“Somebody better listen to somebody about Liberty Valance!”
A beloved politician (Jimmy Stewart) returns with his wife (Vera Miles) to the small Western town where he’s famous for having killed a bullying gunslinger named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin); but as he begins to relate the story of his relationship with the recently deceased town drunk, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), new details about the killing emerge.
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “marvelous John Ford western” — about the transition from an untamed western frontier to an era of “law and order”, as well as our tendency to valorize legends at the expense of the grittier truth — “looks better with every viewing”, and “certainly… summarized themes that were vital to earlier Ford westerns”. He notes that “for Ford, the real heroes were men like Tom who tamed the wilderness and made it possible for civilization to take root”, and he points out that “it is a shame that such pioneers have no place in civilization”, given that “in a law-and-order world of lawyers and politicians, Tom is just as anachronistic as gunslingers like Liberty”. He writes that the “picture has interesting characters and their relationships with each other are complex”, and he argues that the “picture has strong emotional resonance”. As noted in TCM’s article, upon its release …Valance was apparently dismissed as a lesser entry in Ford’s lengthy oeuvre, with specific criticisms leveled at Ford’s choice to make the film in black-and-white and primarily on a sound-stage; but in later years, critics (like Peary and many others) began to recognize its thematic and aesthetic values.
While I appreciate much about how …Valance is constructed, I’ll admit it’s not a personal favorite. Ford’s characteristic inclusion of comedic supporting characters — most specifically Andy Devine’s cowardly sheriff, presumably meant to provide some levity to the proceedings — simply feels forced and out of place here; and Stewart’s idealistic, stubborn “young” lawyer comes across as merely another iteration of his earlier starring roles for Frank Capra. With that said, I admire the craftsmanship of the script (based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson), which manages to evoke a surprising amount of tension despite the fact that we can guess the truth behind the title from the beginning; however, it starts to bog down a bit towards the end, when Stewart goes head-to-head with Marvin in a contrived, Capra-esque town hall scene, and Wayne (“Think back, pilgrim.”) conveniently saves the day. Speaking of Marvin, he deserved the notoriety he gained for his key role here as Liberty Valance; he represents everything corrupt and vile about a lawless west in which might overtakes right every time.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance
- William Clothier’s cinematography
- The impressive final shoot-out
Yes, as one of Ford’s acknowledged classics. Listed as one of the Best Films of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)