Weekly Watch: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Sometimes the ideas the animate a movie are better than the movie itself.

As with many films of the 1930s-1960s I’ve seen recently, I stumbled into The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on Turner Classic Movies.

Not only that, it was part of a slate of movies programmed by Steven Spielberg, so there was a little intro discussion between he and Ben Mankiewicz about the film. It was the last of the great westerns directed by John Ford (a huge influence on Spielberg, among others) and they talked about how it confronted issues about the transition of the West as a conflict between an older regime built on violence and self-sufficiency to a new order based on the rule of law. As a lawyer, and someone with a degree in history, that sounded like something I should just eat up. Damned if the actual movie didn’t get in the way of that.

The “old” West is represented by none other than John Wayne, whose performance here spawned a million impressions punctuated by the word “pilgrim.” He plays a rancher, Tom Doniphon, who has made a hardscrabble living out of the land and thinks everyone needs to be capable of using a gun to protect themselves (he is, naturally, a crack shot). The “new” West is represented by Jimmy Stewart as Ransom Stoddard, a lawyer from the east who believes in bringing civilization to the West. They go back and forth about the best way to handle the titular Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a local brigand who furthers the interests of big cattle ranchers who don’t want the unnamed territory to become a state.

That setup is fine so far as it goes, but Ford doesn’t really do a lot with it in the end. Stoddard’s stagecoach is robbed on its way into town by Valance. When Stoddard complains to the town marshal about it he dodges responsibility by pointing out that it occurred outside of town and therefore outside of his jurisdiction. But we later see Valance do all sorts of criminal things right in the middle of town and not only does the marshal do nothing, Stoddard never demands that he do so. Stoddard never tries to take the job and be the law. Hell, we never actually see him practicing any kind of law in the movie (he does some school teaching, though). No, what does Stoddard do? He pretty quickly gets himself a gun and starts practicing how to shoot.

It’s no great spoiler that Valance winds up on the wrong end of a gun (it’s right there in the title, people), although it’s a little unclear precisely who “the man who shot Liberty Valance” is, in the end. Both Doniphon (from the shadows, we later learn) and Stoddard shot AT him, but it’s unclear who hits him and which shot is the fatal one. Regardless, what is beyond clear is that Stoddard fully joins in the game of dealing with Valance through violence, leaving any real pretense of the law behind. And it’s Stoddard who gets the honor of being that man, even if he doesn’t really want it (which is a really interesting conflict that could have been explored more deeply).

So the movie kind of fizzles in its portray of the “old” versus “new” West, but how is it otherwise? Well, it’s a tale of two movies.

The first, which focuses on the leads – Wayne, Stewart, Marvin, and Vera Miles as the love interest – is pretty good. All those performances are good and the have good scenes together. Marvin, in particular, is really menacing as Valance (and has a young Lee Van Cleef as a sidekick). The love triangle between Stoddard, Doniphon, and Miles’ character is underbaked (Doniphon is building an addition onto his house for her, but she doesn’t have any apparent desire to move in), but, hey.

The other movie is the weirdest feast of overacting I’ve ever seen. There are multiple characters – the Cowardly-Lion-esque town marshal, the drunk town doctor, the (also drunk) newspaper publisher – who perform so broadly that had they wandered off this set onto the one for Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks would have told them to tone it down. If you’ve seen the episode of Futurama where Zoidberg’s uncle directs a “serious” movie but demands that the background actors run around throwing pies at each other, you’ve got the picture. Big ideas can be great drivers of a story, and fiction can be a fantastic way to explore how people grapple with those big ideas. But the idea is not the story. The story is the characters in it, what they do, and why they do it. The biggest and most important idea can be felled by a poorly executed story. That’s what’s the most frightening for us creative types – the big ideas are the easy part, but there’s so much left to do once you’ve hit on one.


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