‘ Ford is looking back at characters who are looking themselves looking back, extending an invitation for the audience to join in its contemplation, abstraction, analysis’ Jim Kitses, Horizons West, 2004,118

‘ Ford .......was ahead of the public consciousness.......With its profoundly sceptical re-examination of American history and mythology, a prophetic quality in anticipating the public’s loss of faith in government, and an acknowledgement of the growing brutality in American life and the Western genre, The Man Who Shot liberty Valance now clearly stands out as the most important film of the 1960s’
Searching for John Ford, McBride, 2001, 623

‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is .....the culmination of Ford’s darkening personal vision’. J.A. Place, The Western Films of John Ford, 1974, 216

Liberty Valance with the Man who shot Him

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance hinges on the idea that history needs heroes that the public face of leadership is often far different from the private lives that live behind the image and that when the public interest dictates it is better that the “truth” is suppressed. This may not be too earth shattering in the twentieth first century but the 1960s and more particularly in the western genre it was so ground breaking that many critics did not understand it. At the end of Fort Apache Captain York (John Wayne) loyally promotes the myth that Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda) died a courageous heroic death leading his troops. Thursday, like Custer upon which historical character he is modelled, has foolishly provoked a needless battle and led his men to their deaths. The reason seems to be that sometimes the public need to be reassured that their agents are acting in their best interests; they cannot contemplate or do not wish to be told an unwholesome truth. Under this notion the country’s and/or the institutions interests may be best served by confidence being maintained in the individuals divested of duty to the nation, be it upholders of the law, national security or government, rather than have confidence diminished in the nation’s institutions. In an extreme example of this Voltaire’s satirical Candide comments on the execution of the British Admiral Byng: "in this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others".

By exploring these issues in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford was playing with History, and the power of (mis)information in legitimizing governmental institutions, He was suggesting that ‘official’ explanations are often a sham and he invited the audience to play along with the experiment. This was a far cry from the usual western, representing a departure even for Ford in that he demanded his audience to think rather than be merely entertained. The film had a rather dark, sinister edge to it and Ford added to this by choosing to record it in black and white. As Edward Buscombe observes this had the effect of creating the belief that the film was dated but authentic, almost a documentary. (100 Westerns, Buscombe, 2006, 125), The result was stylised, deliberately creating a pastiche, an archaic vision of the past through a series of staged sequences similar to the early days of the Cinema. Some reviewers did not take to this at all, for it did not match their expectations.

Not only this, but the film is really quite violent and nasty and the unexpectedness of the violence makes it all the more unsettling. In many ways the violence anticipates the films of Leone and Peckinpah, and it is uncanny that Ford’s villainous whip wielding Valance (Lee Marvin) – liberty for him certainly limits the liberty of others- is supported by Leone’s favourite villain van Cleef and Peckinpah’s Strother Martin.

The action centres very much on the town and its community, like My Darling Clementine, but gone are the sweeping vistas and glorious use of scenery. For once we do not see the backdrop of Monument Valley. The film is ‘isolated ...from the compensating forces of the grandeur of the outdoors and the purifying effect of Ford’s visual beauty’, (J.A. Place, The Western Films of John Ford, 1974, 216.) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is claustrophobic; the players interact in town, hemmed in like actors in a play with no set changes. What made this difficult for US critics to understand was that Ford’s westerns to date had contributed to the celebration of the western and its portrayal of how the frontier had been the area in which the American ‘character’ had been forged, the theatre in which the Nation had been founded. Not only was Ford questioning the veracity of the Frontier thesis which had underpinned the community values of My Darling Clementine and the marginalisation of native Americans in Fort Apache and She wore a Yellow Ribbon, but he was showing more than a healthy scepticism of the way the media may be manipulated. It seems that by the 1960s the USA was not ready for this cynical response of the director who was questioning not only the Frontier thesis but his own earlier work which had sought to embellish and pay homage to it and to the individuals who had shaped the History of the West.

