Monday, July 18, 2011

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

- Newspapermen in the western town of Shinbone spin into a petty frenzy when Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) steps off the afternoon train. The pushy pressman get the Senator to spill the beans as to why he is in town: his old friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) has recently passed away. Big news in the small town of Shinbone, Stoddard is pressed to tell who Tom Doniphon was, how they knew each other - anything to could make a good showing on front page. The story goes all the way back to when "Ranse" Stoddard, then an eager young lawyer, first arrived in Shinbone. There Stoddard became an integral part of the town, lead the territory's fight to become a State, and, with the help of Doniphon, made a name for himself by standing up against the notorious outlaw Liberty Valance.

As Stoddard takes a reminiscent look back at his time in the old west, director John Ford also takes a long look back at the old western genre in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. With the film industry and the country changing all around him, Ford delivered one last western picture in the classic mold. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance tells anything but a simple story – the film conveys many ideas within its deceptively straight-forward narrative. With the film's primary story of Stoddard, Doniphon, and Valance, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a tale of civilized law-and-order versus the use of wild brute force, the role of legend in history, as well as the diminishing place of the western gun-slinging hero and the rise of the civic hero. Also, through its depiction of the power of the vote, freedom of the press, importance of education, and an ethnically diverse population, Ford makes one final patriotic ode to the old American West.

While the film is deemed by many as the last great classic western, I would, personally, not say that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the greatest western films or one of the best John Ford films. The acting, to be frank, is pretty over-the-top and its characters are less compelling than some of Ford's other great westerns. The film is packed with recognizable faces including Ford regulars John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Woody Strode, Andy Devine, and John Qualen as well as Ford first timers Lee Marvin and Lee Van Cleef – all of whom are entertaining albeit overdone. I will give a pass to the extremely entertaining Edmond O'Brien however, who has to be one of the most entertaining cinematic drunks next to Dudley Moore (Arthur (1981)) and Victor McLagen (The Informer (1935), also directed by Ford).

Make no mistake, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an impressive, entertaining film with some very strong themes that are interesting enough to overshadow the unexciting characters and is effectively directed overall by Ford who employs his great distinctive style. Perhaps the most interesting and memorable aspect about the film is the fact that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, made so late in Ford's long film career, captures the essence of the legendary director's approach to storytelling with one phrase: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

CBC Rating: 8/10

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