Friday, 31 July 2015

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The most famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford 1962) is undoubtedly "This is the West sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It has gotten a life of its own, popping up on a number of different occasions. But there is another line, also spoken in the first few minutes of the film, which to me is of equal importance. The film begins with a US senator and his wife arriving with train to the (fictional) town called Shinbone, where they once lived, many years ago. As she goes on a tour of the place with an old friend, the former marshal, she says "The place sure has changed. Churches, high schools, shops." The marshal replies "Well, the railroad done that." I have earlier written about trains and their importance for films and for society at large, the blood stream of modernity (here and here), and Liberty Valance is one of the films which directly deals with this. The railroad changes everything. In a later scene the senator says to a couple of reporters that they are young, they do not remember the old days before the railroad. It is a reminder that John Ford's breakthrough was The Iron Horse (1924), a film about the building of the transcontinental railroad, from California to Iowa (where it connected with the railroad to the east coast). Both these films are also a reminder that one of Ford's main thematic concerns has always been the history of the United States. Some have called Ford the Shakespeare of the US, and he has also been compared to Balzac, but there is another Frenchman that could be invoked. Alexis de Tocqueville.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is told in one long flashback, with the senator, Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart), explaining to the reporters why he has come back to Shinbone after so many years. He and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles) have come because an old friend has died, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). But the story is not just one of these three people, it is also about democracy in America, hence the relevance of mentioning Tocqueville, and his major study of the US, Democracy in America (De la démocratie en Amérique) published in two parts 1835 and 1840. His analysis of, for example, the grassroot democracy in small towns, such as Shinbone; the habit of having elections for all positions (although de Tocqueville disapproves of having judges elected); his talk of "self-interest well understood" as the bedrock of American society; his emphasis on the importance of justice, including as a check on democracy itself. These are things which Liberty Valance and other films by Ford address. Combining Ford and Tocqueville has been done before (see for example Robert Pippin's essay "Tocqueville, the Problem of Equality, and John Ford's Stagecoach") but I wonder if not more can be done here. Most of Ford's films that are set in the past, at least those set in the American past, could be studied in tandem with Democracy in America. The fact that Ford's depiction of that past changed over time might make such a comparative study even more interesting.

Hallie, Pompey and in the back the Ericsons.

I have seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance many times, but it continues to grow on me. At first I did not like it, for much the same reasons that it was disliked when it came out in 1962 and was seen as cheap, stagey and old-fashioned, far from the powerful landscapes and rich colours of Ford's earlier films. But Ford had deliberately made it in such a style, bringing the look closer to a certain kind of silent westerns (not like the epic The Iron Horse) but the simple and contained ones. But there is nothing simple about Liberty Valance. It is complex and nuanced, and rich with bitterness. The young Ranse Stoddard is idealistic, excited and passionate, he believes in law and justice. The old Stoddard has become pompous, patrician and condescending. Whether he believes in anything anymore is a valid question. Tom Doniphon, who was once respected and loved by all, a pillar of society, has died alone and forgotten. Hallie Stoddard probably married the wrong man. And both Shinbone's success and Ranse Stoddard's political career are based on a lie. That is not the view of an old-fashioned film, even if Ford's style might be a deliberate homage to an earlier style of filmmaking. It is also Ford's way of addressing his own films. This is very much a Fordian film, even if the basic plot about Liberty Valance and his death comes from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, to which Ford had acquired the rights. The script was written by James Warner Bellah, on whose stories Ford's so-called cavalry trilogy were also based, and Willis Goldbeck. This was the second film they wrote together for Ford, the previous one was Sergeant Rutledge (1960) in which Woody Strode played the title role. (There is a prominent musical theme in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance which is the same as appears in Young Mr. Lincoln which Ford made in 1939.)

