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Coming on the heels of the last movie classic that I watched through the auspices of Netflix, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the 1962 John Ford-directed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; more than just another cheesy Burt Bacharach-Hal David song, it's actually a pretty good movie. (Never fear: the song doesn't appear in the movie.)

The three leads -- James Stewart, John Wayne, and Vera Miles -- are a bit long in the tooth for their roles (particularly Stewart and Miles, who are spectacularly unconvincing as apple-cheeked youngsters), but are nonetheless engaging, even if Stewart overdoes his signature hem-hawing a bit. The character actors are the real treats: Lee Marvin makes a memorable and convincing bad-ass; John Carradine has an amusing turn as a Shakespearean blowhard; Edmond O'Brien is great as the drunken newspaperman (that's him bloviating below); it's fun seeing Denver Pyle (Frank Hamer in Bonnie and Clyde, but he's probably most famous for playing Uncle Jesse in the long-running TV series The Dukes of Hazard), and Strother Martin makes an even bigger impression here as a murderous white trash "egg-sucker" than he did in The Wild Bunch; Lee Van Cleef and Woody Strode are sadly wasted; and maybe it needs a tune-up, but I could swear that my "gaydar" went off a couple of times when Andy Devine was whingeing -- kind of a Bert Lahr bobble.




Set in an unnamed western territory that is probably either Colorado (owing to repeated references to the "Picket Wire", or Purgatoire River) or Arizona (owing to the presence of Saguaro cacti), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with James Stewart as Senator Ransom ("Ranse" -- spelled with an "s" instead of a "c" on the DVD's subtitles) Stoddard returning with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to the town of Shinbone, to attend the funeral of a largely forgotten, elderly citizen who proves to be Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Harried by the editor of and a cub reporter from the town newspaper The Shinbone Star (which has a statewide circulation, according to its editor), Ranse is persuaded to spiel a Mother McRee of his younger days, explaining just why Tom Doniphon is important enough for him to travel by newly laid rail all the way from Washington.

Ranse first came to Shinbone via stagecoach, fresh out of law school, inspired by Horace Greely's oft-quoted injunction to "Go West, young man!" Before he can arrive at the town proper, however, his stagecoach is waylaid by highwaymen led by a particularly vicious git who proves to be Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, below); thanks to Ranse's naïve heroism in standing up to the robbers and trying to persuade them not to steal a fellow passenger's brooch (as it was a gift from her dead husband), Ranse -- and his satchel full of law books -- earn the particular attention of Valance, which is not salutary to the books and is nearly fatal to Ranse. Left to die, Ranse is found by local tough guy Tom Doniphon and his freeman Pompey (Woody Strode), and taken to the restaurant of an immigrant Swedish family whose daughter, Hallie, Doniphon is sweet on.


Penniless, Ranse goes to work at the restaurant as a dishwasher (and sometimes waiter: male waiters are very much a novelty in this territory at this time, and Ranse's masculinity is called into question after he appears in an apron, serving diners), while the mother, Nora (Jeanette Nolan, who was a memorable Lady Macbeth in her film debut in Orson Welles' stylized 1948 movie version of Macbeth), tries to nudge Ranse and her daughter together, as she apparently doesn't quite approve of the roughneck Doniphon. Doniphon urges Ranse to get a gun and learn to use it, asserting that that's the only kind of law that can possibly bring Liberty Valance and his gang to heel, but Ranse refuses, insisting that he only wants to put Valance in jail, not kill him for the sake of revenge. However, the corpulent and cowardly town marshal, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is quite resistant to the idea of arresting Valance; among other reasons, the town has but one jail cell, the lock is broken, and that's where he sleeps, despite (or because of..?) his large half-Mexican family.

Ranse inadvertently embarrasses Hallie by assuming that she can read a passage from one of his surviving law books, but makes amends by offering to teach her to read and write; mama Nora pipes up that she'd like to learn her English ABCs since she never learned 'em in Swedish, and before Ranse can get cold feet, he finds himself the town's de facto schoolteacher (another "womanly" occupation) with a roomful of students from about six or seven to late adulthood. After Valance and two of his henchmen, Reese (Lee Van Cleef) and Floyd (Strother Martin) show up at the restaurant and torment Rance, and are chased away by Doniphon, Ranse is told by the town's newspaper publisher/editor/reporter/typesetter/subscription manager, Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien), in a fit of crapulous merriment, that he'll let him hang out his shingle as an attorney at law at the newspaper office, rent-free, for as long as he can last. Doniphon sarcastically points out that if he lets Ranse do that, Valance and his goons will come gunning for him too, but Ranse quickly takes Peabody up on his offer; as he made it so loudly and so publicly, Peabody can't back down, despite his second thoughts.

