June 18, 2010

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Grade: 64/100

Director: John Ford
Stars: John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin

What it's about. Set in the second half of the 19th century, in a Utah-like Western territory. James Stewart is a recent law school graduate, determined to open up a law firm in a remote town. He soon makes an enemy of Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a reckless outlaw hired by wealthy ranchers to intimidate the town into opposing statehood. Stewart also makes several friends, including tough guy cowboy John Wayne, hottie waitress Vera Miles, newspaper owner Edmond O'Brien, and cowardly town marshal Andy Devine.

Wayne, Stewart, and O'Brien team up to foil one of Valance's heinous schemes, but Valance blames Stewart, and calls him out for a showdown. Remarkably, Stewart (thanks to Wayne) wins the High Midnight shootout, which makes him a statewide hero. This leads to a lengthy political career, and also wins him the hand of Vera Miles, who formerly was almost engaged to John Wayne. Meanwhile, Wayne, once the big man on campus, becomes a nobody.

How others will see it. This movie is must-see for classic movie fans due to its cast and director alone. Furthermore, it is a good movie, especially if you like seeing famous actors playing characters very similar to those they have already played in many other films. For example, Lee Marvin's wild man surfaces again in Cat Ballou and Ship of Fools, John Wayne was tall in the saddle in innumerable westerns, Jimmy Stewart was the stammering and slow talking Western goody-goody dating back to Destry Rides Again, and Andy Devine still thinks he's in Stagecoach.

The imdb.com user ratings are high but show a wide gender disparity. Men give it 8.1 out of 10, women a lower 6.8, and women over 45 award it only 5.8. Women clearly see the film differently: Lee Marvin is an annoying ham, Wayne and Stewart are much too old for Miles, and Miles (the only consequential female character) is not the carnival prize for Stewart (presumably) shooting Valance.

How I felt about it. John Wayne sacrifices his future for Stewart, beginning with the town election that sends Stewart and O'Brien to the statehouse. Wayne knows that the era of gunslingers needs to end, and men like Stewart will win the west. Burning down his own house ensures the end of the faux engagement to Vera Miles as well as his own financial ruin. Wayne isn't happy about it, but he's glad he done it.

Ford thus adopts the Tolstoyian "War and Peace" view of history in which outcomes are preordained by God, who uses men as agents to do his bidding. Wayne is God's agent, performing such acts as are necessary to achieve God's will, which involves important political accomplishments by Stewart. Once Wayne is no longer useful to God's plan, God consigns him to the dustbin of history, and not even Stewart can take him out of there.

John Ford's own long career as a director, which began in the era of silent shorts in 1917, was winding down by 1962. The present film has a nostalgic feel to it, similar to Ride the High Country, another western from the same year that starred two aging veterans, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrae. The famous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," can be adapted to the Hollywood western as well, and no one had done it better for longer than John Ford.