Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #125 on the list, John Ford‘s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. For a longer introduction and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll be posting that info later in the day.
There is a trope that most impressionists use when they are imitating John Wayne, and that is to call whomever they are addressing “Pilgrim”. Now I can’t say for sure that this movie was the first or only time that Wayne actually used that word, and it does make sense in context, but by the time the movie was over I could see why it would become the go-to caricature of Wayne’s way of talking. Actually, by the time the film ended, I was ready to pull a gun on Wayne myself if he used it one more time.
In this particular case, however, the “Pilgrim” in question is James Stewart‘s character Ransom “Rance” Stoddard. Stoddard is an attorney, presumably fresh out of law school, who is following Horace Greeley’s advice to “Go west, young man!” and find his fame and fortune in the territorial town of Shinbone. We’re never told exactly which territory Shinbone is located in, but it is one that is in the process of voting for statehood and deciding whether to become an actual part of the United States or remain a territory.
It’s this decision, and the need for a local vote to elect representatives to a territory-wide convention that provides the backdrop for the main conflict of the movie. That conflict boils down to one between cattlemen to the north of what is called the Picketwire River, and the townsfolk south of the river. The cattle ranchers want things to remain as they are, because in a society of “might makes right”, they hold the cards and most of the money, so they can run roughshod over the settlers who are desperately trying to hold onto their lands and eke out a small living. The settlers, on the other hand, want the territory to join the union as a new state so that they can use the power of the federal government and its laws to break the oppressive grip of the ranchers.
It’s into the midst of this conflict that Stoddard rides, bringing with him an idealistic belief in the power of the law as opposed to the power of the gun. However it not only sets up a conflict between Stoddard and the titular Liberty Valance, who is the cattlemen’s hired gun, frequently riding into town not only to run roughshod over the people there while having some fun at the expense of those who are too scared of his quickness and skill with a gun to stop him, but to remind the townfolk how powerless they really are in the face of the rancher’s money, it also sets up a conflict between the newly arrived “pilgrim” and Wayne’s Tom Doniphan who up until this point has used his own gun to make sure that Valance never steps too far over the line.
It is, of course, this latter conflct that actually is the heart of the movie, and is where director Ford’s interest actually lies. As a matter of fact, even though it’s Valance’s name that appears in the title, it is completely apropos that the real emphasis is on the man who shot him. Lee Marvin’s Valance is actually a fairly one-note character, all gruff grumble, shout, and bluff, whereas both Stewart’s and Wayne’s characters are much more rounded.
What really makes this movie memorable, of course, and what sets it apart from other westerns that preceded it, is the way in which it goes about asking and then answering question at its core. In the conflict between Stoddard and Doniphan, Ford asks his characters and his audience to struggle with the question of who is really stronger, the man with the law on his side, or the man with the gun in his hand? Interestingly, in the way the movie plays out, the answer may not be the one you would expect.
To say that this is not exactly a “feel good” movie may be a bit of an understatement. Though we do get a sense of “justice triumphant”, it is at best a pyrrhic victory, and there is a sense of melancholy that runs through the entire film. It is definitely a case of “at what cost?” Ford’s west here may be somewhat romanticized, but it is never to the point where the viewer is allowed to forget that it was won on blood, and though the movie’s oft-quoted tagline, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” may seem like it’s offering up something bold and brash, it actually serves to underscore the theme of men who, in the end, are forced to live with a particular lie, and the effect that it has on them for the rest of their lives.
I haven’t really touched on the rest of the cast, but they are all incredibly strong in their support of the main players. Vera Miles plays Hallie, the female part of the inevitable love triangle between Stoddard and Doniphan (though really even that subplot is given a bit of short shrift as it’s made obvious from the first scenes in the movie how that is going to play out, though perhaps not exactly why), and she is well cast in a role that unfortunately doesn’t give her as much to do as one might hope. Even someone like Andy Devine, who later in life would continue to play variations on his ineffectual marshal character here, becoming increasingly broad as time goes on, is actually surprisingly restrained and comes across as a man who is not necessarily coward, but simply knows that he really has no power to enforce the law, no matter whether he is officially the man with the badge or not. Edmund O’Brien also provides an interesting turn as the town’s newspaperman, who, though brave enough to offer Stoddard a place to open his law office and to run quite eloquent stories that are pro-statehood despite increasing threats from Valance, is eventually revealed as the town drunk who really only finds that courage in a shot of whiskey.
The cast is rounded out by a surprising number of other supporting players who all either were, or would become, quite recognizable in their own right, such as Lee Van Cleef, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Jeanette Nolan, Ken Murray, and John Carradine.
All in all, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a very strong film, and it’s quite easy to see why it ranks so high on the top 250 list. (Though interestingly, it is not the highest-ranked film for any of its three leads, nor for director Ford. But we’ll get to those other films eventually.)
Here’s the trailer:
So what are your thoughts on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Is it a movie that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Let me know below.