Ranse acquires a relatively small caliber handgun, and practices shooting twice a week, despite his principles; Doniphon gets wind of this and plays a mean trick on him, for which Ranse knocks him to the ground. Mixed up with Doniphon's sneering disregard for "greenhorns", "tenderfoots", "dudes" (the latter of which is what Liberty Valance repeatedly dismisses Ranse as) and, one assumes, "book larnin'" is his jealousy over Hallie's obvious regard for him: Doniphon has had his eye on her for quite a while, and is adding a room to his cabin as part of his plan to ask her to marry him. At the same time, Peabody is publishing a series of articles advocating statehood for the territory, to the fury of the cattle ranchers north of the "Picket Wire": the ranchers proceed to hire every gunman in sight, including Liberty Valance and his crew.

Valance, Reese and Floyd crash the town meeting convened to elect two delegates to go to the Capitol City convention, where his coached henchmen nominate Valance as a delegate; despite the fact that everybody in the saloon-cum-election hall, save Doniphon, is scared spitless of Valance, Valance only gets three votes: his own and, belatedly, those of his two henchmen. Doniphon nominates Ranse as a delegate after refusing Ranse's nomination of him; annoyed at Peabody's delight in the proceedings (and desperation for a drink, which he can't have while the election is going on, thanks to the probity of Ranse), Ranse nominates Peabody as the second delegate. Ranse and Peabody are elected in a landslide, perhaps as much out of the assembled voters' desire for a speedy conclusion to the electoral process so they can attend to the sort of business that's supposed to be conducted in a saloon -- drinkin' -- as to their belief that Ranse and Peabody will stand up for them against the land greed of the ranchers. Before leaving, Valance tells Ranse that he'd better meet him in the center of town after dark -- or else. Doniphon advises Ranse to get out of town, and tells him that he'll send Pompey and his wagon to the restaurant that night to speed him on his way.

Valance makes a last ditch attempt to cow the residents of Shinbone before the statehood convention; when Doniphon kills one of Valance's men (offscreen) and Peabody delightedly prints a banner headline (with a glaring spelling error) announcing this fact, Valance and his two main goons thrash Peabody and destroy his printing press and office. Infuriated, Ranse keeps his appointment, causing Hallie to tell the waiting Pompey to go get Tom, while Valance downs a few shots of Dutch courage before sallying forth to meet this dude with a gun, declaring to one and all that he has to "defend" himself. After a grueling confrontation in which Valance shoots Ranse in the right elbow, knocking the gun from his hand, Valance contemptuously allows Ranse to pick up his gun, declaring that his next shot will go right between his eyes; to everyone's surprise, including his own, Ranse manages to snap off a shot before Valance, and Valance hurtles backward, weaponless, then staggers and falls into the street. The top-hatted town doctor (Ken Murray) shoves Valance onto his back with his foot before tersely declaring, "He's dead." Ranse stumbles off to the restaurant where Hallie starts to tend to him before breaking down, apologizing for wanting him to stay and stand up to Valance, while Reese and Floyd try to incite a lynch mob against Ranse; Doniphon bodily throws Floyd out of the saloon and easily disarms Reese before going off on a wild drunken spree, putting paid to his home improvements.

Ranse and Peabody arrive at the convention, wounded but game, only to have the cattlemen's spokesman, Major Cassius Starbuckle (John Carradine), paint Ranse as a cold-blooded killer and Liberty Valance as an innocent citizen. Disgusted, Ranse leaves the convention, only to be accosted by Doniphon, who has ridden out to see him. Doniphon derisively tells Ranse that he shot Liberty Valance -- Pompey tossed him his shotgun and he blasted Valance at the same moment that Ranse fired his "popgun" -- and that he's renouncing his (unannounced, unilateral) claim on Hallie. Doniphon tells him to go back into the convention, implying that if he doesn't, then Valance's death (of which Doniphon frankly states, "It was cold-blooded murder, but I can live with that") will have been for nothing. Ranse storms back in to wild acclaim from the townies and sodbusters, and thus launches his long and brilliant political career: first governor of the state, United States senator, ambassador to the Court of St. James. Back in the present day, Ranse is surprised when the Shinbone Star's editor burns his reporter's notes; when Ranse asks him why he's refusing to print his confession, the editor replies, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Ranse and Hallie board a train back to Washington, where Ranse proposes retiring after seeing the irrigation bill through, and moving back to Shinbone; Hallie greets this proposition with delight, declaring that her roots are in Shinbone. Their moods are dampened, however, by the engineer's waving aside Ranse's gratitude for his speed and efficiency by saying, "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance."

