Paramount // 1962 // 123 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // May 19th, 2009
"When legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne team up for the first time in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a film about civil and vigilante justice in the small town of Shinbone. It's an earnest Western that, while a break from some of his previous work, is considered to be John Ford's last great film. Paramount has released the film in a new two-disc set as part of their Centennial Collection.
Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) is the man who changed the small town of Shinbone from a lawless Western strip into a Rockwellian piece of Americana. He and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) return to the town that launched his political career in order to pay tribute to a dead man no one seems to remember: Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). While in town, he agrees to sit down with local reporters and tell them all about this unknown dead man...
When Stoddard first arrived in Shinbone, not long after the end of the Civil War, he discovered a town on the cusp of the Wild West territories and the burgeoning United States. Their rule of law, up until then, was defined by who had the biggest gun and the quickest draw. Stoddard, an attorney at law, arrived to establish a practice in the town, and he quickly found that his lack of a gun and abundance of words weren't going to help his cause. The first person he met, in fact, was Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a bandit who had the town in a vice grip.
Stoddard may have had a few enemies right off the bat, but he also discovered an unlikely ally in the town's toughest hombre, Tom Doniphon. The two men had extremely different views on how to deal with Valance, but both were willing to lay their lives on the line for their own definition of justice.
After a long and respected career, which included four Academy Awards, John Ford was beginning to slow down in the 1960s. Westerns weren't the hot commodity they once were, and Ford hadn't produced a hit in several years. This of course changed with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which showcased the evolution of Ford's filmmaking while teaming up two of Hollywood's biggest stars.
The main focus of Liberty Valance is the issue of diplomacy versus action -- the rule of law versus vigilante justice. Stoddard, a young attorney fresh out of law school, insists that the town of Shinbone can adapt to the standard of law common in the recently re-United States; whereas Wayne's Tom Doniphon continues to stress that only guns, force, and violence can prevail in an unjust world. It's no coincidence that the Vietnam War, as well as the Cold War, were escalating during the time this film was being made. The military experiences of Ford, Stewart, Marvin and just about every other guy (except John Wayne) surely influenced the film's worldview: for all of Stoddard's optimism that civilized law would prevail against the violent threat of Liberty Valance, he ultimately fails. The murder of Valance is, in fact, the only way to stop him, save Shinbone, and propel Stoddard to Washington D.C. The optimism once found in Ford's films is gone now, as is his sense of grandeur, and it has been replaced with the cold realism of a man who has seen enough to know better.
In this same vein, Ford also looks at the use of myth and legend, which exist within every culture's history. Here, Senator Stoddard has made his living off of the events surrounding Liberty Valance, and has become something of mini-Paul Bunyan. At first, when Stoddard and his wife arrive back at Shinbone for the funeral of Tom Doniphon, it's not terribly alarming that no one seems to remember who Tom was; however, as the film plays out and the story is revealed, it's clear why everyone gravitated towards Stoddard and not Doniphon. When the newspaper reporters of Shinbone are finally told the truth, they reject it not because it's false, but because it's not what they want to hear. As the reporter says: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
The issues at the forefront of the film may not have actually prompted John Ford to shoot the movie in black and white, but it certainly is fitting. In an era when movie studios were pushing full color pictures to compete with television, Ford insisted on shooting the film in grayscale. The result is a beautifully photographed movie. Ford is pragmatic in his camera movement and framing techniques, only zooming or panning when absolutely necessary. Otherwise, he's content to sit back and let the actors act.
This works since Liberty Valance is stacked with top-notch Hollywood talent, the most obvious being John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. At first, I was a little caught off guard by the ocean-sized gap between their acting styles: Stewart is his earnest, over-the-top self, while Wayne is a subdued roughneck. They're both essentially playing themselves, and they do it quite well. Then there's Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin (Cat Ballou) with the kind of charismatic villainy that made him a Western staple. The rest of the cast is equally good, including Vera Miles as Stoddard and Doniphon's love interest, Andy Devine has the whiny town sheriff, and Edmond O'Brien as newspaper man Dutton Peabody. The cast, like the rest of the film, is the result of Ford's mastery of the Western genre. Many of these actors appear in his previous work, and they all fit perfectly into place here.
This new edition of the film is being released as part of Paramount's Centennial Collection. As such, it has a pretty stunning technical presentation. The video is sharp, with the grayscale coming in rich and balanced. Any grain or scratches weren't prevalent enough for me to notice, with only the occasional odd edit popping up to remind me I'm watching a film from over 40 years ago. The audio is a good mix in stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The film features music borrowed from Alfred Newman's score for Young Mr. Lincoln alongside new music written by William Clothier; yet despite the hodgepodge of sources, everything felt seamlessly integrated into the picture.
Liberty Valance is presented in a two-disc set with a good helping of supplements. On the first disc are two commentary tracks, one scene-specific and one feature-length. The scene-specific commentary features archival interviews introduced by Dan Ford and featuring Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin. They can be interesting at times, but I also found the sound quality to be a little muffled. The feature-length commentary is quarterbacked by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), and also features archival recordings from Stewart and Ford. It's a little dry at times, but does offer plenty of insight into John Ford and the film itself. It's well worth the listen for fans of the film.
The real meat of the special features can be found on the second disc: a 60-minute, seven-part documentary called The Size of Legends, the Soul of Myth. It's a cool documentary that looks into the making of the film as well as the life and working habits of John Ford. A trailer and a slew of photo galleries are also included. While the second disc feels a little light, especially if you aren't interested in the still photos, the material has a level of professionalism that certainly values quality over quantity.
What separates a good Western from a true classic is the level of meaning beneath the holsters and horse chases. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is as deep and dramatic as they come, taking on heavy issues while remaining accessible and entertaining. John Ford, at this stage in his life, was able to call upon all of his experiences in and outside of Hollywood to craft a very personal film to essentially bookend his great career. He made a handful of films after this one, but none would be as good.
This is my first run-in with Paramount's Centennial Collection, and I'm fairly impressed. If you haven't seen this film before, or have some old bare-boned edition, this set is worth picking up.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Galleries