“A poignant, mournful, dying fall”
Like many people, I am not a huge fan of John Ford’s late Westerns. The Searchers was the last really good one he made, I think, and that was in 1956. The Horse Soldiers in 1959 was really very ordinary (despite a fine performance from William Holden). Sergeant Rutledge (1960) was better but distinctly flawed. Ford himself said of Two Rode Together (1961) that he had only made it for the money and it was “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years”. Ford’s segment of How the West was Won in 1962 was only slightly better than the other turgid parts of that bloated bore. And by Cheyenne Autumn (1964), his last Western, the old man had completely lost it, turning in a meandering, disappointing film which was among his worst ever.
Only The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance of the late pictures really had quality, and even that was marred by weaknesses, though it is highly regarded by many. A friend of mine, a writer who is not (poor soul) a Western lover, asked me once which Western I thought to be the best of all; was it not Liberty Valance? Fascinating. No, ma’am, I told her, it is very far from the best Western, and far also from Ford’s best Western.
But so many people, including real Westernistas, even (gasp) people who read this blog, hold this picture in high esteem, and Ford himself thought it definitely one of his better efforts, that when it came on TV last night I decided to give it another go. I reviewed it back in the spring of 2017 and was pretty down on it then, though I hope fair. Maybe it deserved a re-evaluation.
The picture opens (and closes) with a classic Western image, a train. There is a reference to the benefits of modernity that the train will bring.
“The place sure has changed.”
“Well, the railroad done that.”
When we see a stagecoach, it is covered with cobwebs and up on blocks, disused; it represents the old days, the days of highway robberies, of slow and dangerous travel. And perhaps it also makes reference to an earlier John Ford Western, also of a bygone time.
The train has brought Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife Hallie back to Shinbone (perhaps in Arizona or New Mexico). They explain to the local newspaperman that they have come for the funeral of their old friend Tom Doniphon. The reporter wants to know why. “I have a right to have the story,” he rather presumptuously claims. Surprisingly, the senator agrees, and tells what happened all those years ago when he and Hallie and Tom Doniphon were young in Shinbone.
The screenplay was by Willis Goldbeck and Ford regular James Warner Bellah. Goldbeck had worked on Sergeant Rutledge but didn’t really do Westerns; he wrote the Doctor Kildare pictures for MGM. Bellah was more of a Western specialist, especially of Army pictures: he worked on all three films of Ford’s cavalry trilogy and on Sergeant Rutledge with Goldbeck. The script of Liberty Valance was based on a 1949 short story by Dorothy M Johnson, she of A Man Called Horse and The Hanging Tree, for which Ford paid $7,500 in 1961. Ford and his writers made substantial changes, however. Ford wrote to Wayne, “Seriously we have a great script in my humble opinion,” though when Ford’s opinion was ever humble is not entirely clear.
The cast was very strong indeed. James Stewart, who appeared in four late Ford Westerns (sad that he came along when the glory days were gone; he did his best Western work earlier, with Anthony Mann) was Stoddard and John Wayne (to whom Ford was even more beastly than usual on the set) was Doniphon. To tell the truth, both Stewart, 53, and Wayne, 54, were a bit long in the tooth to be playing young Turks, but this is only one of the many areas where viewers need to suspend their credibility for the sake of the film. Stewart is very good, as he always was, both as the regretful older man and as the spirited young lawyer, and Wayne is simply magisterial as the wise Westerner, tough as all get out, the man, it turns out (I don’t think this counts as a spoiler after all this time), who shot Liberty Valance. We don’t know how good Duke might have been as the older Doniphon, because when Stoddard comes back he is in a pine box.
Wayne was in fact a bit miffed at his part, which he thought, with some justification perhaps, was overshadowed by those of Stewart and a perfectly splendid Lee Marvin as badman Liberty Valance. Marvin was at the height of his powers. In the previous decade he had appeared in Westerns for Don Siegel, Raoul Walsh, André De Toth, Budd Boetticher and John Sturges in some really memorable pictures, before coming to Ford, and Ford rated him highly. Scott Eyman, in his biography of Ford, writes, “He adored Lee Marvin immediately. The two men had a great deal in common: periodic alcoholism, a passion for the sea, brave showings in World War II and surprisingly liberal politics.” Marvin is excellently malevolent as the brutal bully Valance. It’s tempting to think that his name refers to the ‘liberty’ of the old West, now gone, and to another Valance, John Ireland’s gunslinger Cherry Valance in Red River, but in fact Johnson invented the name, not Ford, and she was almost certainly making no reference to the Hawks picture. In any case, Liberty Valance with Marvin conveying deadly menace and snakelike charm, was one of Marvin’s stand-out roles, in a great career.
Stewart was known as the man who brought law and order to Bottleneck without a gun in Destry rides Again way back in 1939 so perhaps he was an appropriate choice to try to do the same thing for Shinbone in 1962 – though in both he finally did have recourse to a firearm. Stewart and Wayne clearly worked well together, as they were to do on their final Western, The Shootist, fourteen years later – another film about the dying of the myth.
By 1962 star salaries had inflated enormously, and Ford’s nose was put out of joint that they were getting more than he did. For example, Wayne got $750,000 and Stewart $300,000, while Ford was paid $150,000. Lee Marvin was not considered such a star, though. He got $50,000.
In support of this trio of greats, we have a marvelous line-up of character actors, many of them members of Ford’s ‘stock company.’ At the train station in the first reel we meet Andy Devine, almost stealing the show as the cowardly Sheriff Link Appleyard, of gargantuan appetite (and girth). The reporter, Scott, who buttonholes Stoddard is Ford alumnus Carleton Young, while John Qualen is highly entertaining as Peter, the Swedish restaurateur who takes the young Stoddard in when he has been badly beaten up by the villainous Valance in a stage hold-up.
Liberty’s two henchmen are the giggling lowlife Floyd (Strother Martin) and the thuggish Reese (Lee Van Cleef, doing yet another of his villain’s lackey parts). Martin lived in mortal fear of Ford and jumped two feet vertically in his chair when the director bellowed at him. Denver Pyle, another Ford regular now become almost a confidant – though he still continued to call the director “Mr. Ford” – said that Strother regarded Ford as a god – “undoubtedly the God of the Old Testament.” Pyle had a nice little part as townsman Amos Carruthers.
Woody Strode (Sergeant Rutledge) is Pompey, Doniphon’s servant (unlikely to be a slave, though Doniphon refers to the 47-year-old as “my boy Pompey” and bosses him about roughly) and Edmond O’Brien has one of his greatest roles as the drunken editor of The Shinbone Star, Dutton Peabody, a juicy part that O’Brien truly makes the most of.
Paul Birch is the mayor and, towards the end of the film, John Carradine hams it up (as usual) as the scoundrel ex-Confederate Major Cassius Starbuckle, the cattlemen’s mouthpiece and opponent of Stoddard at the Territorial Convention, and Willis Bouchey enjoys his small part as the train conductor. Other regulars have bit parts.
Only the female lead, Vera Miles as Hallie, torn between Stoddard and Doniphon, doesn’t quite convince as an illiterate small-town waitress. Ford had used her in The Searchers, where she was also a slightly weak link. In fact the whole sub-plot of the love triangle, with Doniphon and Stoddard both loving Hallie, while well-constructed and crafted (the triangle of manhood linking Valance, Stoddard and Doniphon is mirrored by that of tenderness between Stoddard, Doniphon and Hallie) never quite rings true – apart from the business of the cactus rose, which symbolizes Hallie’s love for Tom.
But otherwise, yes, the cast and its acting are top-notch.
When Stoddard decides, after Valance has smashed the free press and beaten Editor Peabody nigh to death, that he must face the thug, and with a gun, which goes against all his instincts, Pompey says he will stand by with a buckboard so that if Stoddard changes his mind he can get out of town fast. There’s something High Noon-ish about this, ten years on. Like Gary Cooper, the meek lawyer declines the escape route despite the overwhelming odds. Actually, the confrontation is interesting from a classic Western point of view. Despite his lack of skill with a gun, Stoddard stands up and confronts Valance face to face, while Doniphon shoots from the shadows, as we afterwards see, in flashback. Normally, the Western ‘code’ would have precluded the heroic Doniphon from doing that. Doniphon is perhaps the man who killed Liberty Valance but not necessarily the only one who shot Liberty Valance.
It’s quite a political Western, with nominations and elections figuring largely and the men of Shinbone (not the women or Negroes, naturally) doing their civic duty. Even the gunman villain stands as a candidate. Doniphon is nominated but turns it down – no politician he. The two delegates finally chosen, Stoddard and Peabody, are properly diffident and reluctant to accept (though of course they do). The politics have a Populist twang to them. Richard Brody, in a later edition of The New York Times, wrote, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the greatest American political movie.” He explains: “The Western is intrinsically the most political movie genre, because, like Plato’s Republic, it is concerned with the founding of cities, and because it depicts the various abstract functions of government as direct, physical actions.”
Many standard genre plot devices make their appearance, almost as if Ford was wanting to ‘reprise’ the Western. The shooting lesson, for example, which had been done so very often, in which Doniphon tells Stoddard, “Don’t jerk the trigger, squeeze it!” That one’s as old as the hills – though Doniphon humiliates Stoddard during the lesson, which is more unusual. The crusading newspaper, smashed up by the bad guys, is another almost-cliché. The drunk doc (Ken Murray). Valance winning a poker game with aces and eights. The showdown in Main Street at sundown. The saloon with the bar closed used as town meeting place. Stoddard hangs his shingle at the newspaper, by invitation of the editor, and there he also teaches the townsfolk to read and to respect the history and constitution of the United States. So the place is a newspaper, law office and school – all signs of patriotic civilization. And of course there is the truly venerable cattlemen vs. homesteaders plot. Ford himself had used that right back in the silent days with Harry Carey. In this one, the ruthless ranchers want to keep the region as a territory, to preserve their open range, while the salt-of-the-earth small farmers want statehood.
Some of the dialogue also verges dangerously on the edge of cliché. Doniphon calls Valance “The toughest man south of the Picketwire – next to me.” When the stage hold-up happens (in a studio) Liberty yells, “Stand and deliver!” When he finds that Stoddard is a lawyer from back east, he whips him mercilessly, to give him a lesson in “Law – Western law!” The whip was usually the weapon of lowdown types. When Valance challenges Stoddard to the final showdown, he says, “Either you get out of town, or tonight you be out on that street alone. You be there, and don’t make us come and get you.” If other writers and directors had used these tropes, we might have raised our eyebrows.
But this is the West, sir. And when the fact becomes legend, print the legend.
Ford knew all about printing the legend. That’s what his Westerns did. He knew the power of myth. Hero Kirby York (Wayne), at the end of Fort Apache (1948) claims to reporters that the famous painting of his commander’s last stand is true in every particular, when he knows it to be completely false. The truth will not serve anyone well. The legend is far more potent.
But in Liberty Valance Ford is doing something else. He is dismantling the myth. The legend is based on a lie.
The central theme of Liberty Valance is ‘the end of the West’. This wasn’t just Ford’s central theme but a basic tenet of the whole genre. Even in its first incarnation as real Western myth, Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902, first filmed in 1914), the nostalgic notion that the days of the Old West were passing, and ‘civilization’ was bringing about the death of frontier freedom filled the pages. Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis’, first published in 1893, was rapidly gaining acceptance everywhere. The frontier was ‘closed’. The days of exploration and settlement were now giving way to the age of industrialization and modernity. Artists such as Frederic Remington were portraying the ‘cowboy’ West in nostalgic and melancholy tones. ‘The frontier’ had now been reduced to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (which had stolen away attendees at Turner’s lecture during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago).
When Hallie says, “It was once a wilderness. Now it’s a garden,” she is speaking approvingly, but Ford definitely shows a tinge of regret in this story. Yes, the new century would usher in good things – there are two approving references to the benefits dams will bring, for example, perhaps a slightly pre-war notion – but the new times would also bid farewell to many fine qualities of the frontier. Doniphon and Valance, though in so many ways antagonists and polar opposites, are actually of the same stamp, Westerners of a bygone age. Doniphon is a horse trader, Valance a stage robber. Stoddard is the future, and education, statehood and railroads. Hallie herself has had a long and, we assume, happy marriage to the senator but she still harbors a faint regret for the dashing Doniphon and for the life that might have been.
Paramount wanted the picture to be in color, and by 1962 this was commercially pretty well de rigueur. The budget of $3.2 million would certainly have permitted it. DP William Clothier, who was increasingly Ford’s creative muse, wanted Technicolor too. He preferred working in color; in fact he had been Oscar nominated for The Alamo in 1960. Ford was obdurate: “Goddamn it, we’re going to do it in black and white. It shouldn’t be in color.” It may be that Ford was right, artistically anyway. The studio staging, the prevalence of night-time shots and the rather old-fashioned style of the picture all pointed to monochrome, of which Ford was, we know, a master, and perhaps the black & white enhanced the somber tone of the picture.
The decision to limit the picture almost exclusively to sound stages and do practically no location work was also an odd one. The picture resembles a filmed stage play more than a Western movie as such. The landscape, a key element of Ford’s Westerns, is absent. Ford’s composition skills were thus reduced. Eyman says, “Visually, it’s among the most ordinary of Ford’s movies.” Perhaps this too heightened the ‘false reality’ theme of the picture. You might say that while great Ford Westerns like My Darling Clementine or the cavalry trilogy were grand flowing ‘symphonies’, Liberty Valance is a more intimate chamber piece.
And talking of music, a big-name theme written specially, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung by then very popular Gene Pitney, was simply discarded, and Ford made the conscious choice to re-use some of the Alfred Newman score of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) – once again, harking back.
The picture just scraped into the Oscars ceremony with a nomination for “Best Costume Design, Black-and-White”, which was indeed damning it with faint praise. At least it avoided the fate of Cheyenne Autumn, awarded the ‘Worst Film of the Year’ award from Harvard Lampoon.
Actually, re costume design, the characters’ costumes are interestingly and curiously old-fashioned, in an era, the 60s, where narrow-brim Stetsons and low-slung holsters were the order of the day in Westerns on the big screen and small. Liberty looks a bit like Jack Palance in Shane, or even like William S Hart. Stoddard spend most of the film in an apron, underlining his lack of status as a Western man.
The reception of the picture was hardly ecstatic. Variety said that “while it is an enjoyable film it falls distinctly shy of its innate story potential” and thought it could have been shortened by at least twenty minutes. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times called it “a rather sinister little fable” and thought it an example of creeping Hollywood fatigue. He called it “creaky” and used the words “obvious, overlong and garrulous”. Once it has become blindingly clear that Stoddard couldn’t hit a barn wall from inside with a six-gun, “Mr. Ford’s irony is lost and his drama bogs down.”
As to the “garrulous” part, much of the dialogue is well-written and thoughtful. There is just too much of it. Ford was usually so good at paring dialogue down, cutting lines out, doing as much as possible visually, but on Liberty Valance he seems to have forgotten how.
In Europe the reviews were much more positive. The British Observer thought it was “bathed in Ford’s talent and affection”. In France, Henri Chapier called it « une fable morale dont les ressorts dramatiques n’ont rien à envier à une tragédie à l’antique » (a moral fable whose drama compares favorably with ancient tragedy) while Louis Chauvet described it as « un beau film, plein d’élans oratoires, de méditation et d’action » (a fine film, full of oratorial brilliance, contemplation and action).
And reviews in more modern times have elevated the film into almost-greatness. Roger Ebert said that of all the Ford/Wayne Westerns, “Liberty Valance was the most pensive and thoughtful.” He thought that Liberty Valance was no exception to the rule that Ford’s “films were complete and self-contained in a way that approaches perfection”. Patrick Brion, in his Encyclopédie du Western, called it simply “un chef d’oeuvre”.
However, some modern critics don’t care for it. Dennis Schwarz thought it “too awkward and too obvious to move me over to its side. It became for me also too annoying in its cornball characterizations and pining for nostalgia.” And Brian Garfield thought it “very long and slow” (at over two hours runtime, he probably had a point). He wrote, “It’s a terribly old-fashioned film, rather wistful, lacking in energy. The characterizations are reduced to the simplicities of the ‘B’ formulas and I find it a dreary, tired movie.”
The picture is old-fashioned in so many ways. Big, colorful, commercial, action-packed vehicles like The Magnificent Seven (1960) were now the thing, or modern angst-dramas like The Misfits (the same year as Liberty Valance). Ford’s picture was stuck in the 1940s, which had nostalgia value for older Western fans but… As James Berardinelli said on ReelView, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance probably could not be made today. In the pre-Watergate era, it was still possible to believe that the press would “do the right thing” and cover up a scoop of this magnitude. Today, the only thing the media delights in more than building a legend is tearing one down. The truth about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is something no one would sit on.” British newspaper The Guardian reported “Hollywood to remake The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as 80s mob thriller”. Quite honestly, difficult to see how.
In The Rough Guide to Westerns, Paul Simpson writes, “Liberty Valance feels, at times, like Ford’s farewell to the Western – and the West. The absence of Monument Valley reflects not, as some suggested at the time, directorial fatigue but Ford’s loss of faith in the American frontier ideal.”
For all Ransom Stoddard’s worldly success and Tom Doniphon’s apparent failure (dying unknown and alone in a backwater), Stoddard is not half the man Doniphon was. And he knows it. The final scene, of the train chuffing forlornly into the distance, bearing the senator and his wife away from Shinbone, is in fact more than doleful. It is like Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” as the tide of belief recedes. As Scott Eyman says, “Ford’s bleakest film ends with a poignant, mournful, dying fall.”