Thursday, April 23, 2015

The History of John Ford: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

When Orson Welles was asked what movies he studied before embarking on directing Citizen Kane he replied, "I studied the Old Masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." 

Running parallel with our series about Akira Kurosawa ("Walking Kurosawa's Road"), we're running a series of pieces about the closest thing America has to Kurosawa in artistry—director John Ford. Ford rarely made films set in the present day, but (usually) made them about the past...and about America's past, specifically (when he wasn't fulfilling a passion for his Irish roots). In "The History of John Ford" we'll be gazing fondly at the work of this American Master, who started in the Silent Era, learning his craft, refining his director's eye, and continuing to work deep into the 1960's (and his 70's) to produce the greatest body of work of any American "picture-maker," America's storied film-maker, the irascible, painterly, domineering, sentimental puzzle that was John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962) Even the mention of the title invokes a cynical irony for those who have seen it. This crowning glory in the long accomplished (dare one say legendary) career of director John Ford, 68 at the time of its filming, is a bitter pill of a film and a meditation on the inexorable march of time and the brutal boots of history.

It is about "becoming"—not just in the strictest sense of transitioning (although the town of Shinbone, in which it is set, is in the midst of leaving its old West roots behind to take its place as part of the Union of States), but also in the less used sense: of reflecting favorably on the subject to its advantage.

It is also about, as so many of
John Ford's films over the years, the taming of a wilderness, and the creation of a society. And the unbecoming truth that to create the veneer of civility, sacrifices must be made, just as sure as Sunday dinner.

Senator Rance Stoddard and his wife Hallie (James Stewart, Vera Miles) return to the town of Shinbone to much hoopla. It is their home-town, of course, but as the Senator now spends all his time in Washington he doesn't get back there much. So the press start nosing around to get the where-fore's of why "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (and rode that acclaim into politics), is there now. The occasion is a funeral for a man nobody knows (or has little regard for), but he's very important to the Stoddards—he is, after all, the man who brought them together. And as Hallie places a cactus on Stoddard's plain pine coffin, Stoddard relates the tale, one that blows away the Senator's folksy bluster with a scouring truth.

The Senator talks of his first coming to Shinbone as a greenhorn lawyer* and his run-in's with
local bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, gloriously over-the-top), a malevolent thief and enforcer for the cattle industry who has the small town of Shinbone afraid to come out of their houses. Beaten and bleeding, Stoddard is brought to recover under the roof of the Ericson's (Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen, Miles) by Tom Doniphon
(John Wayne), who's sweet on Hallie and is building a house for the two of them outside the city limits. Doniphon is contemptuous of Stoddard's belief in law and order (calling him "Pilgrim," only one of two films where Wayne used that oft-parodied term), believing that the only way to stand up to anarchists like Valance is a loaded pistol.
I say "anarchists" pointedly, because The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Get it? "Liberty" Valance?) is as much about politics as it is a story about a love triangle in the Old West. You have the anarchistic, irresponsible Valance on one side and you have the "book-larned," law-and-order, taming-the-West-by-education-and-civics Stoddard on the other. In between, you have Doniphon, who's all for government (far as it goes) but in his time, you tame the West with bullets and hard work. But that time is passing. Doniphon is late to realize that that taming means the passing of the bad guys who will disrupt, but also good guys with a sense of entitlement. Ford chooses sides, and it's for civilization—because anything else is stagnation and waste. For all the talk of "Freedom" and "Rights," those are granted only under the auspices of control and Law. Because Valance represents not only unbridled freedom, but also the seeds of despotism. As a rancher, Doniphon knows those seeds will take over unless something stronger, hardier is planted in its stead.
Even if it means the death of his way of life.

Sacrifices must be made.

By the time the tale of Stoddard and his benefactor/mentor and rival is told, a bloom has, impossibly, appeared on the cactus, because like Stewart's lack of youth in the flash-backs and the old-age make-up for the young actors in the present, Ford is also playing with time, even going to his own past, using a piece of music from 1939's Young Mr. Lincoln (that put a melody to Lincoln's loss of his first love Ann Rutledge) for the scene of Hallie regarding Doniphon's burnt-out homestead. And so, the telling of the tale of a lifetime is enough time to ensure new life in movie terms.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford goes so far as to state outright something he'd been alluding to throughout his career as a film-maker, story-teller and chronicler of the United States. Given a choice between printing the unvarnished truth or a myth for the common good, the newspaperman says, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes truth, print the legend."

There was never a better-stated justification of film-making.

It's a definitive statement of Ford's career directing movies. But Liberty Valance is also a bridge from Ford's early Westerns to the "modern" "oaters" of the 60's as Valance's wormy toadies are portrayed by Lee Van Cleef (of Sergio Leone's "Dollar" trilogy) and Strother Martin (part of Sam Peckinpah's stock company). Those film-makers were inspired by Ford, and in their own revisionist methods of "printing the truth," made their own legends.

And so the film is its own truth, summarizing one director's past as a pioneer and presaging the future of the Western film, on the edge of its demise, both "becoming" even in the depth of their cynicism.

* One of the criticisms of the film is that both Stewart and Wayne are playing young men when the two were both in their 50's. Wayne can get away with it (as he always plays old...and other reasons), but Stewart doesn't come across as a man in his 20's. I have something to say about that towards the end of the review.

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