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): ****/****

 

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Rio Bravo

riobravoposterMore often than not, the movies you watched and loved as a kid stick with you. Case in point, my love of John Wayne movies. I started with The Alamo and never looked back. One of my favorites and hopefully always will be, 1959’s Rio Bravo is one of the best Duke westerns ever, and on a bigger scale, one of the best westerns ever. Simple as that.

In the border town of Rio Bravo, a man named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) has brutally gunned a man down and walked away from the scene. The town sheriff, John T. Chance (Wayne) and his drunken deputy, Dude (Dean Martin), track him down and throw him in a jail cell. Burdette’s brother, Nathan (John Russell), is a powerful rancher though with his hand in everything. With a small army of gunmen, Nathan bottles up the town. Chance can’t get Joe out of town, and he can’t bring help into town. Left with no alternative, Chance and his deputies sit back and wait. They think the Burdettes will make a move at some point, but in what capacity? The odds are definitely against them.

I can’t think of too many westerns that are more enjoyable, more fun, more charming. From director Howard Hawks, ‘Rio’ is a gem of the genre. It avoids most of the trappings that plagued so many “adult” westerns in the 1950’s, finding a balance among story, characters, drama, laughs and gunplay. Maybe a touch long at 141 minutes, but I’m still never bored. There aren’t any dark undertones or heavy-handed attempts at drama. Just all the separate pieces working together to create an even better final product, a true classic.

Since delivering maybe his career-best performance four years earlier in 1955’s The Searchers, Wayne had gone away from the western genre only to see his next 4 films struggle at the box office. His western return was a triumph! My opinion obviously, but I think this is Wayne’s coolest performance — for lack of a more well-spoken description. He looks the part, sounds the part and looks to be having a ball with a great cast that’s loaded with chemistry. This film began the second half of his career — as he became the Duke more than John Wayne — but his Sheriff John T. Chance becomes an iconic western character; the stout, stubborn, capable small-town sheriff. Odds be damned, he intends to do what’s right.

The cast in ‘Rio’ wouldn’t seem like a gimme if you just look at the cast listing. Odd choices, interesting choices, but you know what? They ALL work. Chance’s crew of deputies include Dean Martin as Dude, a gunslinger who’s fallen on hard times courtesy of a drinking problem, Walter Brennan as Stumpy, a motor-mouthed old man with a significant limp, and singer/teen idol Ricky Nelson as Colorado, a young gunslinger who’s quick on the draw but inexperienced. John Russell makes the most of a small part as intimidating gentleman Nathan Burdette while Claude Akins sneers and jeers as his punk brother, Joe.

According to Wayne and Hawks, Rio Bravo was at least partially a response to 1952’s High Noon. I’ve read Wayne even thought the Gary Cooper western was un-American as countless townspeople refused to help Cooper’s Will Kane. Not the case here. Chance has a drunk, a cripple and a youngster, but he’s got help. Many other people offer to pitch in and lend a hand, but Wayne’s Chance refuses almost all of it. The catch is that the chemistry of the oddball crew in Rio Bravo is amazing. This is a great dialogue-driven script. Check out the memorable quotes from IMDB HERE. It’s a gem from beginning to end, and the cast doesn’t disappoint in bringing it all to life.

One of the more interesting aspects of Rio Bravo is the casting of 28-year old Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a saloon girl that Chance tries to chase out of town but ends up butting heads with and eventually falling for. The age difference is noticeable with a 50-year old Wayne, but my goodness, every scene they have crackles together. Dickinson keeps Wayne on his heels at all times, talking and questioning and generally driving him nuts. Westerns so often waste their female leads with non-essential…well, everything, but Dickinson is such a scene-stealer, you can’t help but sit back and watch the on-screen chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Ward Bond plays Pat Wheeler, a wagon train leader who has a friendly history with Chance and wants to help. Also look for Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as Carlos, the hotel owner who is close friends with Chance as well. He has some great lines as he hams it up in certain scenes and underplays other scenes. Estelita Rodriguez plays Carlos’ wife, Consuela.

I caught something interesting on my most recent viewing. ‘Bravo’ has elements of a stage-based play with only two key locations, the jail and the hotel. Sure, the main strip in the town of Rio Bravo is key but almost the entire story is told in either those 2 locales (with some departures here and there for drinking at saloons and shoot-outs). Just an observation.

