The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at 60: the great American western | Westerns

“This is the west sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The well-known line uttered by a newspaperman in John Ford’s masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance symbolizes the mythological west that he and his most well-known collaborator, John Wayne popularized. At 60 years previous, it’s the best western of Hollywood’s Golden Age, even usurping Ford’s personal The Searchers that has all the time clambered its means close to the highest of best movie lists.

The story focuses on Ransome Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), an American senator arriving on the city of Shinbone along with his spouse, Hailey (Vera Miles), to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (Wayne). Through flashback, Stoddard tells his story to the press of first coming to the city as a younger legislation graduate. The townsfolk are terrorised by gang chief Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin in a career-best position). Valance works for the native cattle barons, who’re combating the territory’s proper to statehood. Doniphon is the one one who can stand as much as Valance, however Stoddard believes that authorized justice can prevail towards him. In between that, there’s a love triangle between Stoddard, Hailey and Doniphon. And then there may be the query: who was the person who would finally shoot Liberty Valance?

Ford’s imaginative and prescient of the west has grow to be synonymous with how audiences understand it. It’s virtually unattainable not to consider the American frontier with out John Wayne framed towards Monument Valley’s harsh terrain. Scorsese referred to as the director the “essence of classic American cinema”. Orson Welles watched Ford’s Stagecoach 40 occasions to grasp learn how to direct his first film (that movie being Citizen Kane). But a lot of Ford’s affect has been misplaced on up to date moviegoers. Though he created the romantic notion of the west, features of his work have come beneath scrutiny. In explicit, his depiction of Native Americans as typically faceless cannon fodder for Wayne’s rifle. Even The Searchers has been endlessly debated by critics whether or not the director endorsed or condemned the protagonist’s racist actions.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance shouldn’t be a movie about American heroes however in regards to the nation itself. Ford brilliantly captures this by way of the personas of its two main actors that had been cultivated over the previous many years. He’s self-critical of each his personal legacy as a film-maker and the nation that he helped mythologize. If The Great Gatsby is the good American novel, then that is the good American movie.

Since the Nineteen Thirties, Stewart all the time represented the good-natured raconteur who stood up towards firms and bullies. He was not an intimidating determine however all the time prevailed towards injustice and infrequently relied on violence as his key technique to victory. “No one fights my battles,” Stoddard exclaims angrily to Doniphon. He by no means desires to make use of violence as the tactic to take down Valance (“I don’t want to kill him; I want to put him in jail”). Even when he performed darker roles like in Vertigo, Stewart was all the time intensely likable. However, Ford is essential about whether or not such a law-abiding citizen can actually achieve America. By the top, Stoddard nonetheless detests violence, however to realize liberty, he should shoot Liberty. In America, violence will all the time take priority over language. “What’s reading and writing ever done you,” Hailey exclaims to Stoddard.

Conversely, Wayne’s persona consisted of motion, typically involving the draw of a pistol to unravel his issues. Though he spoke with a protracted drawl, his phrases had been as violent because the bullets he fired. Ultimately, America is a rustic constructed on violence, and thus to protect its ideology, a bullet will all the time change greater than phrases. But violence comes at a price. And Doniphon, who as soon as favoured brute ferocity is condemned to the implications of utilizing it.

Melancholic and downbeat, there may be nothing glamorised in regards to the west right here. Ford’s breakthrough western Stagecoach showcased the chaotically brutal however equally adventurous facet of the west. In Liberty Valance, the older Stoddard sees the stagecoach that first introduced him to Shinbone, now decreased to a dusty, broken-down relic of the previous. Like Stoddard, Ford’s personal Stagecoach introduced him to the forefront as America’s premier film-maker. With the New Hollywood motion a couple of years away, it’s as if Ford foresees himself as an out of date artefact.

James Stewart, Lee Marvin and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
James Stewart, Lee Marvin and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Photograph: Paramount/Allstar

Despite the polarizing racial politics of his filmography, some of the poignant moments options Stewart educating the illiterate townsfolk learn how to learn and write. Wayne’s African American sidekick, Pompey (Woody Strode), is requested to recite the American structure from reminiscence however forgets the sentence that “all men are created equal”. Stewart replies: “That’s quite all right Pompey, a lot of people forget that part of it.” Sixty years on, individuals nonetheless appear to neglect that half.

As all the time, Ford brings his signature visible poetry to each body. Doniphon is commonly framed in shadow to replicate his personal private, violent philosophy creeping into Stoddard’s psyche. And a shot of a cactus rose positioned on a coffin is the best illustration of unfulfilled love in movie historical past.

It’s a film not pushed by heroism however by remorse on the selections and lies that had been made in making America’s basis. Wayne’s final scene shouldn’t be a triumphant, gallant trip into the sundown, however bitterness and unhappiness at dropping the lady he cherished to Stewart. American masculinity by no means appeared extra defeated. And Stoddard isn’t any Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Though he has introduced statehood to Shinbone, he has performed it by way of a technique that goes towards his private convictions (“Isn’t it enough to kill a man without trying to build a life on it?”).

Though not Ford’s final western, it serves as his personal eulogy to the style he helped form. Wayne’s personal legacy as an icon of radical conservative politics meant the director’s work was continuously interpreted as being intertwined with them. By burying his well-known main man, Ford has put an finish to the mythic John Wayne character that was launched in Stagecoach. After 50 years of constructing westerns, possibly he felt the legend was not price printing.

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