"Pilgrim! Where ya goin'?"
Director John Ford started making pictures in 1917 and among his early silents were several Westerns. But it was his 1939 black-and-white Western "Stagecoach" with John Wayne that won worldwide recognition and popularity. So it was fitting that among Ford's very last works he would do the 1962 black-and-white Western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," with John Wayne and James Stewart. Ford made many a movie with Wayne over a twenty-three-year period, some of them Westerns, some of them not, and he never let us down.
The thing is, this was not one of my favorite Westerns when I was younger. It appeared about the time I graduated from high school, and I had kind of grown out of the Western genre by then. More important, the movie seemed to lumber along at a pace that reminded me of another Western I hadn't cared for, "High Noon." It didn't help that many of the reviews I remember from the time were quite disparaging of "Liberty Valance," calling it clumsy, old-fashioned, and indulgent, and I was well into college before I saw both films again and began to appreciate them as screen classics.
Ford, Wayne, and Stewart are at their best in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," although all three appear to be doing the same things they had been doing for decades. Maybe it's because Ford and company make it all seem so simple that one can easily miss the substance of their work. About the only critical comment I can make about the film these days is that I wish Ford (or the studio) had filmed it entirely in the great outdoors rather than confining so much of it to studio soundstages. Ford was at his most expansive in the wild, and stages seemed to cramp his style.
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is Ford's bittersweet elegy to the passing of the old wild West with the coming of a new age of law and order. In addition, it's a meditation on the differences between fact and myth, the latter being something built up through dime novels and Hollywood films. Ironically, perhaps, while the movie is thoughtful and thought-provoking, it also displays Ford's most sentimental qualities, which only makes it all the more endearing. Think here of "The Grapes of Wrath."
Ford, along with screenwriters James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, tells the movie's story in flashback, as Stewart's character, Ransom Stoddard, an elderly U.S. Senator, returns to the small town of Shinbone for the funeral of an old friend, rancher Tom Doniphon (Wayne). Stoddard tells the tale to a newspaper editor, apparently to get it off his chest.
Stoddard explains that when he first arrived in Shinbone many years before, he was a penniless young lawyer, newly out of school and with only a law book and a few dollars to his name. But on his way to town an outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and his gang waylaid the stage, and Valance beat Stoddard within an inch of his life with a silver-topped whip. Valance, Stoddard later learned, was a sadistic killer, a "no-good, gun-packing, murdering thief." Stoddard couldn't understand why everyone in Shinbone put up with him, how they could leave such a vicious murderer alone to terrorize the town. He later learned it was because everyone was afraid of him, and the only law in town was a worthless coward, Marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine).
Wayne's character, Tom Doniphon, represents the old West, which used the force of fist and gun to administer justice. Who better for the part than Wayne. Wearing a shirt and chaps reminiscent of the ones he wore in "The Searchers," Wayne is the epitome of rugged Western individualism. Stewart's character, Rance Stoddard, on the other hand, represents the new West, which would govern through the law of the land. Stoddard is the idealist, symbolizing the forward progress of civilization, out to right the wrongs of Mankind through reason and intellect. Think of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Inevitably, we know these two diametrically opposed forces will have to clash, providing the movie its major impetus.
Like "High Noon," the movie is not an action adventure but a dramatic character study, providing psychological insights into basic human motives and behavior. But that's not to say Ford doesn't populate his story with the typical denizens of a Hollywood horse opera, like the beautiful young woman, Hallie Ericson (Vera Miles), for whom both Stoddard and Doniphon vie; or the colorful roster of supporting characters played by every character actor in Tinseltown: Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef, Ken Murray, Edmond O'Brien, John Carradine, John Qualen, Jeanette Nolan, Woody Strode, and many more. The film's cast is like a roster of everybody Ford had ever worked with, and they bring the story to life with a familiar and homey vigor.
Moreover, we know that however intellectual the film may be, there is going to be a final showdown. Wait for it. Even though there's a little too much anticlimactic action following it, it's one of the scenes you'll remember.
In "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" John Ford combines drama, excitement, thought, and humor to make an atypical Western of significant substance and enduring power. And to his credit, Ford creates a final moment that's as touching as anything you're likely to find in any movie, Western or not. The man went out in style.
As always, Paramount have used a good print and done the upmost to transfer it to disc in the best possible condition. The 1.85:1 ratio, anamorphic widescreen black-and-white picture shows up with strong contrasts, the whites only sometimes overshadowing the darker tones and glowing a bit too brightly. Definition is reasonably sharp for a standard-def presentation, with a modicum of natural film grain and few signs of excessive age marks or deterioration.
Unlike the video, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio does show its age in being a bit too bright, forward, and edgy in the midrange and having little to show for itself in terms of frequency range, dynamic impact, or surround activity. Still, the sound serves the film well enough, and there is certainly no difficulty understanding the dialogue or being annoyed by background noise.
Disc one of this two-disc "Centennial Collection" set includes an audio commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who is his usual chatty, informative, pleasantly easy-to-listen-to self, and he brings along his archival recordings of John Ford and James Stewart. Plus, we get some selected scene commentaries featuring John Ford's grandson, Dan Ford, and his archival recordings of John Ford, James Stewart, and Lee Marvin. The first disc wraps up with fifteen scene selections; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two contains a seven-part documentary, "The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth," a fifty-one-minute examination of Ford and the movie through the eyes of critics, filmmakers, and film historians. After that are three still galleries of John Ford, lobby cards, and production photos, followed by an original widescreen theatrical trailer. The two-disc slim-line keep case comes housed in one of Paramount's elegant "Centennial Collection" slipcases, which also includes an eight-page, illustrated informational booklet.
As I said in the beginning, when I first saw "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" I was still in high school and thought it was a rather slow-moving affair. I expected Westerns to be more rollicking shoot-em-ups, yet at the same time I felt I had outgrown them. It would be years before I recognized the movie as a thoughtful and exciting drama, an appropriate tribute to the passing of the Old West, and a fitting salute to the films of screen legend John Ford. I couldn't be happier that Paramount has given it their two-disc "Centennial Collection" treatment and only hope they'll someday release it in high-definition Blu-ray.
"Whoa! Take 'er easy there, Pilgrim."