One of the qualifiers with classic westerns is memorable lines, memorable shootouts and set pieces that help it stand above the rest. The wordless opener is a gem, almost 7 minutes without a word spoken, no explanations given. I’ve always loved the scene too where Chance and Dude walk into a saloon looking for a murder suspect…except he disappeared. But how? A classic. With talents like Martin and Nelson too, there’s even a chance for some singing. Forced, even jammed, into the story? Sure, but it’s so good you don’t even care. Give the 2-song set a listen HERE. It’s all aided by a classic score from composer Dimitri Tiomkin, including a great main theme and a test run on his Deguello sample he’d use a year later in The Alamo.

A movie I love a little more with each viewing. A true classic. So much to recommend. You’d better just go watch it to be safe.

Rio Bravo (1959): ****/****

The Train Robbers

poster_-_train_robbers2c_the_28197329_01In the later years of his career, John Wayne stuck with the genre that made him a star. Sure, there were some Dirty Harry-esque excursions into the rogue cop genre, but the Duke stuck with the western. The efforts weren’t classics, but they were always entertaining. Case in point, 1973’s The Train Robbers, flaws and all.

A train pulls into the tiny, isolated town of Liberty, Texas. Two passengers get off the train, an aging cowboy named Lane (Wayne) and a pretty young widow, Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret). Lane has been hired by Mrs. Lowe to recover $500,000 in gold hidden somewhere in Mexico. Mrs. Lowe’s recently deceased husband is the only person who knows where the gold is, and he happened to tell her before he died. Unfortunately, several members of his old gang also would like to get their hands on the long-hidden gold, and they’ve hired a small army of gunmen to help them. With two old friends, Grady (Rod Taylor) and Jesse (Ben Johnson), along with three other gunmen, Lane and Mrs. Lowe ride into Mexico after the gold. Can they find the gold? More importantly, can they get out alive?

This western was a favorite of mine growing up. My Grandma recorded it off WGN, and I’d watch it whenever me and my sister had weekend sleepovers at her house. Does it hold up so many years later? Sorta. It’s still entertaining, but there are some major flaws. I wonder if it’d even be remembered if John Wayne wasn’t out front leading the way. From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Train’ clocks in at a swift 92-minutes (more on that later). It’s unlike just about any other Wayne venture. Is that good or bad? I guess that depends on how big a John Wayne you are.

You watch this movie because of John Wayne. It’s a familiar part for him, the resolute, capable gunman/cowboy, albeit one who’s getting up there in years. This is a performance he could do in his sleep, but because he’s the Duke, you can’t help but like him. Kennedy’s script provides him with some great one-liners — both comedic and dramatic — and he carries the movie with that easy-going, likable charm. His chemistry with Taylor and Johnson is impeccable, especially as we learn about their history dating back to the Civil War. There are issues with the story and pacing, but the quieter moments among our heroic lead trio and the lovely Ann-Margret always manage to bring it back together.

Here’s the best way I can critique ‘Train’ without completely ripping it to pieces. In writing the screenplay, Kennedy had an idea for the quiet, windy opening (a la Once Upon a Time in the West), a shootout over the gold at the halfway point, and a final shootout for all the marbles back at Liberty. In between? Filler, and lots of it. I would wager 20-25 full minutes are just shots of Wayne, Margret and the crew riding across Mexico. I’m not exaggerating either. The only reason that isn’t a deal-breaker is the location shooting in Mexico (similar locations as The War Wagon, Major Dundee, Chisum, Big Jake), and a memorable, whistle-worthy score from composer Dominic Frontiere. ¬†Give it a listen HERE.

It just feels like something is missing. The bad guys are nothing more than a faceless gang of riders on the horizon. We never get a name or even hear them speak. Budget issues? An intentional choice? There was some pretty good potential with the entire story, the cast and the execution. It just feels like there’s something missing. Also look for Christopher George, Bobby Vinton and stuntman Jerry Gatlin as the rest of Lane’s crew. George has some good scenes with the lead trio and more than holds his own.

And then there’s the finale. It’s rare you can say a western had a legitimately good twist, but ‘Train’ has it courtesy of Ricardo Montalban. Until the end, he’s just a presence lingering on the trail with our train robbers. He’s got a secret though, one that provides a great ending, especially a quick scene between Taylor and Johnson and a perfect final line(s). If it’s slow going getting there, know that it’s worth it in the end. A flawed final product, a bit of a mixed bag, but still a John Wayne flick worth watching.

