Monday, March 25, 2013

The Man who shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Even though John Ford made one more western after it, this film was to him what Once upon a Time in the West was to Sergio Leone: a goodbye to the genre, glorifying and demystifying it at the same time. The film probably is most famous for the line spoken by the local newspaper man who has learned who shot Liberty Valence in reality:

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

This may sound like a glorification of the western myth, and it probably is, but by explaining how one of those myths was constructed, the mythology is at the same time demystified, or - like today's scholars would prefer to say - 'deconstructed'.

The man from the title, the man who shot Liberty Valance, is senator Stoddard. Years ago he came to the town of Shinbone as a young lawyer to tame the frontier, not with a six-shooter, but with his law books. The legend that boosted his political career, says that he miraculously beat the bandit Liberty Valance in a duel. Now he has come back for the funeral of a nobody called Tom Doniphon. In one long flashback the story is unfolded. We're told who Tom Doniphon was and learn the facts behind the legend.

Ford’s West was above all the frontier, with the cavalry fort as a safe haven for family life. But in Liberty Valance the frontier is about to close, and life takes place more and more within the borders of the western town. In key moments life is still dominated by Old West icons like the noble gunman Tom Doniphon (Wayne) who stands up for law and order, and the bandit Liberty valance (Marvin), paid by landowners to defend their privileges against the newcomers. But Doniphon is starting to feel awkward in a town in which people dress up when they go out on Saturday night, so he’s building a frontier house in no man’s land to re-create his lost paradise. Valance is a troublemaker who cannot understand how newspapers and law books dare to question the authority of his gun and whip. In a western set in the Old West, these two men would’ve met in the town’s street to shoot it out. But in the New West, banditry will meet with written law, and Tom Doniphon can only interfere in the conflict by giving up his personal code of honor (and his bride to be!), so the town and its people can go on, and their future representative, Stoddard, can complete his civilizing job.

Ford decided to shoot the film in black & white, and nearly completely on sound stages. For this reason the film is devoid of the gloriously looking landscapes that had served Ford’s westerns so well over the years. As a result it may look a bit static, but the cinematography and the sets perfectly underline the 'message' of the movie: the wilderness has become a garden, the West is no longer Wild, very soon it will be memory.

Some supporting characters, offering comic relief, get too much head room. Andy Devine is a real nuisance as the cowardly, permanently hungry Marshal who talks with a high, high voice, but the trio of stars is wonderful. The Duke gives a rather restrained performance as the gunman who nearly has outlived his time, and although Stewart tends to rely a bit too much on the antics he often showed in his long career, it’s impossible to imagine somebody else in the part. Some thought Lee Marvin was not menacing enough as the film’s villain, but note what this film is about: just like Wayne's Tom Doniphon, Liberty Valance is about to become obsolete, he’s a man who no longer feels at ease in the world he’s living in, so he’s not supposed to be too menacing. Moreover (and this is essential to the film's meaning) his reputation has been blown up, like Stoddard’s. This was nicely illustrated in the Bacharach-David title song, that sadly didn’t make it to the movie, in which Liberty Valance is portrayed as one of the West’s great bandits and the man who shot him is called ‘the bravest of them all’. Now compare the lyrics of this song with the bleak, anti-heroic conclusion of the movie.

This is essential viewing for every western scholar. It’s the conclusion of an era and a prelude on things to come: the deconstruction of the western myth and the dying of the West would take over the genre - in a more radical way than Ford had ever dreamed of - in the works of the two directors who would inherit his crown: Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Maybe it wasn’t just coincidence that Liberty Valance’s henchmen are played by Strother Martin and Lee van Cleef.

Dir: John Ford - Cast: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Andy Devine, Ken Murray, John Carridine, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen, Denver Pyle, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Lee van Cleef 

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