The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

December 31st, 2010 | by Sqotty |

It’s been awhile since I had last seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and I was able to steal away the time to do so this week. This has always been one of my favorite John Wayne films, and for good reason. Shot in black and white, for a variety of different (and in some cases conflicting) reasons, it is a stark tale of the West before Law and Order. I truly think that the film would lose something if it had been shot in color, and God forbid that they ever colorize it as I believe it will lose some of the tension that it now has.

I think most people are familiar with the story – young man goes west with a sack of law books; meets thug who nearly beats him to death; rescued by The Duke and told to learn to use a gun; kills thug, becomes senator….only who did kill Liberty Valance?

Like I said, I doubt anyone reading this is not familiar with the story. If you aren’t, look it up on IMDB or better still, find a copy and watch it (in black and white).

There is just too darn much to like about this film. John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart together on the screen. Lee Marvin as the heavy Liberty Valance. Vera Miles as the romantic interest who is loved by the tough-as-nails Tom Doniphon, but she falls for the tenderfoot lawyer who teaches her to read. Andy Devine as the town marshal who is scared to death of Liberty Valance’s shadow (not to mention the man himself). Woody Strode as the loyal Pompey. Edmond O’Brien as the drunken newsman Dutton Peabody. There isn’t a weak performance in the cast; not surprising as it was directed by the great John Ford. Strong cast, strong script, and strong production values makes for one of the greatest Westerns of all times. But we’re talking about an era when Hollywood still knew how to make great movies and had actors who knew how to act.

Don’t agree? Just watch O’Brien with his portrayal of Dutton Peabody, his eloquence, and mannerisms. The man put his whole body into the performance, and does he know how to play a drunk! He makes being a drunk look downright fun (but don’t go there…it isn’t…better to stick to PLAYING one than being one, and healthier, too). And he gets quite a bit of screen time, switching from the jovial drunken newsman to the dead serious newspaper editor, and does so convincingly, which only leads me to wonder why he missed out on an Academy Award (back when the Motion Picture Academy was still a relevant organization) for his outstanding performance. Scenes of note: The bar room scene when the town of Shinbone is having its election of delegates for the convention, and Peabody, wanting a drink (“the bar is closed”), goes into why he can’t be a delegate because he is a newspaper man. Watch him when he is drunk and returns to his newspaper office to find Liberty Valance and his gang waiting for him. The deep shadows and as he enters, and the rising light as he lights a lantern builds tension, revealing the danger that surrounds him.

The Duke turns in a solid performance with Ford at the helm, this being the first film where John Wayne calls someone “Pilgrim”, a word that has long since been associated with Wayne and his Westerns, even though I can’t think of another film where he uttered it (but there must be one somewhere, right?). Jimmy Stewart opposite Wayne, both tall men, but Stewart looks a little older (okay, a lot) than Wayne, even though they are about the same age. Both tall men, one big and muscular, the other lean and wiry. They performed well together and it is a shame that the only other time we see them together is in The Shootist.

Lee Marvin, tall, lean, wiry, and sinister, with a deep bass voice made for a harrowing villain who could intimidate just about any of the people of Shinbone, except Wayne’s Tom Doniphon and Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard. He is the highwayman that beats Stoddard to near death, and is later known to be the tool of the cattlemen north of the Picketwire. Vile and contemptible, the only man that causes him to back down is Doniphon.

And, of course, Vera Miles, a strong-headed and warm-hearted woman, Haillie, who turns to Doniphon, the man who loves her, to help Stoddard, the man she loves. And the repercussions of her asking Doniphon’s aid in saving Stoddard and the death of Liberty Valance.

But it doesn’t stop there as there are so many good performances throughout the film. It is because of all these wonderful performances that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of my all time favorite films. They don’t get much better than this.

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