Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Just how much thinking does John Ford want us to do with Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The?

Outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) terrorizes the western town of Shinbone. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) is the only one brave enough, and with a good enough shot, to kill him. But he doesn't. Why?

Fresh out of school lawyer Ransom Stoppard arrives in Shinbone from the eastern United States. He wants the law to deal with Valance. But Marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is afraid of his own shadow and jumps whenever someone comes up to him unexpectedly. Doniphon suggests Stoppard needs to start packing a gun if he wants to put an end to Valance's reign of terror. What's Ford suggesting about the rule of law in the wild west? "Out here a man settles his own problems," Doniphon tells Stoppard.

Does Doniphon, who suggests might makes right, deep down the most progressive person in Shinbone? The girl he fancies, Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles), runs a restaurant. She earns her own living. Doniphon tells her more than once she looks great when she's mad. Hmmm, does he have a soft spot for women who speak their mind? That would be a different mindset to have in the 19th century. And how about his friend Pompey (Woody Strode). Pompey's black, the only black person we see in Shinbone. Is Doniphon more accepting of equal rights for blacks? When a bartender refuses to serve Pompey, it's Doniphon who speaks up for that rule to be dropped.

The film opens with Stoppard returning to Shinbone for Doniphon's funeral. His old friend was so destitute the undertaker pinched his boots for some form of payment. Just what kind of life did Doniphon have after Stoppard went on to greater success?

Is Doniphon willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good? Some residents of Shinbone, such as Stoppard, see benefits in the territory becoming a state to help the little guy and thwart the plans of cattle barons. He sees Hallie, the woman he plans to marry and who he has added an extension to his home, falling for Stoppard. But he doesn't stop the relationship. Why?

Was Ford giving a sly wink to modern politics when a cowboy on a horse enters a political meeting and does a trick on stage. Is this an early example of a photo opportunity, a way to add some sizzle to a political hopeful?

How about Doniphon continually calling Stoppard "pilgrim." Is it a reference to Doniphon making the long trek to Shinbone? Is he suggesting Stoppard is on a quest of sorts - to see law and order in the west? Or, his goals will have to take him beyond Shinbone?

Wayne's character is fascinating to watch. He's a man's man, but he hurts when Hallie falls for Stoppard. Doniphon can lay claim to an amazing accomplishment, but he keeps quiet for years to his own detriment. Why?

Marvin makes a great villain. This guy is ruthless. He beats people with his whip. Valance will have nothing to do with Stoppard's talk of law. "I'll teach you law, western law," he thunders when the two men first meet.

Funny thing about Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The. In some ways, viewers can see where the story is going. But, boy, do a little digging and things get a little hazier.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The received an Oscar nomination for costume design (Edith Head).

Vera Miles was also in another very fine film directed by John Ford, The Searchers. Wow. She was also in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Woody Strode squared off with Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. His film debut was in another John Ford film, Stagecoach.

Jeannette Nolan, who appears here with John Qualen as Nora and Peter Ericson, made her last film appearance in The Horse Whisperer.

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