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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Linguists should get a kick out of what other characters call Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), a law school graduate who makes his way West in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. To Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), he's always "Dude," which surfers and stoneheads (and me, occasionally) have turned into an all-purpose greeting, but which originally meant a city man, particularly an easterner in the west, and was generally considered pejorative. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) gives Stoddard a similar nickname, "Pilgrim," meaning one who travels in foreign lands. This greeting became so identified with Wayne that its original meaning became blurred as well. Essentially both characters are calling Stoddard the same thing — they're just coming at it from different angles.

Written by:
James Warner Bellah
Willis Goldbeck
Dorothy M. Johnson (story)

Directed by:
John Ford

Starring:
John Wayne
James Stewart
Vera Miles
Lee Marvin
Edmond O'Brien
Andy Devine
Woody Strode
John Carradine
Ken Murray
Denver Pyle
Strother Martin
Lee Van Cleef

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Costume Design (Edith Head)

Quote:
"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Embarrassing Moment:
Senator Stoddard tucks some bills into the hands of Pompey, Doniphon's ever-faithful Negro servant. When Pompey objects, Stoddard shakes his head and insists, "Pork chop money." Pronounces it "Po'k."

Linguistics aside, how is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? All the principles were a bit long-in-the-tooth when the film was made (Stewart: 54, Wayne: 55, director John Ford: 68), and it shows. This is the John Wayne that always gets imitated: the ten-gallon hat, the swishy swagger, the aforementioned "Pilgrim." Stewart is his usual aw-shucks self (more rube than dude, really) but with sudden bursts of Anthony Mann-type fury that, because they're so seethingly impotent, are more embarrassing than anything.

Even so, the film comes close to being very, very good. Stoddard, "fresh out of law school" and traveling west, is part of a stagecoach that gets ransacked by Liberty Valance and his men. When he comes to the aid of a woman, he's horsewhipped. Near death, he's taken to the town of Shinbone, where we meet the usual John Ford stock characters: comic, bustling Swedes (the Ericsons), a fat, effete Marshall (Appleyard, played by Andy Devine), and an alcoholic newspaperman (Dutton Peabody, played by Edmond O'Brien). Everyone knows about Liberty Valance but they feel powerless to stop him. Instead they get mad at the Marshall, who retreats into whimperings and steak dinners. Quick question: Why don't they get mad at Doniphon? He's obviously the only dude tough enough to stop Valance. So why doesn't he? Because then the movie would only last a half hour.

Ransom Stoddard repays the Ericsons' kindness by washing dishes and teaching the townsfolk how to read, and there's a mild courtship with a local spitfire named Hallie (Vera Miles, age 32), who's generally considered Doniphon's girl.

There's also an upcoming election on whether to keep the territory an open range or apply for statehood. Cattle ranchers up north want the range and hire Liberty and his men (including Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin) to make sure the vote goes their way. When Shinbone elects delegates on the matter, four names are tossed into the ring: Tom Doniphon (who declines "Cuz I got other plans. Personal plans."), Ransom Stoddard, Dutton Peabody, and Liberty Valance. Valance only receives three votes and decides to remove Stoddard once and for all: a gunfight between the great gunslinger and the city-bred lawyer who's no good with a gun. And yet, as the Gene Pitney song tells us, "Everyone heard two shots ring out/ The shot made Liberty fall..." Stoddard, arm in a sling, goes to the convention, becomes the state's first governor, then its U.S. Senator. He becomes Ambassador to the Court of St. James, then Senator again. Somewhere in there he marries Hallie.

Of course there's more to the story. At the convention, when Stoddard is morally waffling (he feels guilty for having killed an evil man), Doniphon saunters in, and, in private, tells him the truth: It was Doniphon who killed Liberty Valance, from the side, with a rifle — tossed to him by his ever-faithful Negro sidekick Pompey (Woody Strode). Stoddard's shot missed high and wide.

All of which is very appealing cinematically. It makes the title resound with echoes, like a good gunblast, and the ending — when a railroad man says of the distinguished Senator, "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!" — feels bittersweet, even tragic, as this great man is still known for something he never did, while the great man who shot Liberty Valance remains unknown.

Yet what of Doniphon's motivation here? He does everything he can to lose Hallie — not acting when he should, acting when it benefits Stoddard — then goes on a binge of drinking and destruction when he feels he's lost her. Not to mention Stoddard's reaction to Doniphon's revelation. He's so overjoyed he didn't kill an evil man he seems willing to take credit for something he never did. In fact, he builds his entire career on it.

It's as if both legendary stars have to have impeccable motivations for their actions; yet these motivations don't fit into the storyline's tight structure.

The movie fails in smaller areas as well. The stock characters, as I've implied, aren't funny. Vera Miles' Hallie starts out as a spitfire but quickly becomes a melancholy dame (she winds up with the wrong man). The editing feels lazy. In one scene, we get a shot from behind as Stewart heads towards a door. Cut to the doorway shot, where Stewart seems to have taken several steps backward.

But the most glaring problem is that the middle is taken up with schtick and history lessons when it should be about expanding upon its main characters. There's a great scene on Doniphon's ranch: Doniphon humiliates Stoddard with paint cans, and, in return, Stoddard belts him, a good wallop, to which Doniphon, on the ground and rubbing his jaw, looks up with confusion and then respect. It's a great Wayne tradition. There should have been more of this.

—November 20, 2001

© 2001 Erik Lundegaard