Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Andy Devine, Ken Murray, John Carradine, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen, Willis Bouchey, Carleton Young, Woody Strode, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin
Written by: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 123
Date: 13/04/1962
IMDB

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Print the Legend

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" was the quintessential line of John Ford's classic, and I think his greatest film. Ford was hailed as America's greatest director during his lifetime, and his reputation has endured, despite the fact that many of his movies have become transparent; you can see the devices he planted there to get a reaction from the audience. In most of his movies, he gave into excessive sentiment (The Grapes of Wrath), or unnecessary comedy (The Searchers). But The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with Ford at 67 years of age, is his most balanced movie. It's also the best Ford movie to see in the 1990s, because it carries cynicism well, and doesn't slip off the track.

The movie tells the story of Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) in flashback. Just outside the town of Shinbone, he is jumped and brutally attacked by outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang. When he arrives in Shinbone, the folks at the local chow hall, including the lovely Hallie (Vera Miles), take pity on him, and give him a job and shelter. Ransom vows revenge on Liberty (how about the way those names are twisted around?). But Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a local cowboy, tells the city slicker he'd better get a gun, because no lawyer is going to bring down Liberty Valance with fancy talk.

In the end, Ransom prevails, and ends up with Hallie, whom Tom is also in love with. The movie is bookended with sequences in which Ransom and Hallie arrive back in Shinbone after years, for a funeral. There's a closed casket, but we don't know who is inside until after the flashback, when we learn that it's Tom. Hallie places a cactus flower on the casket -- a symbol of their love. She's still in love with him, but went with the city slicker. The movie is saying that the legend of the old west is dead, and the world is now in the hands of the city slickers -- lawyers and politicians no less. This message could not be more true in 1999.

Ford has some fun along the way. Ransom is almost always made to look ridiculous in some way. He wears an apron washing dishes and serving food in the chow hall, and Tom splashes paint on him showing him how to shoot. On the other hand, a lot had changed on the John Ford set. This was Wayne's smallest part in a Ford movie yet. Tom is even shown in a moment of weakness setting his own house on fire out of grief for losing Hallie. Even the Liberty Valance role is meatier than Wayne's (and it shows what a great presence Lee Marvin was). In addition, Ford's trademark beautiful vistas are gone for the sake of a studio set.

Despite all the new-fangled ideas, and the cynical twists, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is still a most enjoyable western, beautifully shot in black and white, with two top-notch performers still revving it up in their autumn years, and a supporting cast to die for. I'd spent a lot of time in the past year or two viewing John Ford movies looking for some clue that there was a great artist amongst all the fat, and now I've found it. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is his masterpiece, and his great reputation can rest on this one movie alone.

DVD Details: Paramount has replaced their 2001 DVD with this spectacular new two-disc set. Disc one comes with a new commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich (featuring excerpts of his interviews with Ford, Wayne and Stewart), and there's a selected scene commentary with Dan Ford and more audio recordings. Plus there are optional language and subtitle tracks. Disc two comes with a 50-minute documentary "The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth," the trailer and a stills gallery. Paramount released it in May of 2009 as part of their Centennial Collection.