Richard J. Leskosky: 'Liberty Valance' at Virginia
John Ford, one of America's greatest film directors, built a reputation partly on the epic sweep of his westerns, where he often set the nation-building actions of his characters against the magnificent backdrop of Monument Valley. So one of the many ironies of his late masterpiece, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," derives from his shooting it in black and white largely on studio sets.
You now have a rare chance to see this classic film on the big screen at the Virginia Theatre as part of The News-Gazette Film Series at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday.
Arguably Ford's last great film, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" deals with the interplay of myth and history and politics in the settlement of the Old West. Appropriately told in flashback, it presents the story of how beloved, successful U.S. Sen. Ransom "Rance" Stoddard (James Stewart) began his political career, catapulted from frontier lawyer/part-time journalist/teacher/dishwasher to regional representative at a statehood convention on the basis of his having shot the title gunslinger.
Valance (Lee Marvin) works for the local cattlemen to protect their political and territorial interests, but he also robs stagecoaches. That's how he and Rance first meet, and we get our first look at Valance's brutality and Rance's determination to bring law to the desert town of Shinbone with his law books rather than a gun.
How brutal is Valance? Well, twice in the film his two henchmen have to pull him off someone he's beating, and those two secondary villains are played by Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin, character actors who had already established themselves as archetypally cruel and weasely bad guys, respectively. So if these two characters are appalled by Valance's behavior, you know it must be horrendous.
Local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), a cowardly freeloader, tries never to be in the same room with Valance, and the local newspaper's headlines accusing Valance of murder and robbery merely irritate him. The only apparent check on his behavior in town comes from rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a tougher fighter and faster on the draw.
Tom is in love with Hallie (Vera Miles), daughter of the local restaurant owner, and plans to marry her once he's finished building his ranch house. The arrival of Rance, however, complicates those plans. Rance both needs Hallie's help after being beaten and robbed by Valance and provides her with help in return, promising to teach her to read.
So the film develops around two overlapping triangles — one romantic (Tom-Hallie-Rance) and one violent (Tom-Liberty-Rance). And the resolution of one also guarantees the resolution of the other.
Paramount refused to spend very much money on the film, so Ford shot it in black and white and used obvious studio sets. Some scenes — notably the early stagecoach holdup — look like television sets of the time. The only genuine outdoors scenes are those at Tom's ranch. But budget concerns probably were not Ford's only reasons for those production choices.
Frankly, Wayne, Stewart and Miles were all about 20 years older than their characters in the extended flashback narrative; they were closer to the ages of their characters in the film's present. The lack of color helped obscure that (but not all that much). But the black and white cinematography more importantly conveyed a sense that the narrated events were definitely things of the past, suggested a certain nostalgia for them, and also allowed for an expressive use of shadows.
The cheap sets (and the real location of Tom's ranch) play with notions of how we remember events and the very value of certain myths. And no American director layered more myths into his films over the course of his career than Ford. Just before Liberty's shootout with Rance, for example, he wins at poker with aces and eights — the so-called "dead man's hand" Wild Bill Hickok purportedly was holding when he was killed.
Names here have their mythic significance, too. Liberty ironically tries to impose his will (and those of the cattlemen) on the townspeople, effectively denying them liberty. Ransom frees them from that bondage. And Tom's puzzling reference to the territory "south of the picket wire" refers not to some fence but rather to local mispronunciation of the name of the Purgatoire River in southeastern Colorado — in other words, Purgatory and places south.
Ford also liked to use the same actors over and over again, and their repeated appearances in his westerns in particular added a sense of deja vu and timelessness to the stories. Familiar faces in supporting roles here include Woody Strode, John Quayle, Jeanette Nolan, Denver Pyle and John Carradine (who also appeared in Ford's first great western, "Stagecoach," in 1939).
A master of the sentimental, Ford would often have you choked up by the end of a film, but here he has you getting teary in the first 10 minutes without you really knowing why. An aged Rance and Hallie return to Shinbone for a pauper's funeral and are greeted by a sympathetic Link and curious newsmen. While Rance grants an interview, Link and Hallie visit a burned-out ruin in the desert. Rarely do you find a western beginning with such a pronounced sense of loss and sadness.
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" also features an unusual structure for its time and genre. Told mostly in flashback — Rance's tale of his start in Shinbone — the film contains a flashback within a flashback, showing a crucial event from another point of view and forcing us to reinterpret a significant portion of what we've seen.
Costume designer Edith Head was nominated for an Oscar for her work here. The film won nine Bronze Wranglers from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center (despite calling into question certain aspects of western mythology). It influenced westerns throughout the 1960s and certainly had an impact on the work of Sergio Leone later in the decade and into the 1970s.
With today's nine-digit budgets for Hollywood blockbusters and special effects technology that makes just about anything possible on screen, it's truly refreshing to see a Hollywood classic that achieved its respected status at least in part because of the apparent limitations of a small budget.
A look at the 2013-14 News-Gazette Film Series (shows are at 1 and 7 p.m. at the Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., C):
Saturday: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962)
Oct. 26: "Rebecca" (1940)
Nov. 9: "All About Eve" (1950)
Dec. 7: "It Happened One Night" (1934)
Jan. 18: "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957)
Feb. 8: "The Philadelphia Story" (1940)
March 15: "Steamboat Bill Jr." (1928)
April 5: "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951)
May 24: "A Night at the Opera" (1935)
June 21: "The Maltese Falcon" (1941)
July 12: "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935)
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.