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays a bit like The Searchers mashed up with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with a soupçon of High Noon tossed in for good measure. While by any reasonable definition this is indeed a "John Wayne picture," "the Duke" is on-screen relatively little, to the movie's benefit: his Tom Doniphon can thus remain an aloof, ambivalent figure, never quite integrated with society and yet as dependent on it, in his way, as Ranse is. For all of Doniphon's disdain of "Eastern dudes" and laws and books, he apparently realizes in his core that the wave of the future is rolling from the East, that the entire country, not just its young men, is "going West", and that the days of the strong man with a gun are numbered. (When Ranse angrily tells the undertaker to bury Doniphon with his boots -- which the undertaker had confiscated in lieu of payment -- and gun, Link announces that Doniphon hadn't even worn a gun for quite a while.) It is this realization, as much as any personal rivalry with Ranse, that causes Doniphon to drop his suit for Hallie's hand -- much to Hallie's lasting regret. For her part, Hallie may yearn for law and order and schoolhouses, but she remains moved and thrilled -- it's not an exaggeration to say sexually excited -- by violence. It's obvious that what caused her to finally give her heart to Ranse was his standing up to Liberty Valance and (apparently) killing him in a duel; it's equally obvious that, when Ranse finally told her the truth about that encounter (and by the end of the movie, it's blindingly obvious that Hallie knows, and knew long before she returned to Shinbone with Ranse), she felt more than a pang of regret that she didn't choose Doniphon after all. Hallie's remark, on their journey back to Washington, that the land started as a wilderness but was now a garden, applies as much to her marriage bed -- her love life -- as to Shinbone, or the state in which it lies.

Doniphon's paternalism extends to race relations: while he supposedly views Pompey as an equal (he stands up for his right to drink in a saloon when the proprietor tries to shoo Pompey away), he also treats him like a child, as when he yanks him from Ranse's schoolroom, telling him that his school days are over. Doniphon isn't quite the bigot that John Wayne's Ethan Edwards was in The Searchers; nevertheless, it's possible to see traces of Ethan peering from the darker corners of Doniphon's personality.

Not all of the historical details fit comfortably into the framework of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ranse's awed and repeated referencing of Horace Greely's "Go West, young man!" feels forced, as though a primary school textbook committee insisted that it be included (the famous injunction was first published in 1851, fairly far back to remain quite so motivational or inspirational for a young man setting out on his own apparently in the mid-1870s). Maj. Cassius Starbuckle's reverent invocation of Lincoln's name, along with Washington's and Jefferson's, seems wrong: one finds it hard to believe that advocates of free range in the wide open West, populated by not a few Confederate veterans, would feel the same rosy glow of admiration for "the American Bismarck" (as Gore Vidal has dubbed Lincoln) that the average American child was expected to feel in the early 1960s. (One suspects that Starbuckle would've actually invoked Andrew Jackson -- the U.S.'s first "western" president -- instead of Lincoln.) The band at the statehood convention anachronistically plays "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here", a song which didn't appear until 1915. The lariat twirling done by the cowboy over the head of the cattlemen's nominee Buck Longhorne is suggestive of a performer of one of Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows: that the West was tame enough to be turned into a kitschy touring attraction for "Easterners" and Europeans by 1873 -- the year of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody's first "Combination" -- was a sure sign that, if the frontier was still technically open, it was closing fast.

Considering its mostly well-executed (and relatively nuanced) thematic elements, I'm gobsmacked that Richard Slotkin didn't mine The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for his comprehensive Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, given that he examines many other movies -- including The Wild Bunch and another Lee Marvin vehicle, Richard Brooks's The Professionals (1966, also starring Burt Lancaster and Jack Palance; Slotkin makes The Professionals sound more interesting than it actually is, IMHO) -- of the genre. Nonetheless, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a western that even people who aren't particularly fond of westerns should see at least once.


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