John Wayne's character Tom Doniphon is similar to Ethan Edwards, Wayne's character in Ford's earlier The Searchers (1956). They are both interstices between the past, which they represent, and the future, which they help bring about but are unable to join. They are also in-between violence and peace. Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin) is the villain in this film, but there is not a neat line between him and the rest of town, it is a grey area. Doniphon is right in the middle. He is not psychotic and homicidal like Ethan Edwards, instead he descends into self-pity and resentment, but they still have the same role in society.


Liberty Valance is an ambivalent villain because, while he is often referred to as pure evil, he is insecure and bitter too. It sometimes seems as if he is violent and arrogant as a reaction against the town's hatred towards him. Sometimes he looks at Doniphon and Stoddard with a puzzled expression, sometimes with envy, sometimes with resentment. In the end, when he is shot, the doctor contemptuously rolls him over and says "He's dead." after which he is thrown on a wagon and driven out of town, his legs hanging down and the boots almost dragging in the sand. It is like as if the minute he is killed, he is forgotten.

I also said that Doniphon died alone and forgotten, but that is not quite true. His friend Pompey (Woody Strode) was with him until the end. Their friendship was of the "close personal" kind that might be given a queer reading, although it is not necessary. But Pompey is an important character, and there are a few pointed scenes with him, based around the fact that he is a black man. In one scene he is reciting the Declaration of Independence, standing beside a photograph of Abraham Lincoln, but is unable to remember the words "that all men are created equal". Perhaps he was unable to say them because he had never been treated as an equal. In a later scene, when he is denied service in a saloon, the audience is reminded of this.

The joy, hope and aspirations of the church building scene in Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) are nowhere to be seen in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it would be a mistake to see this is a sudden change in Ford's outlook. His films have rarely been cheerful and optimistic. There is great beauty in them, and sometimes love and kindness triumphs, but there is frequent darkness, tragedy, a mourning of something that has gone missing but was probably never there in the first place. In How Green Was My Valley (1941) the grown man remembers his childhood with affection and longing, yet that childhood is presented as being filled with poverty, death, prejudice and oppression. There is usually a double view of the past in Ford's films, and so it is in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

"The place sure has changed. Churches, high schools, shops." Hallie said, and the marshal replied "Well, the railroad done that." Then he added, wistfully, "The desert's still the same."


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This post does not walk alone, it has a partner. My friend and former guest blogger Sofia Åkerberg has also written about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for today. Read her here.

The Iron Horse is not a great film, and maybe it would have been better if Raoul Walsh had directed it. But it is not a bad film either. There is especially a scene on a train filled with wounded men and women, among them an old man who is weeping inconsolably next to his dead friend, which is heartbreaking.

Three earlier post by me about Ford are here: The Grapes of Wrath, Tobacco Road, The Searchers.

4 comments:

  1. Argh, I haven't seen it yet. I missed the opportunity to inclue it in The Decades project. But I have it on dvd, waiting in my collection, so one fine day...

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  2. About the different setting -- so it's not true that they were a consequence of the studio trying to save money?

    I thought the relation between Tom och Liberty was very interesting, In some way they are alike, men of the same stock. I'm not sure Tom believes in democracy any more than Liberty and in some way, Ranse has to fight them both.

    Very nice post, of course. After this one, High Noon and Once Upon... I feel a little bit more up to date on the railroad's importance in the wild west (or at least movies set in the wild west).

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    1. Yes, according to the research I've done the film was Ford's idea to start with, and he coughed up half of the budget. He turned to Paramount Studios and they agreed to be involved and distribute it. He went to them because they had a contract with John Wayne and Ford wanted him (Wayne was somewhat reluctant because he felt that Doniphon was less interesting than the other main characters.) In Ford's contract with Paramount it was stipulated that he wanted to do it in black and white, because he felt it was important for the message and meaning he wanted to put across.

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  3. Great movie..Liberty Valance. A question though...has anyone noticed that there appears something written in the dirt about 1:34:12 into the movie. It's the part where our hero. Ranse, confronts Liberty Valance outside the saloon. As he reaches for the dropped gun, there appears to be something written in the dirt. Has anyone made it out what it is?

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