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Posts Tagged ‘Lee Marvin’

There’s a school of thought which suggests that the western genre was essentially a wholesome, thoughtful and sincere vehicle for examining the nature of the American national psyche, until Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood came along and perverted it into something cynical, nihilistic and obsessed with hollow slaughter. I think this is overly simplistic: darkness crept into the West years before the spaghetti western came into vogue, allowed in by some of the genre’s most celebrated home-grown exponents.

John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arriving by train in the town of Shinbone, presumably some time around the turn of the century (the film is deliberately coy about the times and places involved, for this is in a sense the story of the entirety of the American frontier). Stoddard is one of America’s leading politicians and a very significant figure; his unexpected arrival causes a stir. What has brought him back to the town where he first became famous?

Journalists gather, but Stoddard and Hallie are more interested in catching up with old acquaintances: retired marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) and lowly ranch-hand Pompey (Woody Strode) chief amongst them. There is an air of inescapable melancholy and regret in the air, of things long-buried being uncovered, all connected to the reason for the Stoddards’ visit: to attend the funeral of washed-up town drunk Tom Doniphon (who, when he eventually appears in the flashback which makes up the bulk of the film, is played by John Wayne). But why?

Stoddard, with the air of a man finally getting something off his chest, tells the tale. The scene changes to many years earlier: Stoddard is travelling to Shinbone by stagecoach, a freshly-qualified lawyer. However, the coach is ambushed by the notorious local bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his men, and Stoddard is badly beaten when he resists. What’s left of him is hauled into town by Doniphon and his servant Pompey, and he’s taken in by the family running the local saloon. He’s nursed back to health by their daughter, Hallie, which Doniphon is a bit disgruntled about (he has plans of the marryin’ kind which involve her).

Stoddard is determined to see Valance brought to justice, which Doniphon roundly ridicules him for: law books mean nothing here, compared to the authority of a gun barrel. If Stoddard wants to stop Valance, he’s going to have to kill him, law or no law. Stoddard is appalled by the prospect (to say nothing of the fact he’s useless with a gun). Meanwhile, tensions are growing between Doniphon and the lawyer, as Stoddard grows closer to Hallie, teaching her to read and write in his capacity as the town’s new schoolteacher.

The lack of law and order in Shinbone is partly due to the territory not having been given statehood yet, which Stoddard and the town dignitaries would like to see happen – but the powerful local cattle barons want to see things stay as they are, and retain Valance to ensure this happens. Stoddard finds himself inevitably heading for a confrontation with the gunman – but, even with Doniphon’s tuition, can he possibly have a chance?

There’s certainly more of a drama than a traditional western about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and perhaps a fair bit of a romance, too: a big portion of the plot revolves around the love triangle between Doniphon, Hallie and Stoddard. The fashion in which this resolves is one of the bittersweet elements which runs through the movie; there is something profoundly melancholy and wistful about the framing scenes that bookend it. The Stoddards reflect on the changes that the railroad and modern technology have brought to the town, rather ambivalently. ‘The desert’s still the same,’ offers Appleyard, rather dismally.

Perhaps, then, this is the story of how the west was lost – or, at least, tamed, if that isn’t the same thing. It’s about the creation of civilisation and society about of anarchy, on one level, a place where men like Stoddard can prosper, but not – it’s implied – ones like Tom Doniphon or Liberty Valance himself.  What’s telling is that it’s suggested that Doniphon has much more more in common with Valance than with Stoddard – neither man has much time for rules or finer points of behaviour, being ferocious individualists, and if Doniphon is a ‘better’ man than Valance, that’s simply due to his essential character rather than any kind of sense of moral obligation.

That this is put across so effectively is mainly due to Ford’s casting, which is both brilliant and obvious: Wayne is playing his usual monolithic rugged individualist, verging on self-parody by this point: by his own admission, a very tough, unreconstructed alpha male. You can’t imagine him playing Stoddard any more than James Stewart playing Doniphon: like Hitchcock and many other directors, Ford recognised Stewart’s genius for playing flawed, human heroes, and that’s what he does here. (We should probably note the irony that in real life, Stewart was a decorated war veteran, while Wayne was acutely self-conscious about his own lack of military service.) In many ways the film is much more about the conflict between Doniphon and Stoddard than either man’s clash with Valance himself (and, as noted, Doniphon and Valance are in many respects mirrors of each other).

In the end, of course, Valance is shot and a bright future for the west is assured – but this, like most of the film, is couched in numerous levels of irony and ambiguity. The film does romanticise the old west, but not without qualification; it suggests that the old west, with its heroes in white hats and virtue always naturally triumphant, is a myth, with little grounding in truth – in this respect it to some extent anticipates Unforgiven, and many other revisionist westerns. But it also suggests the myth is a necessary one for America’s sense of itself to endure. In this respect The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a surprisingly dark and complex film – amongst other things, suggesting that dark and ruthless acts, carried out in secret, are necessary for civilisation to thrive – but it is also a touching and surprisingly moving portrait of the central characters and their relationship. A serious film about complicated ideas, and real emotions; one of the great American westerns, I think, and a harbinger of the genre’s future.

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