#25 — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)
There are a plenty of genres and styles that once prospered in American cinema that have fallen out of favor or been modified to the point of being unrecognizable, but none of them inspired observers to see elegiacal profundity in the offerings from their twilight quite like the western. In part, that’s because westerns, no matter how sprightly and charmed, always seemed to carry a tint of the forlorn to them. By the times films were conveying tales of the Wild West, it was already a bygone era being documented, the celluloid slicing through the projector itself a testimony to how much time had passed, how much technology had subsumed the taciturn solitude and manliness of arid frontier towns and ranches as big as the sky. The inevitable subtext was that this was a lost era, never to be retrieved, and the movie creators were consigned to the making of myth. When the genre’s popularity began to recede, that lost history could so easily be applied to the films themselves. And as one of the lines of dialogue in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance insists, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
This adaptation of a Dorothy M. Johnson story brought director John Ford together with his regular collaborator John Wayne, as many westerns had done before. The history of the two men brings a welcome weight and even self-awareness to the film, enlivening a story that could have felt pat and familiar. Wayne plays a rancher who takes some responsibility for the steady justice in the small town of Shinbone, rising unhurriedly to action when things escalate beyond the capabilities of the town’s inept sheriff. Wayne’s rancher largely remains on the fringes of a conflict between scowling outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and a scholarly newcomer to town named Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), though he’s always prepared to assert the threat of his personal authority when it’s handy to prevent a problem moving from simmer to boil. Simultaneously, there’s a contested effort to move the region towards statehood, nicely paralleling the film’s chief conflict, both exploring the rawness of untamed territory facing down encroaching civilization. At first glance, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance can seem like a conglomeration of familiar elements, tropes even, but under the masterly care of Ford, it becomes first and foremost a film of shrewdly considered ideas.
Ford commanded the mechanics of traditional Hollywood narrative like few others. It’s his storytelling ease that drives Liberty Valance, giving it a modern intellectual ache where still adhering to a most comfortable flow of character and plot. Shot in a stark, lovely black-and-white entirely appropriate to the downbeat mood of the film (the excellent cinematography is by William H. Clothier), Ford constructs a film with knotty elegance, like a sturdy but roughly whittled chair. Tempting as it can be to impose great thematic heft to the film, there’s little indication that Ford was attempting any grand statement. He and Wayne may bring their history with them, but they also proceed with an unshowy confidence that their own confident fortitude, their self-certainty, is all that’s needed to make The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance special. Other filmmakers at the time were already starting to strafe the conventions of their craft, but Ford knew there was still value in the tried and true. He’d been printing the legend for a long, long time.