When at the tender age of just twenty-six Orsen Welles delivered Citizen Kane, a groundbreaking piece of cinema both technically and thematically that has served as a benchmark ever since, people were understandably curious as to how he'd managed to accomplish it. His reply was his strikingly simple: "I studied the greats: John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."
Prolific, innovative, and famed for his commanding yet eccentric directorial style, John Ford is widely regarded as one of the great masters of American cinema. But it is within the genre of the western (where his best work genuinely does reside) that he is best remembered and will always remain as a true icon. Famed for his now legendary vistas and location shooting where he displayed an eye for landscape that would rival the greatest canvas artists, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance represents something of a departure from the mold for Ford and the result is, according to Sergio Leone, "the only film where Ford learned about something called pessimism."
Unlike Leone and other notable western filmmakers, such as Peckinpah, whose work was considered bleak and cynical, Ford was regarded as something of a sentimentalist. Ford's stories, while rich and epic in scope, were often simple morality tales where righteous men were tested, coming out the other side better for it. It was with Ford that John Wayne, then just another B-movie cowboy, forged the image for which he will always be remembered ("A man's got to do what a man's got to do").
Ford dealt with themes of encroaching civilization and the passing of a way of life, but up to this point always indulged the legend of the old west. Having spent much of his career perpetuating the screen myths of American frontier history this final collaboration between Ford and Wayne finds the director in a typically nostalgic mood (both Wayne and Stewart were way too old for the roles) but finds the old master finally conceding something to truth and Liberty Valance is the study of how those myths are formed.
Despite second billing on screen behind Wayne, an aging Jimmy Stewart stars as Ransom Stoddard, a well know veteran politician who arrives in the town of Shinbone with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon, a man described as a friend who it seems died as something of an anonymous pauper. Through flashback, Ransom somberly recounts to a group of curious newspaper men his story, detailing the vital role his late friend played in shaping his then fledgling political career.
We learn Stoddard was a tenderfoot attorney who was once robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the infamous bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), hired by cattle barons to intimidate townsfolk of the range who might think of organizing a petition for stateship. Much of the film comprises Stoddard's seemingly futile efforts to bring a sense of law and order to the untamed town of Shinbone. In fact, Ford seemingly takes great delight in presenting him as a thoroughly emasculated figure. With no money as a result of the robbery, he pays his way working in the boarding house kitchen where he is seen washing dishes and waiting tables - work which other characters remind him is that of a woman. As his efforts to civilize Shinbone deepen he takes on the role of "school ma'am", instructing locals in reading, writing, and "the basics of law and order." The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is essentially a deeply ironic, anti-mythic tug-of-war between the law of the book and the law of the gun, with Ford ably illustrating that upstanding principles are worth nothing if you can't defend them by force.
Refusing to wear a gun and instead looking to the overweight local Marshall (think the Cowardly Lion without the fur) to enforce the peace, Stoddard is constantly tormented by the despicable Valance and repeatedly finds himself rescued by rugged rancher Doniphon (Wayne). This results in much venting of impotent rage on the part of Stoddard, to which Doniphon, in the face of what he sees as pure big city naivete, responds with a knowing sense of smugness. Finally pushed to breaking point Stoddard confronts Valance causing Donipon to intervene in what would surely otherwise have been the tenderfoot's death, leading the townspeople to elevate Stoddard to the level of hero, even as they all remain blissfully unaware of the truth of the encounter.
Regarded in retrospect as Ford's last truly great picture, Liberty Valance is a carefully considered, intimate piece based on a short story Ford edited in order to make the character of Doniphon more passive and thus the newfound status of Stoddard all the more arbitrary. Set almost entirely within town limits it lacks the trademark long shots and expansive landscapes that the director was known for; as if in the face of the studio system's collapse and massive social upheaval he felt somehow contained by forces of change he could no longer repel. The death of the frontier as Ford saw it meant the death of the romanticized American hero; that idea embodied by Doniphon, the true hero lying as a pauper in a pine box, is exactly what Ford delivered. Even as the newspapermen bid their farewell, now knowing the truth, his story remains untold. As they retire back to their offices one casually remarks: "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend," and the real hero is lost to history.
DVD Bonus Features
Disc one contains a detailed commentary track by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich along with archival recordings with John Ford and Jimmy Stewart. Disc two contains a seven-part featurette outlining John Ford's relationship to the western genre as something of a shepherd of traditional good-triumphs-over-evil storytelling and how Liberty Valance represents a thematic shift away from that. Additionally the chapters go on to detail the role that television, stars, new working conditions and a growing disaffection with the past on the part of the viewer played in the death of the old time studio western. Disc two also contains an extensive picture gallery.
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is on sale May 19, 2009 and is rated NR. Western. Directed by John Ford. Written by James Warner Ballah and Willis Goldbeck (Screenplay), Dorothy M. Johnson. Starring Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles.