The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

the_man_who_shot_liberty_valanceAsk a western fan what John Ford movie is his favorite, and you’ll get any number of answers. Rightfully so too, Ford directing gem after gem. My personal favorite is 1948’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford’s tone shifted later in his career though, portraying the American west in a more realistic, negative view. I’d say more honest. Movies like The Searchers, Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge, and of course, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, all dug deeper, portraying a west unlike we’d seen in the director’s previous efforts.

A lawyer from the East, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is on a stagecoach heading to the town of Shinbone in a western territory when the coach is attacked by an infamous bandit, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and his gang. Stoddard is savagely beaten but nursed back to health in Shinbone. It is turbulent times in the budding town and territory with a potential push for statehood on the line. Stoddard becomes a key person in the fight, all the way trying to figure out what life in the west is like. Valance constantly berates the lawyer, but a small rancher who’s fast with a gun, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), always seems to be in the right place at the right time. With so much on the line for so many people, Stoddard must decide how far he wants to push his luck.

By all accounts, ‘Liberty Valance’ is the anti-John Ford western. Shot in black and white on the Hollywood backlot, there are no sweeping vistas, no majestic shots of riders on the horizon. Instead, this is a story about the people, their relationships and the turbulent times they find themselves in. There’s little in the way of gunplay/gunfights. It’s just not your typical western, but it is a film that’s firing on all cylinders. A classic that deserves its reputation.

Never a bad thing when two Hollywood legends star together. They were in How the West Was Won together but had no scenes together. They were excellent together in several great scenes in The Shootist. What’s so cool here is the dynamic. Both Ransom and Tom believe in the same things, just different ways of accomplishing those things. I love Stewart’s Ransom and the character arc he goes through. It’s a fascinating character. He hates guns, hate violence and abhors bullies. He sees Tom’s ways of doing things and can’t get on-board with it…until he does. Not your typical western hero — by a long shot — but one that brings a great, unique edge to a familiar genre.

Ford and Wayne go together like peanut butter and jelly, albeit PB that’s abusive to the J. Wayne did some of his best work in Ford films — especially She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers — but Ford was infamous for railing on his star non-stop. So was the case here as Ford picked on Wayne mercilessly. Well…it worked. This is one of Wayne’s more underrated parts. His Tom Doniphon is a bit of a bully himself, constantly calling Ransom ‘Pilgrim,’ but he’s a small rancher who’s well-respected (even feared) and is lightning quick with a gun. Like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Doniphon is a tragic character here too, an arc that all comes together in a fitting, moving and at times, tough to watch conclusion. Kudos to the two Hollywood greats.

Easily one of Ford’s strongest casts from top to bottom. Vera Miles is Hallie, the uneducated waitress who’s drawn to both Tom and Ransom (oh no! A love triangle!), avoiding plenty of awkward pratfalls. Marvin is terrifyingly perfect as Liberty, an unhinged psycho capable of all sorts of violence. Edmond O’Brien hams it up and steals his scenes as alcoholic newspaper editor Dutton Peabody. Andy Devine is the cowardly sheriff because of course he is. Gotta mention Woody Strode who in subtle fashion steals his scenes (as he usually did) as Pompey, Tom’s “man,” almost a right-hand man kind of deal, not a slave but always at his side.

Also look for John Carradine, Denver Pyle, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen and plenty more familiar faces to round out the cast.

Earlier in his career, Ford’s films tended to have a broad, obvious sense of humor that bordered on too much (and sometimes was just way too much). His later films lost that innocence. Sure, Devine gets some laughs, but it’s far more subtle. There’s a darkness here that hangs in the air. It’s always building to that inevitable showdown, but even there, a twist is revealed in a lightning-quick noir-esque flashback that’s beyond perfect. There is an edge, a violence, a meanness (especially in Valance) that brings the movie up a notch. The black and white filming goes a long way toward aiding the cause in that department.

‘Valance’ is famous for one of the best lines in western history. Simpy put, it’s “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The story is held with a framing device that adds some additional layers to the story. I won’t spoil it here, but it works on basically all levels. Some great storytelling from beginning to end as we try to piece it all together as an audience.

