THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962, d. John Ford) is essential. It’s essential as a work of storytelling art. It’s essential as cinematic text. It’s an essential piece of the careers of its stars, and of that of its director.
This film came towards the end of John Ford’s directing career, and it’s the second-to-last he made with John Wayne. (DONOVAN’S REEF, a lark, was their final collaboration.) This one has incredible symbolic power. Without getting into a more fraught conversation about offscreen politics, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are two of the stars in cinema history who most clearly represent America. Wayne was the pioneering, swaggering, boistrous side of America, and Stewart represented a more relatable, emotional, idealistic, and valiant side. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is where these two visions of America collide, and where they diverge.
This movie arrived at what was almost exactly the midpoint of American cinema. It’s an explosive elegy for the great films of the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s. From here, the 1960s dawned, and America changed. The genius of this film is how it is about all of these things even while providing a terrific story. The way that the film is bookended by scenes that take place in the character’s old age certainly confirms the historical reading of the film, but it’s certainly also possible to enjoy the film as a purely commercial old-school Western.
Stewart plays a lawyer whose Arrival in a frontier town called Shinbone begins with a brutal assault by the guy in the title, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin!). He’s rescued by the Wayne character, the only man around who isn’t afeared of Liberty Valance. What follows is nothing less than a battle between civilization and frontier justice. Wayne wants to deal with the outlaw gang in the most effective way, while Stewart argues for the more democratic solution. On top of that, both Wayne and Stewart are in love with the same girl (Vera Miles, best known to younger generations for her role in PSYCHO). This movie has an incredible cast, including Ford stock players such as John Qualen and Andy Devine, and Woody Strode and Edmond O’Brien on the side of goodness and decency, and Strother Martin and Lee Motherfucking Van Cleef on the side of lawlessness and nasty-actin’.
And then there’s Lee Marvin, patron saint of shitkickers, who from this role graduated to leading-man parts. He played heels and heavies for years before playing this, quite possibly the nastiest of them all (although he’s pretty fucking ugly in THE BIG HEAT). Lee being Lee, he continued to play bad men, but they were a more likable breed. This was arguably his last straight-up villainous role. After this definitive bad-guy, there was no way to deny that Lee was not on the iconic level of a John Wayne, rather than playing support to him, which is why their next movie, DONOVAN’S REEF, literally isn’t much more than a series of epic slugfests between the two of them.
This movie is necessary in every way. It’s a virtual textbook of masculinity, it’s a profound statement on history and mortality, and it represents some of the best work of all of its bold-faced participants. Fail to see it and fail to have your opinions on film taken seriously.
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