The Man who ѕһot Liberty Valance: In his final Western with John Wayne, John Ford subverts the myths of the Old-West that he himself created

The Man who ѕһot Liberty Valance: In his final Western with John Wayne, John Ford subverts the myths of the Old-West that he himself created

The Man who ѕһot Liberty Valance (1962) was the last western John Ford made with John Wayne. The film, also starring James Stewart, Lee Marvin and Vera Miles, is Ford’s most political film that subverts a lot of myths about the American West as well as the John Wayne persona that Ford himself created

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

With that one line of dialogue, John Ford pretty much dismantles the entire mythology of the American west that he had created over a course of 40 years. This famous aphorism (One of the most famous lines in Movie history) is spoken by the character of a newspaperman in Ford’s 1962 western, The Man who ѕһot Liberty Valance. The naïve myths and legends (or untruths) that Ford had propagated about the civilizing of the West (and the building of the American nation), through the 70 odd films he made in his lifetime are all overturned by him in this film.

This is also the last western he would make with his most favorite actor John Wayne, with whom he did close to 14 films. From the time Ford first teamed up with Wayne in Stagecoach in 1939, Wayne’s towering persona was Ford’s chief instrument in conceiving and propagating the myths about the old west. While Howard Hawks’ westerns emphasized professionalism and comradeship among the settlers of the old west, and Anthony Mann’s westerns shed light on the dark side of this civilization: greed, vengeance and violence; the westerns that John Ford made were not just simple genre pictures, they were about the building of the American nation.

His films appeared very simple and, at times, very simplistic, but they dealt with huge themes: the expansion of American military might, the conflict between the European settlers and native American civilizations, the establishment of law & order in the wilderness, and the coming of religion, trade and commerce; all these themes are reflected in one way or the other in all his westerns. His westerns were all optimistic in nature and concentrated on building a myth, rather than showing the gritty reality. His films begins on an optimistic note and ends on an optimistic note; even if the they would detour into darker, pessimistic territory in between, his films always end on a note of hope and glory. Take Fort Apache (1948) for instance, which is a strong polemic on American military intervention against the Native Americans.

The film ends with the defeat of American cavalry and the pathetic ԁеаtһ of Col. Thursday (Henry Fonda). But the very final scene of the film had John Wayne extolling the virtues of the American soldier, and in the background, the Cavalry is seen riding out take on the Indians. Ford turns the ending into a rousing beginning and constructs an elaborate mythology for the American military. Ford’s westerns portrayed truth, honor, courage, family and community as the chief weapons by which the American West was won. But as he would come to reveal in Liberty Valance, he was just printing the legend all along, leaving out the hard facts.

In its tone, structure and visual style, the film is very different from other John Ford Westerns. Ford uses a flashback structure to tell the story; Ford’s films are usually very linear, and he seldom uses a scattered narrative. It is also his most claustrophobic western; ѕһot in Black & White and completely on a studio lot with minimal sets, the film has none of his trademark ѕһots of stunning landscapes and colorful panoramic vistas. But the most important of all, the film begins with the ԁеаtһ of his lead character, Tom Doniphon, played by none other than John Wayne. By putting John Wayne in a coffin right at the beginning of the film, Ford makes his intentions very clear.

He is putting to ԁеаtһ all that Wayne represented in his westerns up until that time and for the rest of the film, he is going to painfully reconstruct the mythology of the west and Wayne through some cold hard facts. The story takes place in a fictitious town of Shinbone in an unnamed Western territory (probably Colorado). As the film opens, U. S. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is arriving in Shinbone by the new railroad with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles). There are here to attend the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Doniphon is not a person of any importance around town, just a sorry old man on the fringes, who passed away unnoticed. So the newspapermen are all surprised, as to why Ranse Stoddard: three-term governor, two-term senator, ambassador to the Court of St. James, would attend his funeral. And as they swarm around the senator for details, Stoddard starts recalling the events leading up to that day and, the film cuts to a flashback.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) | OldMoviesaregreat
25 Years ago, Shinbone was held in a grip of terror by the sadistic Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who committed many murders and enjoyed torturing his victims using a leather bullwhip. When Stoddard arrived in town by stagecoach, he was a fresh young lawyer with some romantic notions about bringing law & order to the west. But right on his arrival, he encounters the brutal Valance, who steals all his belongings and almost whips him to ԁеаtһ. Stoddard is saved by Doniphon, a local farmer and horse trader, who observes: “Liberty Valance’s the toughest man south of the Picketwire–next to me.” Stoddard is nursed back to health by Hallie (Vera Miles).

Valance and his two henchmen terrorize Shinbone, while the bumbling Marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine ) lacks the courage and ɡսո fıɡһtıոɡ skills to challenge him. Doniphon (who is courting Hallie) is the only man willing to stand up to Valance. But he is a sort of reluctant hero, who minds his own business, and is roused into action only if his path crosses with the outlaws. Stoddard continues to defy Valance and earns the respect of the townsfolk, by first opening a law practice in town and then starting a school for teaching illiterate townspeople. This leads to Stoddard being elected as a delegate (along with Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), publisher of the local newspaper) for a statehood convention at the territorial capital. But the plans of statehood for the territory upset the cattle barons, who recruit Liberty Valance to sabotage the delegation.

Valance and his gang beat up a drunken Peabody nearly to ԁеаtһ, and ransack his office. He then throws down a challenge to Stoddard: leave town or face him in a ɡսոfıɡһt. Earlier, we have seen Doniphon training Stoddard in the use of ɡսոs, but finding Stoddard not up to the task, Doniphon had humiliated him. Now Stoddard accepts Valance’s challenge (ignoring Doniphon’s advice to leave town) to shoot it out with him. Stoddard goes into the street to face Valance. Valance toys with Stoddard, shooting his arm and laughing at him. The next bullet, he says, will be “right between the eyes”; but Stoddard fires first, and to everyone’s surprise, Valance falls ԁеаԁ.

Hallie attends to Stoddard’s wounds and it appears to Doniphon that she has fallen in love with Stoddard. A dejected Doniphon, who was hoping to marry Hallie and move into his new house, gets drunk and burns down his house. His friend & Ranch hand Pompey (Woody Strode) saves him from the fire, but is unable to save the house. With Valance’s ԁеаtһ, the road is clear for Stoddard to become the delegate to Washington and with Doniphon out of the way, he can also marry Hallie. But things are not that easy. Stoddard decides that he cannot be entrusted with public service after killing a man in a ɡսոfıɡһt and he decides to withdraw. Here again Doniphon comes to his rescue. Doniphon takes Stoddard aside, and in a flashback within a flashback, confides that he, Doniphon, actually killed Valance from an alley across the street, firing at the same time as Stoddard. Now with his conscious clear, Stoddard returns to the convention, accepts the nomination, and is elected to the Washington delegation.

The film flashes forward to the present, where Stoddard sums up the rest of his story. The territory is granted statehood and, being the man who ѕһot Liberty Valance, Stoddard became its first governor. From thereon, he goes onto even more heights in his political career, and now he is expecting a nomination to be the vice-president of the country. He had married Hallie in the interim, and now, they have come to pay their final respects to ‘The ‘real’ Man who ѕһot Liberty Valance. After hearing all this, the newsmen decide not to print the story, as the mythology that propelled Stoddard has to be protected at any cost.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – The Movie Screen Scene
Director John Ford has been a pioneer, not only of the Western genre, but also the art form of cinema itself; he is an inspiration to some of the greatest filmmakers all around the world; Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, David Lean,.. Have all expressed their admiration and debt to Ford in developing their own cinematic technique.

Rarely do we find the influence of other directors in Ford’s movies. But in Liberty Valance (as well as in his previous film Sergeant Rutledge) I find a strong influence of Kurosawa’s Rashomon; especially, dealing with the exploration of a particular event (involving a crime) from multiple vantage points. Also, the rumination on the differences between truth and fact was at the heart of Kurosawa’s classic. It’s much more explicit in Sergeant Rutledge, which transposes the incident involving rape and murder in medieval Japan to the American frontier west. In this film, it is related to the killing of Liberty Valance, which is shown from two different perspectives. First from the subjective perspective of Stoddard, and then an objective version, depicting the fact; that it was Doniphon who killed Valance, and not Stoddard. Ford uses a flashback within a flashback technique to accomplish this, which is very unusual for him.

He always liked his films to be clean and straight, and any form of alteration to the classical structure of the film was anathema to him. He also hated, what he called, intellectual snobbishness, but, this film is the most intellectual of all his films, not to mention cynical, political, pessimistic and subversive. As opposed to his other films, this film begins on a sad note, and as it goes on, it become more tragic and dark and finally ends on a very pessimistic note. At the time of the film’s release, it was dismissed as a minor work from a master filmmaker, but watching it now , it shows his extraordinary growth as a filmmaker, which is not just restricted to its thematic resonance, but also extends to its visual and narrative stylistics. In its sparseness and interplay of light and darkness, Ford evokes moments from Film Noirs- where Wayne comes out of the darkness, shoots Marvin, and then recedes back into darkness.


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