The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)


With that phallic-as-hell whip (that he takes far too much pleasure out of using on his poor victims), his subtly homoerotic kinship with his posse, his running for delegate through his usual empty threats and out of sheer jealousy when the town nominates the likable Jimmy Stewart, and his yen for tripping, punching, and just plain bullying anyone who looks at him the wrong way, I think it’s pretty safe to say that this Liberty Valance fellow killed lots of squirrels, got (or gave) wedgies, titty twisters and swirlies, and had lots of mommy issues as a kid, what do you say?

That’s what I liked most about “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” how Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance isn’t the prototypical larger-than-life Western villain who nonetheless has a perverse code of chivalry – he’s an overgrown child, a spoiled brat, and a bully who beats up nerd-o’s like Jimmy Stewart’s do-no-wrong lawyer Ransom Stoddard just because he can, because of what are clearly deep-seeded psychological issues that, thankfully, are never elaborated upon and are left to us to interpret as we will.  Some would argue that there’s no depth to the man with how much of a crude, despicable brute he is, but call me crazy, I found him more worthy of deep psychological readings/analysis and all the more threatening exactly for those reasons.

The man in the movie’s title stole the show, even though the other performances, by two legends of the screen no less, could’ve used some fine-tuning.  Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, and whoever played that fucking Town Marshal were like fingernails going down a chalkboard (although, I must admit, Stewart’s aww-shucks persona probably worked well for the by-the-book lawyer hopelessly out of his element in the wild West, especially when put up against his polar opposite, Liberty Valance), and John “Pihhl-GRUM” Wayne’s journey towards self-parody was all-but complete at this point, despite some late moments where his Tom Doniphon’s rage is seething – moments that become all the more poignant once you know the big plot twist.  So really, then, other than the fact that Stewart and Wayne were FAR too old to be playing theses parts (and even that wasn’t THAT distracting if you really buried yourself in the story, come to think of it), the two do a more-or-less admirable job of carrying the weight of these two weighty roles – the naïve but well-meaning lawyer and the hardened and extremely cynical – but well-meaning –  rancher.

Once the movie starts to deal with politics ‘n shit, with stuff about the territory staying as open range or acquiring statehood and other stuff I didn’t care about, the movie starts to lose itself.  But then, we get the crucial meeting between Ransom and Tom in that back room where everything changes.  The film’s opening, where Ransom, now an older senator, tells a newspaperman the story of the shooting of Liberty Valance, takes on a whole new meaning and is even more elegiac once you realize why Woody Strode’s faithful Pompey looks as forlorn as he does, and why that run-down shack that Hallie visits has such significance.  The overriding feeling during this opening passage of Senator and Mrs. Stoddard’s return to this place is that of melancholy and a wistful remembrance of the past and really hit home with me, but then once you realize just how Ransom got to where he is today, thanks to Tom Donophin, a whole new perspective is attached to every glance towards this person or that place these people haven’t seen in years.  But most importantly, even though what Tom does that fateful night where Ransom meets Liberty in the center of town is the movie’s clear representation of the idea that the greater good and sacrifice trumps personal fame and glory, and a clear indication that Tom knew how important Ransom was in changing the West for the better, I still find myself juggling with the many possible reasons for why Tom would do what he did, considering how he felt admiration, pity, enraged jealousy, respect, and every sentiment, both positive and negative, in the book for Ransom Stoddard.  And judging by how Tom takes out his anger on that shack, I’m sure he was struggling with that issue, and his conscience, just as much.  This movie ain’t perfect, but in the character of Liberty Valance and the supposedly clear-cut, morally defined decision by Tom Donophin, I found a kind of resonance and emotional depth worth lots of thinking over in two places you wouldn’t expect.

And it’s a Ford movie, with the as-usual orgasmically awesome images, in widescreen.  How the hell can you heavily criticize a movie that has THAT?



1 comment so far

  1. matt on

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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