Movie Night with Urbaniak: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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urbaniak and I are in the middle of a little John Ford – John Wayne retrospective. Last Thursday we watched The Searchers (because it’s out now on a spectacular blu-ray transfer) and tonight it was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (We’ve just finished a little "30s Gangster Movie" retrospective, having watched Scarface, The Roaring Twenties and Little Caesar all in a row, with The Public Enemy still waiting in its shrinkwrap.)

When I was a lad, John Wayne was considered to be a retrograde dinosaur, a knuckle-dragging, reactionary troglodyte who supported the war in Vietnam and any number of conservative causes. He was the antithesis of enlightened 1970s social thought, epitomized by people like Alan Alda and Woody Allen. I was 17 when he died and my only thought was "good riddance." This is all pretty much without actually having seen any of his movies, which were considered to be old-fashioned, simplistic, shallow and dull. I was watching Annie Hall and Chinatown and The Godfather, what use had I for an evolutionary throwback like John Wayne? If I wanted to watch a western, it would be a "revisionist" western like The Wild Bunch or The Outlaw Josey Wales, not some black-hat/white-hat ode to Manifest Destiny.

Which is another way of saying that, when I was a young man, I was an idiot.

I remember taking a film class at 25 and the teacher showing us Stagecoach. John Wayne’s introduction in Stagecoach is one of the most memorable shots in movies. Check this shit out:

Suddenly, with a huge wave of history breaking upon me, I understood, finally, why John Wayne was so beloved by so many people — he is every inch a star, completely at home in front of the camera, and, most importantly, a beautiful young man, drop-dead sexy in a strangely androgynous way — both utterly straightforward and strangely coy.

I noticed that Stagecoach, one of the great Westerns of all time, wasn’t a simple movie at all — there is an intelligence and rigor to its examination of the underpinnings of civilization that made me think "huh, this John Ford guy is pretty talented, maybe I should check out some of his other things."  I probably saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance after The Searchers, and for some reason I got impatient with The Searchers and found Liberty Valance utterly gripping. 

Again, the subject is civilization — what kind of nation shall we build?  Who are we Americans as a people?  There’s a bad guy terrorizing the town, and two prominent citizens have conflicting notions of how to deal with it — lawyer Ransom Stoddard thinks civilization can only come to the wild west through the strict application of laws, rancher Tom Doniphan thinks the only way to deal with animals like Valance is to shoot them.  Doniphan respects Stoddard as a man of principles, but knows in his heart that he doesn’t have what it takes to survive in the wilderness — laws are nice, but they have to be backed up with force.

Urbaniak pointed out that Cape Fear, which was released in the same year, deals with a lot of the same issues but smooshes Stoddard and Doniphan into one character — a lawyer whose idealism is slowly stripped away until he is forced to kill in order to save his family.  Urbaniak finds Cape Fear more gripping than Valance, but in this we disagree — I enjoy both movies enormously, but Cape Fear is a taut little thriller, Valance has a lot more on its mind than merely ratcheting tension.

As this is a Movie Night with Urbaniak, the focus of discussion is primarily on the acting.  John Ford movies can be a weird smorgasbord of acting styles — some key players manage to show up and fill their stock roles with startling grace, others are so bad you wonder how they were ever cast.  Ford has a rotating crew of supporting players who know exactly what they’re doing and bring a wealth of detail and humanity to their scenes, even when they aren’t very interesting actors in other directors’ work.  Jeffrey Hunter nearly ruins The Searchers as the young man teamed up with Wayne, you can’t believe that a director as powerful as Ford would cast such a wooden pretty-boy in such an important part.  In Valance, Edmond O’Brien hams it up big-time as an eye-popping, Shakespeare-quoting newspaperman.  His performance is so grating and over-the-top that Urbaniak was rooting for Liberty Valance to kill him already.  Ford, for all his subtlety and command of his tools, has a strange weakness for vaudeville-level physical comedy, and he often lets his clowns run off with the scene to the detriment of the rest of the narrative.  Then there are performances like Olive Carey’s in The Searchers, a head-turning supporting role by what Urbaniak calls "a real actress," a performance that demands nothing, gives everything and feels utterly real.

As for John Wayne, what’s startling about him all these years later is what a finely-calibrated technician he is.  When one is young, one tends to dismiss John Wayne as a one-trick pony, an attitude with a cliched drawl.  As an adult, one can see the studied grace that goes into his performances, his seeminlgy-effortless physicality, his off-the-cuff spontaneity and his natural comfort before the camera.  People used to think that his performances were artless, that he just happened to "be that way," but they are actually acutely observed, deeply lived-in performances by a consummate actor and an irreplaceable star.

When I was in my 20s, I saw Clint Eastwood as a "response" to Wayne, a dark, complex, ironic answer to Wayne’s simple forthrightness.  After watching The Searchers and Liberty Valance back to back, I can’t help but wonder what I was thinking.  Wayne’s characters in these movies are easily as dark, peculiar and unsettling as anything Eastwood ever came up with, and from a distance of forty years or more, the connection between Valance and, say, Josey Wales seems less like a repudiation and more like a continuation.  Movies like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were seen as "anti-westerns" or "revisionist" westerns when they first came out, but watching The Searchers, Liberty Valance or even Stagecoach makes them all look like part of the same tradition.