I can’t say enough about this western. It’s not your typical Ford western, not even your typical western in general. It had been years since I watched it, and I loved catching back up with it. I came away very impressed with Stewart’s performance this time. There’s a moment late where he’s simply a man who’s had enough. He’s been pushed too far. If he has to die righting a wrong, his Ransom Stoddard — educated to the bone — is ready to pick up a gun and die for it. The end result propels the last 25 minutes of the movie to a highly memorable finale. Go watch this one.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): ****/****

 

My Darling Clementine

1946-my-darling-clementineI recently reviewed 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, one of many versions Hollywood has done of Wyatt Earp, the Cowboys and Tombstone’s infamous history in the 1880s. Not drifting too far here today with another version of one of the west’s most iconic moments, 1946’s My Darling Clementine.

As they drive a herd of cattle west to California, former lawman Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his 3 brothers stop outside the time of Tombstone. While visiting the town, rustlers steal the herd and kill the youngest Earp brother, James. In hopes of finding his brother’s murderer, Wyatt takes a job in Tombstone as the town marshal. It’s there he tangles with several key people in town, including gambler Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and cattle rancher Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan). Now, all Wyatt has to do is get proof of who killed his brother and stole the herd of cattle.

Notice anything? This 1946 western has basically little to no connection the real-life historical incidents. Yes, there was a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Tombstone…and…well, that’s about it. The story takes place in 1882 (a year after the actual incidents), Holliday is a surgeon and not a dentist, Old Man Clanton was dead and never actually met Wyatt, and James Earp lived into the 1920s. So if you’re looking for a history lesson, this isn’t it.

What’s the end result then? Like many John Ford westerns, ‘Darling’ is more interested in the legend, the mythology and the romance of the old west. Based on a true story, this is as close to an arthouse western as there ever was. Filmed in black and white, it is episodic, romantic, idyllic, hauntingly pretty and has touches of a film noir in its use of shadow and light. Other than the song My Darling Clementine, the soundtrack is minimal. We’re transported to a little down in the Arizona desert with no sense of the rest of the world. There’s a sense we’re somewhere different, somewhere far-off. Little to no gunplay, style over substance, this western is one of a kind…mostly for the good.

Henry Fonda is an all-time great for a reason. He has countless roles that I could identify as his most famous, best, most iconic, whatever description you want to say. His performance as Wyatt Earp belongs in that conversation, but I struggle with a specific reason. It’s his easy-going, laconic manner…until he’s not. It’s the smile that pops up. It’s the gentle physicality, like the iconic shot of him in a chair, leg propped up on a post as he surveys Tombstone. He moves so gracefully too, especially as he leisurely walks up the street to the O.K. Corral. I don’t know if this is what the real Wyatt Earp was like — history and revisions say it was not — but there’s something straightforward, charming and immensely likable about Fonda’s Wyatt.

Reading about ‘Darling,’ Victor Mature seemed to be Ford’s whipping boy during production. His Doc Holliday is interesting, but whether it’s the script (where I lean) or something else, Mature isn’t given a great chance to shine. His Holliday is too moody, too intense for his own good. There’s some good chemistry between Fonda and Mature — especially a scene early as they wait for a play — but the not so accurate history does them no favors. All records indicate they were at least partially friends in real life (Wyatt and Doc that is), but here, they’re barely on speaking terms. Some good potential for the character, but it falls short.

Who else to look for? Brennan as Old Man Clanton is an out and out villain, a sneering, intimidating murderer. John Ireland plays his youngest son, Billy, while Grant Withers mostly looks mean with a beard as Ike. The Earp brothers include the always welcome Ward Bond, Tim Holt and Don Garner. Linda Darnell plays Chihuahua, a Mexican saloon girl who loves Doc (and sings a couple songs), while Cathy Downs plays Clementine, a past love interest of Doc’s who Wyatt takes a shine to. Also look for Ford regulars Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, Jack Pennick and Ford’s brother, Francis Ford, in small supporting parts.

It had been years since I watched this western, but something struck me on the most recent viewing. I found myself bored with this first hour. There is little to no story with the pacing at an almost glacial pace as we meet Wyatt, Doc and Tombstone. An episodic story is one thing, but ‘Darling’ just sorta drifts along. I found myself drifting more than I remembered. Things definitely pick up over the last 40 minutes, but I had to at least bring up the pacing issue.

That said, definitely give this John Ford western a shot. Shot on location in Monument Valley (asĀ  a background to Tombstone), ‘Darling’ is a visual treat. Ford’s movies have a reputation for their style, look and visual appeal, but this may be him at his best, right up there with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. An iconic western with plenty of memorable scenes, it’s an excellent film and well worth checking out.