In a sense the demands Ford made on the audience in Liberty Valance were a leap of faith. It seems that he was assuming the audience would be familiar with his western pedigree and accept that this entitled him to explore issues which were integral to the Myth of the West and the Myth of the Western. If this was the case then it passed many contemporary reviewers by. Ford was self aware and nervous enough to write to the influential New York Times critic Boseley Crowther that the film was ‘deliberately stylised’ but this had little impact, for Crowther reported that it was ‘an almost slapdash entertainment that is a baffling oddity’, putting it down to ‘creeping fatigue’. (Searching for John Ford, McBride, 2001, 625) While Ford’s earlier films celebrated the Frontier, almost glorifying it in the beauty of its landscape, here there was no glorification, no celebration, although Ford still shows a deep understanding of the History of the West, including an allusion to Manifest Destiny, the justification given by the whites for taking the land of the native Americans:

‘Look at it, it was once a wilderness, now it’s a garden.’ Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles), to Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) as she looks out at the landscape from a train.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a stark by Ford’s standards, it is challenging film, it was not just a part of History, it contributed to it. In this classic film Ford recognized what history was and is, and how works of Art like his contribute to it. It was a new slant for Ford: having distorted history by seeming to relate it, but in actuality celebrating and developing its myths, here he was giving the History student a lesson in methodology. ‘In .......... My Darling Clementine and the Searchers, Ford had nudged his characters toward a final ascendance to myth; now, in the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he begins with the myth and methodically dismantles it.’ (Scott Eyam, Print the Legend, the Life and Times of John Ford, 1999, 491). ‘Like many Ford films the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance focuses on the need to subordinate individual will to the collective struggle for the greater good. Unlike many Ford films the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance overtly questions whether the sacrifice is justified.’ (Scott Eyam, Print the Legend, the Life and Times of John Ford, 1999, 492. )

This was what was ground breaking about this marvellous film. A successful director of westerns turned his back on success and made a film which challenged the very ground on which his success had been founded, producing a film which broke the mould, ignoring Monument Valley and the community formula to which he had previously signed up. In some senses it was almost an anti western in that Ford on the one hand appeared to simplify the boundaries between good and bad, to make them almost too stark, making the bad in the form of Lee Marvin and his henchmen comic book baddies we might boo and hiss. And where should we look for the goodie? To John Wayne ( Tom Doniphon), the tough but flawed westerner. Or James Stewart ( Ransom Stoddard) the physically weaker but courageous easterner. James Stewart understood the chemistry of his role playing opposite Wayne which John Ford milked: ‘People identify with me but dream of being John Wayne’ .James Stewart, quoted in Kim Newman, Wild West Movies, 1990). But more than this, in the context of the film John Wayne, (Tom Doniphon) is an anachronism, he has outlived his time and can only show his true worth by protecting the community in an ignoble, cowardly fashion, the end justifying the means. The hero’s role is split, then between the rugged westerner: the self effacing, but uncharacteristically underhand Doniphon and the gauche ‘play it by the book’ eastener, whose character is so strong he risks death rather than back down when he knows he is right : Ransom Stoddard.

J.A Place goes further than this in his analysis and sees their competition for Hallie as a representation of their battle for the USA itself. J.A.Place sees Hallie as the future of America being fought over by Tom Doniphon (Wayne) who is the traditional western values of the rule of and Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) who represents progress in which the rule of law emasculates the rule of the gun. Ford sympathizes and identifies with Doniphon, even presenting him as so morally pure that he helps the very process of his own emasculation. But there is no holding back progress, Ford, Doniphon and we must bend to its inevitability, however painful this may be. The myths are buried. Arguably the Western myth is dead. Michael Coyne does not lay the blame for this on John Ford, his venom is reserved for others, but the violence of Peckinpah, Leone and Eastwood is here in embryo in the form of Lee Marvin’s uncontrolled and incongruous maniacal use of his whip. He has to be dragged off Stoddard such is his lust for destroying values he does not understand or relate to. And on the way progress in the form of Stoddard is courageous, does not have it easy, and does have a conscience.

This is a great, great film on all kinds of levels. It shows a master so much at the peak of his powers that it transcends any petty or otherwise messages he may have set out to deliver. Did cinemagoers show their discernment, for this was the last John Ford film, never mind western, to make money? Or was this so out of kilter with expectations that the film that resulted in a reduction in popularity of John Ford films thereafter? Either way its success at the box office was fully deserved. Fine performances, fine direction and camera work produced a film that sets itself apart from its contemporaries and was ground breaking in the genre.

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© Chris Smallbone July 2010