18 Responses to “Movie Night with Urbaniak: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
  1. curt_holman says:

    Cape Fear

    “a lawyer whose idealism is slowly stripped away until he is forced to kill in order to save his family.”

    Does Gregory Peck kill anyone in Cape Fear? The way I remember it, the film ends with him holding a gun on Robert Mitchum and saying that killing him would be too easy, and that he’ll go back to jail for the rest of his days, “Until you ROT.” But maybe my memory is faulty.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Cape Fear

      Obviously I’m conflating Peck and Nolte. My mistake.

      • curt_holman says:

        Re: Cape Fear

        But… but… but… didn’t Nick Nolte TRY to kill Max Cady in Scorsese’s Cape Fear by bringing a huge rock down on his head, only to have the water suck Max Cady out of reach before the rock could impact his cranium, and Max Cady died while sinking into the water, speaking in tongues all the while? Forgive me being pedantic, but I’m not sure Peck or Nolte killed anyone in either movie.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I love the central question in “Liberty Valance” — who’s braver, the man who’s willing to kill for his beliefs, or the man who’s willing to die for them? I also think Lee Marvin’s filthy, skin-crawlingly psychotic Liberty Valance is one of the great screen villains.

    Every time I watch “Serenity,” I’m struck by how much Joss Whedon built from John Ford, especially from “Liberty Valance” and “Stagecoach.” There’s the same argument in “Serenity” about civilization vs. savagery, and about what kind of people it takes to make a better world, and whether they get to live there afterward. Whedon, to his credit, has a somewhat different answer than Ford did. (He also lifts Ford’s great trick from “Stagecoach” of letting enigmatic characters die without ever revealing the mysteries of their backstory.)

    If you’ve never seen “The Public Enemy,” you’re in for a treat. Seeing it a few years back on TCM, I was surprised at just how stylish, hardcore, and occasionally shocking it could be.

    — N.A.

  3. richaje says:

    Like you I find “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” utterly gripping. I try to watch it every few years, and each time I come back with a new take on the themes of the film. Last time I watched it, I was struck how the film was also comment on the role of films and other mass media in constructing our own understanding of events. “When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend” – what a wonderful line!

  4. stormwyvern says:

    “Which is another way of saying that, when I was a young man, I was an idiot.”

    My feeling is that if you look back at your younger days and don’t say something along these lines, you are probably doing it wrong. If you can’t look back ten years or more and marvel at how colossally stupid you were- at least in some respects – chances are it’s less because you were already a super genius ten years ago and more that you haven’t learned all that much in ten years.

    I spent a good chunk of my younger days being an idiot and if I hadn’t, I probably would have seen a lot of really great animation a lot sooner. I’m very luck to live in the age of video and DVD or my youthful bout of stupid might have prevented me from seeing a lot of good animation ever.

    • blake_reitz says:

      I’ve actually got a standing deal with myself that if I should encounter myself from the past, the past self gets a swift punch in the gut. Likewise, I’ve agreed to myself that if I see a future version of myself, I’m going to get a swift punch in the gut.

      • scorchcake says:

        Yes, “past me and future me are both jerks.”
        It is a philosophy introduced to me by my husband, and quickly taken to heart. It is also a philosophy which has provided many a fun evening with devastating consequences to my liver, kidneys, and probably spinal fluid…

      • stormwyvern says:

        I’m really surprised more resources haven’t been devoted to figuring out time travel when we all have punches in the gut from our future selves to look forward to.

  5. laminator_x says:

    It wasn’t one of Ford’s, but I’ve long thought of Big Jake as something of a coda to the Taming the West theme. The dinosaurs are almost extinct, being squeezed out by small warm-blooded egg-eaters. The dinos know they’re on they’re way out, but they also show the little mammals that pond for pound they’re no match for a Tyrannosaurus.

  6. teamwak says:

    I watched this one as part of my movie education. And what a stunning film it was.

    The Duke was actually a rather good actor in his own way. And Lee Marvin is a terrifying bad guy.

    A real gem 🙂

  7. Anonymous says:

    I had the same prejudice against John Wayne when I was young. And then I saw Red River.

  8. Anonymous says:

    My old man took me to see “Liberty Valance” at a beat-up rerun cinema when I was about nine or ten. Definitely ranks high amongst the top five best things he ever did for me. I can vividly remember sitting in the dark and just feeling totally blown away. Having already fallen head over heels for cinema a couple of years earlier upon the release of Ghostbusters II, that first John Ford experience really took the passion to a whole new extreme.

    I didn’t get to watch “The Searchers” until several years later and I’ve never been able to enjoy it as much. “Valance” displays the same pessimism but manages to retain a charming degree of sweetness, whereas “Searchers” is a strikingly bitter movie.

    This is the first time I’ve posted here so I’d just like to thank and congratulate Todd for all the excellent posts. Very instructive and entertaining stuff.


  9. mikeyed says:

    How would a Marlon Brando and John Wayne western have been I wonder.

    I actually just randomly watched this movie with my dad not too long ago. I’ve always had a certain amount of skepticism for the bravado of his characters, but I must say that I have never dismissed him. He certainly never lost any enthusiasm or steam.