My Darling Clementine (1946): ***/****

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

sheworeayellowribbonpostDirector John Ford is known, remembered and respected for any number of westerns from a long, distinguished career. For me, I’ve always been a big fan of his ‘Cavalry trilogy,’ starting with 1948’s Fort Apache and 1950’s Rio Grande. Smack dab in the middle? A movie featuring — for me — star John Wayne‘s best role, 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

It’s the fall of 1876 and the U.S. cavalry is dealing with the fallout following the massacre at the Little Big Horn where George Armstrong Custer and much of his Seventh Cavalry was wiped out. At isolated Fort Starke, Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is just days away from retirement after a distinguished 40-year career. He’s been given one last mission; to take a patrol out and see if he can’t drive a growing Indian force back to the reservation. Brittles is saddled with an additional job though, transporting two women to safety in the wake of the likely coming attacks. With a potentially huge assault mounting as the Indian tribes band together, Brittles and C Troop has their work cut out for them.

Recently I reviewed Ulzana’s Raid, a cynical 1972 revisionist western that showed what the cavalry, the Indian wars and the American west was really like. Ford’s Cavalry movies? More like the way the west should have been. I liked ‘Ribbon’ as a kid but didn’t love it. It’s too slow with not enough action. It’s only as I grew up that I appreciated it more and more. Now, I think of it as John Wayne’s best role (along with The Searchers and The Shootist) and in general, one of the best westerns ever made. Other Ford-Wayne pairings usually get the attention, but this definitely belongs in the conversation.

What an enjoyable movie. The kicker? There’s little to no story in a 103-minute running time. Brittles is retiring in a few days, an Indian uprising looms…and go! ‘Ribbon’ features an at-times leisurely pace, moving from episode to episode. It doesn’t need a detail-oriented story. We’ve got the situation, a laundry list of great characters and so much more. Filmed on location in Monument Valley (a Ford favorite), ‘Ribbon’ is visually stunning, the Technicolor filming absolutely popping off the screen. The cinematography rightfully earned an Academy Award win. Throw in a memorable score from composer Richard Hageman, and you’ve got a lot of key pieces kicking into place left and right.

As an actor, Wayne often gets the short end of the stick. With the right script, the man could A-C-T. After seeing Wayne in Red River, Ford exclaimed “I didn’t know the SOB could act,” resulting in this pairing. Wayne as Brittles is pitch-perfect. Here’s the Duke playing a man 20 years his superior (gray in his hair and mustache, lines on his face), and nailing it. Brittles is a career officer, a loyal, brave and honorable soldier who gets the job done but looks out for his men in the process. What’s always appealed to me about the performance is that it never feels like show-boating. This is understated, emotional and never feels forced.

Two memorable scenes come to mind. One early on has Brittles visiting the grave of his wife who passed away some 9 years before. Watering plants on the grave and sitting in a small folding chair, he tells her about the new developments in his day-to-day life. He smiles, filling her in on all the details. A scene that easily could have been overdone or fake, but Wayne delivers in subtle, scene-stealing fashion. The same for a late scene when Brittles receives a silver watch with an inscription from C Troop. An embarrassed Brittles reaches for his glasses and holds back tears as he reads the inscription. Anyone who thinks Wayne couldn’t act should watch those scenes and then re-evaluate their opinion.

Plenty of the John Ford Stock Company join Wayne in an impressive cast. Joanne Dru plays Olivia Dandridge, a young woman visiting her uncle at Fort Starke who’s also caught the attention of two lieutenants in C Troop, Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.). The dynamic isn’t great and is the weakest aspect of the movie, but it’s not as bad as Red River! Ben Johnson is another scene-stealer (as usual) as Sgt. Tyree, the scout and point man for C Troop, the man Brittles relies on most. He’s also a real-life cowboy so all those scenes of Tyree tearing across the horizon are legit. Ford regular Victor McLaglen is a welcome addition to the cast as Quincannon, a similarly retiring veteran soldier who’s longtime friends with Brittles.

Also look for George O’Brien, Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields and an uncredited Paul Fix in a small scene.

Ford movies lean toward the romantic side of the cavalry and the west. He has a respect for the men who donned the blue uniforms and curled campaign hats for $30 a month and constant danger over the next rise. These are good, old-fashioned stories with strong characters (if at times stereotyped) and style for days. Just a gem of a movie. Not always identified as Ford or Wayne’s best, but it should be. A classic worth checking out and/or re-visiting.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949): ****/****