, veterans of dozens of Westerns apiece. Vera Miles was in The Searchers and Andy Devine was one of the stars of Stagecoach as was John Carradine who appears in Valance as a blowhard politician, yet another part of the old Western way. Edmond O'Brien and Lee Marvin had also done their share of Westerns. And most of the characters they're playing are archetypes, characters they'd played before or that had become set in the genre years earlier. Wayne played the same loner gunslinger in many movies, while Stewart's reticent lawman bears striking resemblance to his character in Destry Rides Again. It was the tone of the piece that surprised people.
Pauline Kael specifically complained about Ford's use of studio sets for Liberty Valance. And there is an obvious contrast between Ford's earlier penchant for natural exteriors, like the beauty of Monument Valley, and the scenes here. But it fits with Ford's theme on the death of the West. Why would he try finding a real location that looked right when the message of the film was that places like Shinbone didn't exist anymore. There's a poignancy in the artificial town that makes total sense. The audience knows that Ford loved the Western, which makes this film even more sad. The moral is that in order for Shinbone to become more American, it had to kill something about its spirit that was already purely American.
Visually, though, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is still pure Ford. His most recognizable visual tropes are here on display. Play special attention to his use of doorways and how when characters enter or exit buildings Ford only frames them in the doorway to suggest that they're going through a personal passage in addition to a physical entrance or exit. Ford also revels in cheating the shot-reverse-shot coding of classical Hollywood Cinema, something that he was doing as far back as 1939's Stagecoach where Ford intentionally withhold the result of the climactic shootout to keep the viewer in suspense. In Valance, Ford uses the shot-reverse-shot in the final showdown between Valance and Rance in which the cutting between the two men actually provides a distraction from the truth on who exactly shot Liberty Valance. This sets up a reenactment, darn near the Oliver Stone of Western films, this is.
And all of the icons are in perfect actorly form, none stretching their range, but all filling their characters flawlessly. The stilted vocal rhythms of Wayne and Stewart play off each other marvelously. Their exchanges (and Wayne's insistence on calling Stewart "Pilgrim") are a latter-day impressionist's dream. Marvin is all manly swagger as one of the ornery-est critters ever to appear on screen. That Liberty is a baaaad man. And even the people who weren't important at the time have become icons later, like Van Cleef and Strother Martin, and Denvery Pyle.
After Rance has finished telling his story, has purged his soul, has told the truth, the reporter tears up the story and utters what I consider to be one of the greatest lines in cinema history, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. " If that doesn't sum up the movie, John Ford's career, and perhaps the entire genre, I don't know what does.
[The Man who Shot Liberty Valance is available in a gorgeous DVD transfer that does full justice to William Clothier's black and white cinematography. The sound transfer is excellent and Cyril Mockridge's score is lovely. There aren't any real extras, but a great print of this movie in the proper widescreen aspect ratio is extra enough.]
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