CLASSIC MOVIES: 1 THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE
THE AMERICAN western has become a little like a cinematic house sparrow – once seemingly ubiquitous and now only glimpsed occasionally – but always a welcome sight when it does appear.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is probably the last great example of such from the fringe of the golden era of the genre.
By the late 60s, the western had become a little like the war movie genre – audiences had become tired of the last nuggets from the once fecund gold mine. Just as Butch Cassidy and in the Sundance Kid, (1969) was the slightest of westerns, it was also self-referential about the decline of the old American West. Butch and Sundance both know they are rapidly becoming dinosaurs at the turn of the century before last.
‘Liberty’ was released in 1962 and was an instant hit –primarily thanks to the unique combo of John Wayne and James Stewart – both in their prime.
But there’s still a sense of fin de siècle about the whole film; in fact it’s probably the finest example of the genre and the most ‘knowing’, with a political edge.
Save for a segment in How The West Was Won, it was also director John Ford’s last major western of any note; Cheyenne Autumn would follow and two other non-Westerns but they were lesser features at the box office.
Ford’s trademarks had been the classic Westerns – often with Wayne and Stewart separately but never together. Henry Fonda was another Ford favourite.
Wayne had already established himself in several gold standard Ford films: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; Rio Grande; The Quiet Man; The Searchers, and The Alamo all made use of Ford’s technique of emphasising his main stars in long shot against a striking natural background.
‘Liberty’ is interesting in that it is largely shot on a studio set in black and white and has a more claustrophobic feel. While not quite representing the last of the golden days of the west, there still a last chance saloon feel about the film, and perhaps intentionally so.
U.S. Senator Ransom "Ranse" Stoddard (Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arrive by train in Shinbone to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (Wayne).
Prior to the funeral, Hallie goes off with Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) to visit a burned-down house.
She returns so she and Ransom may pay their respects to the dead man at the undertaker's establishment (Wayne), but the senator is interrupted to explain why he would travel so far to pay honour to Doniphon, a common rancher.
Stoddard's story flashes back to several decades prior when he arrived in Shinbone via stagecoach, which was robbed by a gang of outlaws led by gunfighter Liberty Valance (the marvellously repulsive Lee Marvin).
Stoddard is brutally beaten but nursed back to health by restaurant owner Peter Ericson (John Qualen), his wife Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and daughter Hallie (Vera Miles), who says that Shinbone's townsfolk are regularly menaced by Valance.
Since Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), the town marshal, proves cowardly and unwilling to enforce the law, Doniphon is the only local courageous enough to challenge Valance.
The film was shot in black-and-white on Paramount sound stages, a marked contrast with Ford's other films of the period, such as The Searchers, which featured vast western landscapes and colour photography.
Ford wanted to make the picture, but Paramount could not budget the necessary cost.
Ford then offered to make it for whatever budget was available, although he had James Stewart and John Wayne, two of the industry's biggest attractions, both at the heights of their careers, lined up to work together for the first time.
However, Lee Marvin claimed in a filmed interview that Ford realized that the film would not be as effective shot in colour, because the atmosphere and use of shadows would be adversely affected, and insisted on filming in black-and-white.
Ford was also reportedly known for making life difficult for his casts.
About halfway through the filming Wayne asked Stewart why Ford never seemed to put him "in the barrel". i.e. to tell him off.
Stewart later related in a commentary on John Ford that this eventually circulated through the crew and set, and Stewart began to feel a bit complacent about it.
Then, a few days before the end of filming, Ford asked Stewart what he thought of Woody Strode's costume. Stewart responded, "It looks a bit Uncle Remussy to me."
Ford then called for the crew's attention and announced that "one of our actors doesn't like Woody's costume. Now, I don't know if Mr. Stewart has a prejudice against negroes, but I just wanted you all to know about it." Stewart said he "wanted to crawl into a mouse hole"; but Wayne told him, "Well, welcome to the club. I'm glad you made it."
In Michael Munn's 2003 biography of John Wayne, Strode was quoted as saying that Stewart was "one of the nicest men you'll ever meet anywhere in the world".
Not only has the film a moralising role about the need to stand up to bullies, Marvin’s character is also perhaps a metonym for the decline of the true West; that type which lives via threats and violence to survive in a threatening and violent lawless fringe society; Stewart by contrast is the civilised lawman – and perhaps more so symbolically a badgeword for the encroachment of the ‘civilised East’ into the last frontier.
Wayne of course is just Wayne - but ever more so seemingly – and perhaps poignantly so; complete with trade mark neckerchief and turned up trousers. He engagingly refers to Stewart as ‘pilgrim’ a great deal.
It would be his last outing in a Western with Ford, and his penultimate Ford film before Donovan’s Reef.
In many ways, Wayne and Ford became the Wild West in the minds of cinemagoers and Americans for years to come. The Wild West in truth would have been a much more rugged and unglamorous affair, though not without some sense of theatre (the Wild West shows etc.).
The West was also long joined at the hip with the collective population’s sense of the American Dream; the notion of liberty, the ability to push West for freedom and to be able to file land claims, and even the ability to go from log cabin to the White House.
When the frontier finally closed when California was settled, the American Dream in a sense had nowhere else to go.
When the eleventh U.S. Census was taken in 1890, the superintendent announced that there was no longer a clear line of advancing settlement, and hence no longer a frontier in the continental United States.
Perhaps that’s why the Western became so popular in American cinema – and then latterly the space movie; they represented both old and new frontiers, or the ability to escape.
Perhaps also there’s no accident in the name of Marvin’s character; in killing Liberty, as rough and unbridled as he/’it’ is, has something more significant been killed off in the film?
The American settlers escaped Europe in pursuit of a dream of freedom in search of a near-utopia away from the religious, legal and social pressures of society. Had Washington and Adams not been successful in their fight against the British, they (and ‘liberty’ – lower case) would probably have been hung, drawn and quartered, and British colonialism persisted.
Liberty, the character, like some wild Caliban, from The Tempest, reacts against the encroachment of societies’ ‘manners’ – rebelling against the freedom of the press, the law (Stewart), and politics. In many ways Marvin is the id, Stewart the moralising super-ego, and Wayne the balance between the two; three stereotypes of society.
Perhaps Liberty (the film) is also important as it represents for the Americans, and cinemagoers, a slightly uncomfortable truth – that the dream of the American west and freedom; just as with Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden and other seeming utopias, has a true kinship with unrule and the unbridled at all levels, and that Stewart, as mild mannered and decent as he is, represents a threat to such. Who are the real heroes and villains of the film we might ask ourselves?
Is Liberty under a law the ultimate oxymoron?
When Ford died in 73, and Wayne in 79, arguably the American West/Dream, or one major representation of such, would never be the same again.
Wayne, a staunch republican, once gave a controversial interview in Playboy. In such he said:
“"Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."
The words now form an epitaph on his previously unmarked grave. Perhaps The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, which has been entered into the US Library of Congress as being ‘culturally and historically significant’, and for all that is represents, is equally as good an epitaph.