On the train are the US senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles), who have come to visit the small town of Shinbone where they had first met a long time ago. They are received at the station by an aging former Marshall, and one immediately senses the nostalgia in the air. “The place sure has changed, Link,” Hallie tells him, “Churches, high schools, shops…who would have thought it?” “The railroad’s done that, Hallie,” he replies. The tone of this conversation is telling. They are talking about the markers of civilisation, of human progress, yet there’s a residual sadness, a sigh of regret beneath the words. There’s something almost grudging about the acknowledgement that change has, on the whole, been for the better.
Stoddard and Hallie have come to Shinbone for the burial of an old friend named Tom Doniphon, a man hardly anyone in town even knows about. The editor of the local newspaper, thrilled at the chance to interview a possible future vice-president, presses Stoddard for details. Who was this Doniphon and why was he important enough for a US senator to take time off from his important schedule?
In flashback, we get the meat of the story: Ransom’s arrival in Shinbone as an idealistic young lawyer decades earlier, eager to bring education to the boondocks; his encounter with the savage outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) who has the townsfolk in perpetual fear; his arguments with the rugged Tom (John Wayne), who believes that the only way to deal with Valance is with a gun; his attempts to get the people to organise themselves into a community governed by proper laws; and finally, his reluctant confrontation with Valance – in a shootout scene that lays the ground for the film’s most famous line: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
John Wayne and James Stewart were 54 and 53 respectively when this film was made, and one of the standing criticisms of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is that they were far too old for their characters in the “flashback sequence” (which is, after all, 90 per cent of the film). Makeup helps to an extent, and one of the most notable things about Stewart’s performance as the young Ransom is how he quickens his reactions and physical movements without making it very obvious. He’s a lot more alert and sprightly than he presumably was in real life (in fact, even as a young man, Stewart’s stock in trade was a shuffling, slow walk and a Midwestern drawl – so this performance, given in his 50s, is probably among his most energetic ever!).
The criticism about age is of course justified from the point of view of verisimilitude, but it’s impossible to imagine this film without these men in the leading roles, for their screen personalities are crucial to its effect. Stewart, a more nuanced actor, was the modern man – vulnerable, complex, unafraid to show a feminine side (in fact, he spends some of the key scenes in this film in an apron, which has led to much critical analysis of gender roles!). This was reflected in the roles he played in middle age, especially in films by Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. Wayne, in contrast, was repeatedly used by Ford in their many films together as an emblem of the Old West – the macho cowboy who survived by his shooting skills. By all accounts, the screen image was not very far from the man’s real-life persona, for Wayne was known to be jingoistic, brow-beating, politically on the far right, pro-Vietnam War, full of notions about what “real men” must be like.
Watching him in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I remember a story told by Kirk Douglas in his autobiography The Ragman’s Tale. Douglas, who himself frequently did macho-man roles early in his career, had just stretched himself as an actor by playing the tortured Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life. In his book, he recounts an incident involving Wayne, who was present at a private screening of the film:
[John] kept looking at me. We hadn’t worked together yet. He seemed upset. He had a drink in one hand, motioned to me with the other. Out on the terrace, he berated me. “Christ, Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There’s so goddamn few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.”This is one side of the story. For the other side, you need to watch Wayne in some of his best roles in films like The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Red River – movies where he betrays a vulnerability, even a lack of self-confidence, beneath the posturing. Though a limited actor in many ways, he had the ability to convey the sadness and disaffection of a man who knows deep inside that his beliefs and values have no place in a rapidly changing world. Some of this can be seen in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: note the many scenes where Wayne watches Stewart with a curious little smile on his face, trying to figure him out. Or the way he observes the growing closeness between Ransom and Hallie and realises that he is losing “his girl” (another phrase that has its roots in an old patriarchal system) to a more sensitive man, a symbol of progress. Above all, note Ford’s seeming iconizing of Wayne in scenes like the key conversation between him and Stewart near the end of the film (the slow dissolve where, for a couple of seconds, what we see on screen is the sort of image that would be perfect for a postage stamp). But what Ford is doing here is more complex: he’s inverting the myth. This isn’t a Wayne character who will ride off triumphantly into the sunset; he’ll fade away quietly, spend his later days forgotten and alone.
I tried to explain. “Hey John, I’m an actor. I like to play interesting roles. It’s all make-believe. It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne, you know.” He looked at me oddly. I had betrayed him. I took it as a compliment; the picture had moved him, or at least disturbed him.
This great film is about the passing of an old world. Despite some sentimentalising (as in the suggestion that Hallie continued to carry a torch for Tom; that she made the practical decision to marry Ransom and become a modern woman, but on some level was still in love with the rugged, uneducated frontiersman), it isn’t a mere elegy, for it recognises that many things about that old world were undesirable – who would argue in favour of the “let’s settle this with guns” brand of machismo? However, it gently makes the point that even when change is for the better, it’s possible to mourn the passing of a simpler time. It reminds us that the present is, after all, built on the bones of the past, and that various phases of transition have seen the crushing of the dreams of decent, well-meaning people. (In the context of the story, the implication is also that law and order in the West might never have been set down if it hadn’t been for the heroes of an earlier time, who went about things in a less “civilised” way. “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” is the film’s ironical last line; but by this point we know better.)
Like many of the best Hollywood classics, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance can be appreciated foremost on narrative terms. The story, the dialogue and the performances (including Andy Devine as the cowardly Marshal Link Appleyard, and of course Lee Marvin as the petulant outlaw whipping his victims with a belt – a Method performance that's delightfully incongruous to this film) are of the highest order, and held together by one of the greatest of movie directors. John Ford made so many superb films that one tends to take his oeuvre for granted – rarely is there a singling out of this or that movie, the way one often sees done with Welles or Kurosawa or Hitchcock or Bergman. But this latter-day film is undeniably among his very best work.
[This is a much longer version of a piece I wrote for the New Sunday Express earlier in the week. A few previous posts on classic films: Strangers on a Train, Yojimbo, M*A*S*H, 8 1/2, Spartacus, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Twelve Angry Men, Peeping Tom, The Passion of Joan of Arc.]