Who Shot Liberty Valance?

Some people think of westerns as Clayton Moore in a skyblue jump suit, and Jay Silverheels suffering through endless “kemo sabe” lines.

But that’s nonsense. Sure, there were a lot of “oaters” (as they were called), produced by low-budget hacks to cash in on the post WWII cowboy craze. But the genre–as plentiful on the new medium of television as cigarette commercials and Arthur Godfrey–also deepened and matured in the late ’40s and ’50s, following a course similar–and complementary to–the traditional “film noir cycle” you might hear a lot of critics talk about.

The country may have been in denial about the social, cultural and political upheavals caused by WWII and the aftermath of the Cold War (how else does one explain Pat Boone?) … but noir, early on, tackled adult subjects, and even when the most courageous, outspoken (and in many cases, the most talented) directors were blacklisted, gleanings of self-exploration are evident in many genre films of the period–particularly westerns, like those directed by Anthony Mann (also a fine noir filmmaker) and starring Jimmy Stewart.

So I’m breaking away from the traditional urban setting for a week to talk about one western in particular–one of the best ever made, and one that boasts some noir characteristics (and actors).

Late in his career, John Ford–who by all accounts was not a kemo sabe to work with, but one of the most influential and brilliant directors of all time–revisited his favorite genre and his favorite actor, and filmed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

The film is actually a mystery–a story told in flashback, explaining why an aged, prominent politician and Senator–played by Jimmy Stewart–and his wife (Vera Miles, most famous for Psycho), return to Shinbone, a small town in the southwest, for the funeral of a man whom no one remembers except for his companion, friend and hired hand, Pompey (the always moving Woody Strode) … and who will be buried as a pauper by the county.

The relationship of the elderly Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) and his wife Hallie seems uncomfortable … and almost immediately, after a buggy ride out to a burned out house surrounded by cactus roses, we’re led to believe that this couple had been, once a upon a time, a triangle: there had been another man, the dead man, Tom Doniphon.

Newspaper men coax the story–actually, demand the story–from Stewart, who also ensures that the miserly undertaker buries Tom with his boots and spurs.

The flashback begins with the fresh-from-law school Ransom (makeup helps the 53 year old Stewart and so does the black and white photography) getting hijacked on the stage coach by a sadistic psychopath named Liberty Valance (played brilliantly by Lee Marvin, and reminiscent of his turn in The Big Heat). (Trivia buffs will note that Lee Van Cleef, later to come to prominence as “Angel Eyes” in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, portrays one of Valance’s two sidekicks.)

Rance (and his law books) are torn to shreds by Valance, and he’s left to die. The first time we see Tom Doniphon (John Wayne, in one of his best roles), he’s carting the wounded Rance to Shinbone and the arms of the pretty but illiterate girl who works in the only hash house in town. Cue the triangle.

The main theme revolves around the educated representative of the future and civilization (Rance), who refuses to carry a gun, and tries to fight for justice with law, versus the strong man who represents the past and keeps himself to himself (Tom), a man of action, but who–until now–has not done anything to halt Valance’s crimes, even though he is the only person in the territory who is capable of it. And then there’s Hallie, torn between what she knows and what she thinks she wants.

But the relationship is really not about these three people, nor is the movie. The film, like all great cinema, can be read on many levels. Ultimately, it’s about sacrifice, and entrapment and force and civilization and what role force has in creating–and destroying civilization. And happiness. It’s about that, too.

It’s a mystery, it’s a political commentary, it’s philosophy wrapped up in a cowboy suit. Along with The Searchers, it’s the best film Wayne made, and one of the best Ford (4 time Best Director Oscar winner) ever made. And keep in mind he directed films like The Grapes of Wrath, The Informer, How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man).

Co-starring some of the best character actors in the business–Andy Devine, Woody Strode, John Qualen, Jeanette Nolan (she’s Gloria Graham’s “sister under the mink” in The Big Heat), John Carradine–in addition to a really hammy Edmund O’Brien doing a Thomas Mitchell impression (see Stagecoach, also a Ford film and the one that catapulted John Wayne to fame, for how O’Brien’s character should have registered), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance demonstrates the same dark heart, irony and ambivalence–and questioning probe of society and its values–as many noirs. In a strange way, it reminds me of the Ursula LeGuin short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

As the newspaper man responds, when finding the answer to the title question: “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Who shot Liberty Valance? The answer is: maybe we all did.