“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a film that is highly revered today by critics and audiences alike, although when it was released in 1962 it wasn’t met with the same enthusiasm. Ironically today it is one of John Ford’s most popular films along with The Searchers and Stagecoach. Many even consider this to be Ford’s masterpiece and the purest example of the Western genre and the transition it was heading for. The film’s greatest appeal was that it starred James Stewart and John Wayne for the first time together. Wayne always did his best work under Ford’s direction, but Stewart was the real star and had been at the height of his career for a while. I’m assuming watching the two together must have intrigued audiences at the time because I was definitely interested in catching up with this classic for that very reason. The film was shot in black and white, which I believe had a lot to do with the fact that both Wayne and Stewart were playing characters 30 years younger than their actual age, although it also gave the film a nostalgic quality to it. A nostalgia that works for this film in particular because through this character study we see a shift of power and dynamics from the traditional macho cowboy character living by the way of the gun to the literate and educated character who believes in justice and law. It also has a strong political undercurrent but it is basically a western where the power balance is shifting from one ideal to another. The black and white composition also allowed Ford to focus more on the characters and their relationship, delivering a carefully constructed character study as well.
The film opens with Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) arriving at the train station of a small local town with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles). This is the town where Hallie grew up in and where she met Ransom some 25 years earlier. When a local reporter asks the Senator what thy are doing in town he mentions they are in town for the funeral of a dear old friend named Tom. No one seems to recall who Tom was, except of course his personal ranch assistant Pompey (Woody Strode) who is mourning his friend’s death next to the casket. Wanting to know why this mysterious man’s death is so important to them, the reporter asks for an explanation. And so the flashback begins as Ransom narrates the story of how they met. He was a recently graduated lawyer at the time who was arriving from the East in search of better opportunities. Upon his arrival, his stagecoach was robbed by a bandit named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and he was brutally beat. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) came across his unconscious body and brought him to a local family restaurant where Hallie worked at. Once he recovers, Ransom wants to press charges against Liberty but he soon discovers that isn’t the way things are handled in the West. Not being able to make much use of his profession in this town, he offers his help at the restaurant and also begins educating Hallie and some local ranchers in the area. Meanwhile, Valance is still in town causing havoc everywhere he goes, and Ransom sees no other way to stop him but to face him despite his lack of expertise with guns.
I’m a huge fan of the Western genre and had high expectations for this classic, but I was underwhelmed by it. I found the pacing a bit slow and the fact that the film was shot on sound stages at the studio took away what I appreciate the most about the genre: the beautiful and vast location. The film is shot mostly in enclosed spaces focusing more on the characters, and although John Wayne and James Stewart were both great, I never felt their characters were developed naturally. The transitions they go through were merely there to serve the purpose of the story which was to expose the shift of our ideals of the western world. The facts are much more boring than the legends and that is exactly how I felt about this film. The villain in this film wasn’t menacing at all and he simply behaved like a grown-up bully so the tension there was missing as well. The twists in the story were rather predictable as well so the final revelation never did anything for me either. The fact that Wayne and Stewart are supposed to be playing such young characters was also a distraction. Overall I understand why this film is regarded as a classic, but I just wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I had anticipated.