Cine-East Film Club Presents #55: 1962, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)

by George_East on October 18, 2014

Train Guard: ‘Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance’

Except that’s not true. For the man who shot Liberty Valance doesn’t get the girl, sees the home he was building for her burn down in a fire and dies in such obscurity that only a few old timers remember who he even was and in such poverty that the county has to pick up the cost of his burial. That is the fate of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the man who shot and killed the notorious enforcer for the cattlemen, outlaw and highwayman, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).

On the other hand the fate of the man who did not shoot Liberty Valance, but who everyone thought did was rather different. Ransom Stoddart (Jimmy Stewart) became a territorial delegate, served two terms as the first governor of the state when it was admitted to the union, was ambassador to the Court of St James and a US senator. Stoddart’s fame is such that on his returning to the small town in which Liberty Valance was shot, Shinbone, the local rag, the Shinbone Star is so excited by his presence that they gatecrash poor old Tom Doniphon’s funeral to demand an interview with the good senator. It is that interview which provides the bulk of the film, all told in flashback.

More than that Ransom Stoddart even gets Tom Doniphon’s girl, Hallie (Vera Miles).

The West and what it is built on is a lie.

On the face of it that is a pretty surprising message from a John Ford film. He was, after all, with films like Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine and the Cavalry Trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande) responsible for creating many of the very myths of the West that this week’s Cine-East Film Club presentation, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, pulls down. At last the Club is presenting the long promised John Ford western.

In fact by the time Ford made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance he had already begun to make films, which directly challenged the heroic white hat/black hat civilizing of the west stereotypical westerns that had emerged in Hollywood.   In The Searchers he had deconstructed that ultimate western actor (and regular Ford star), John Wayne by making his Ethan Edwards a sociopathic murderous racist. The year before The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in Two Rode Together he portrayed the usually homespun Jimmy Stewart as a cynical and corrupt marshal out for all he can get (though both Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann had already demonstrated that the aw shucks image of Jimmy Stewart was capable of masking a darker side).

And if you look closely Ford had already begun to question the trumpeted value  system of the civilising of the West in the very films which are often held up as exemplars of the classic western.   Thus in the first of his cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache,   John Wayne’s Captain Kirby York, will at the end of the film cover up the atrocities committed by his late psychopathic and genocidal commanding officer, the Custer-inspired Lieutenant Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda), for the sake of the reputation of the cavalry (a film which also gives the lie to the idea that it was Sergio Leone in Once Upon A Time In The West who first played Henry Fonda against type, as a bad guy).

But none of its film forbears delivers the message as directly as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  It is a revisionist western made by the ultimate western classicist before the term had even been thought of.  The film has none of the location shooting for which Ford was famous  (the holding up of the stage by Liberty Valance and his gang, which is our introduction to them, is very obviously artificial and studio shot). This also I think adds to the sense that the romantic idea of the West (with its beautiful endless vistas) is false – a point emphasised in the film by Stoddard’s explanation of how he ended up as a newly qualified lawyer in a two bit town like Shinbone from the city ‘back East’ that he came from. He literally followed Horace Greeley’s famous advice: to ‘go West, young man’.

Ultimately, the extent of the revisionism in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes beyond that of the West to the founding of  modern America itself.   The film sets up a dichotomy between Stoddart’s man of laws, the bringer, if you will, of modern values and civilization, to this lawless part of the western territories (which is still at the mercy of the cattle barons as they use any means to keep the ranges open and prevent homesteaders from enclosing the land), on the one hand.   On the other are the old ways of the west – the ways of the gun, and might is right and dying. This value system is represented both by Valance and his gang, but also by Doniphon who tells Stoddart at one point:

I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems’.

Now the standard classic Hollywood story would be of laws winning out and replacing lawlessness and the rule of the gun.   But the irony is that when it comes to the territorial convention in which the question of whether the territory is to apply for statehood (and therefore join the world of laws) or remain an open range territory (and therefore stay with the would of the gun), Stoddart is only able to carry the vote because he is thought to be the man who shot Liberty Valance. It is his apparent courage and prowess with a gun and not his arguments as a lawyer that are the source of his success (as a brilliant cameo from John Carradine playing the cattlemen’s orator, Major Cassius Starbuckle, exposes in his speech).   By this stage Stoddart knows that he did not (as he had originally thought) kill Liberty Valance, that Tom Doniphon had been standing in the shadows and had actually pulled the trigger.   He doesn’t say anything to the assembled delegates about this. He doesn’t deny he was the killer and invoke laws as the basis of the future; instead he rides his new fame to win the vote and ultimately, we are told, his successful political career.   Modern America is therefore just as much founded on the law of the gun and might is right, as the West. It just has a surface level of democratic process layered over the top. A lie.

This is a John Ford film, so it is replete with wonderful character parts. As well as Carradine special mention should go to Denver Pyle (who would, of course, later play Uncle Jesse in The Dukes of Hazard) as statehood supporter Amos Currethers; Edmond O’Brien as the pisshead editor of the Shinbone Star, Dutton Peabody; Andy Devine (who had been the stage driver in Stagecoach) as the gluttonous and cowardly Marshal Link Appelyard; Woody Strode as Pompey; John Qualen (who had played Mr Jorgensen in The Searchers)  as Hallie’s father; and the ever great rat-like cackling Strother Martin, as Liberty Valance’s side-kick, Floyd (his other side-kick is played by the serpentine Lee Van Cleef, but he barely has a word).

Most of all though there are the three central performances, all of which are superb. Wayne’s Doniphon moves slowly but with a dancer-like grace like only Wayne could. His always calm demeanour finally and convincingly breaking as he thrashes about at all around  after finding out he has lost Hallie to Stoddart and that  the not yet completed house he is building for her (which is referenced in by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven in the form of Little Bill’s half built house) will never be completed.   Jimmy Stewart’s going through a real moment of doubt as his whole world view is challenged by the impunity with which Liberty Valance is able to act; and Lee Marvin’s irredemiably villainous, Liberty, bursting with resentment and violence.

Three great actors at the end of the golden age of Hollywood working with one of the very greatest directors that system (or any other) produced towards the end of his career, producing a masterpiece.

The most famous line in the film occurs when the editor of the Shinbone Star, Maxwell Scott, after hearing Stoddart’s story and discovering as a result that Stoddart was not (after all the intervening decades) the man who shot Liberty Valance, rips up the notes from the interview and states that he is not going to print the story:

No sir. This is the west. When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend’.

It is a wonderful line and sums up much of the astonishing film, with its notion of a collusion of the press (and perhaps even the people) in denying or at least ignoring the truth in order to sustain a lie that everyone has invested in.

But it is the line that heads this post,  the last line  of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that is perhaps the most biting in the film: uttered proudly by the train guard on the local train leaving Shinbone  to Soddart after telling him that the express train to Washington will be held especially for the senator at the inter-change.   Stoddart’s gilded life of privilege and ease (and that of those like him) has been achieved on the back of violence, a lie, and a dead and forgotten man: Tom Doniphon, the man who shot Liberty Valance.

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