The Train Robbers (1973): ***/****

Island in the Sky

island_in_the_sky_281953_film29_posterSince I moved over to WordPress from Blogger this past fall, I’ve struggled with what to review. Life gets in the way and what not, huh? Should I stick with solely westerns? Guy’s guys movies in general? I’d been sticking with westerns of late, but when watching 1953’s Island in the Sky, I had to expand the parameters a little bit. A John Wayne movie many fans have never heard of, much less seen, it’s a hidden gem, a true classic.

It’s early in World War II and many civilian pilots have been enlisted in the armed forces to help transport supplies to Europe. One of the routes is over Canada to Greenland and eastward into England and beyond. Among those pilots is Dooley (Wayne), a longtime flier, and his four-man crew. In horrific weather, Dooley’s plane goes off-course and the pilot is forced to land in the wilderness of Labrador, mostly uncharted land that’s never been explored. With food in short supply and temperatures at -70 degrees, the five men must band together to survive. All over the region though, civilian pilots report in to aid in the search. In the uncharted wilderness though, the search proves to be almost impossible across 10,000 square miles. Can the rescue effort find them? Can Dooley and his crew hold out?

Originally released in 1953, ‘Island’ went unseen for over 20 years as it languished under copyright and legal issues. It was finally settled on released on DVD in the early 2000s with another Wayne aviation movie, The High and the Mighty (also recommended). Some 15 years before disaster movies were in style, both films set the bar high and are obvious influences on countless flicks to come (both serious and spoof). ‘Island’ is as straightforward as they come with a downed crew and the rescue effort in the air. No frills, no tricks, just a survival movie at its absolute best. A must-see film.

Director William Wellman had a pilot’s background himself, flying in a fighter in WWI. He’d done several aviation movies already — including 1927’s Wings — and just has a knack for it. ‘Island’ is filmed in a stark, haunting black and white that adds a layer to the film. With color filming, it would lose some of its minimalist edge. The aerial sequences are quite impressive as WWII-era planes fly through weather, in and around mountain ranges, and all in sub-zero, frigid temperatures. Much of the movie is spent in tough, cramped quarters on the search planes, and we’re there with the pilots the whole way. A solid musical score from Emil Newman and an uncredited Hugo Friedhofer underplays all the action.

Rarely mentioned as one of Wayne’s best, this definitely belongs in the conversation with The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Shootist. His part as veteran pilot Dooley is his most human part. He’s not a superhero, a cowboy, a war hero. He’s just a good pilot trying his damnedest to get his crew home safe. The voiceover narration Wayne delivers adds an excellent element to the character as we see his doubts creeping into his head while trying to hold the situation together. There’s a good twist in the final scene too concerning his character. Nothing crazy, but it adds a nice touch. As for the crew, look for Sean McClory as Lovatt, the co-pilot, Wally Cassell as D’annunzia, the radioman, Hal Baylor as Stankowski, the engineer and Jimmy Lydon as Murray, the navigator.

The survival and rescue effort is delivered in almost documentary-like fashion. In brief snippets, we get little windows into the lives of the crew as they look back on what they’ve left behind. It’s never heavy-handed or too distracting, but is instead highly effective in letting us feel like we know the crew well. It goes a long way in simple fashion of getting us invested in their survival. A solid ensemble.

And then there’s the rescue efforts, featuring plenty of recognizable stars, character actors and future stars. ‘Island’ features an excellent ensemble all-around, starting with the rescue pilots, including Lloyd Nolan, James Arness, Andy Devine, Paul Fix, Allyn Joslyn, Cass Gidley and Louis Jean Heydt. Walter Abel leads the effort from base as the Army officer in command, an effortlessly effective part as he spells out what’s going on. As for some of the crew members, look for Harry Carey Jr., Fess Parker, Bob Steele, and Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer.

I’ve seen this movie several times now, and I go along for the ride each and every time. The tension is beyond uncomfortable at times as the days pile up and supplies begin to dwindle, all the while the extreme, bitter cold wreaking havoc. SPOILER ALERT I absolutely love the ending too, one of the best, most emotional finales around. SPOILER ALERT. I can’t recommend this movie enough. Hidden away in a vault for years, ‘Island’ is must-see for fans of aviation, of John Wayne, of survival stories, and more simply, just of good stories. Definitely check this one out.

Island in the Sky (1953): ****/****