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Highly entertaining, if a bit slow-moving, Liberty Valance is a delight for those who wish to celebrate John Wayne. His fractured diction, accompanied by his theatrical pauses and shorthand gestures, makes this the key film for Wayne imitators, Pilgrim. Wayne interacts gracefully with a number of acting styles, and only James Stewart stands out as being possibly a bit too much for his role. His constant emoting, as if he were still in Mr. Smith filibuster-mode, is tiring, and he's ridiculously too old for the role ... but then again, so is Wayne, if we want to get technical. Vera Miles is stock-professional, but Lee Marvin got his star-making break as the loathsome but fun dirty-rat Liberty Valance. The lizardlike Lee Van Cleef and the perverse Strother Martin hit perfect notes that would later elevate them into stardom with Leone and Peckinpah.
Stagebound and talky, Liberty Valance doesn't have much action and almost plays like a picture from the '30s, which is not a complaint. Colorful characters like Ken Murray's Doc and Edmond O'Brien's Dutton Peabody come right out of the Stagecoach school of 'alcoholism-is-cute.' Considered Ford's final word on the Western genre, most of the ideas here are depressingly retro, after Ford's (assumed) liberalization that began with The Searchers. 1 Showing that the colorful reputation of the noble politician is based on a lie might sound subversive, until the end, when it's smugly declared that inconsistencies with the 'official story' are best swept under the carpet. As a truth-killer, it's the equal of the ending of Fort Apache, where military stupidity and the double-crossing of the Indians are hidden in the interests of Army pride, sentimentality, and tradition. 'When the facts conflict with the legend, print the legend,' has a sentimental appeal to everyone who wants history to be a rosy tale of simple conflicts, nobly resolved. But it's the same ideal that made the politics of beloved actors Stewart, Wayne, Reagan, and others come off as fascism to my generation. 'Trust us', they said so paternalistically ... 'We have charisma'.
Ford's second major Western theme is the turning of the desert into a garden. Ford's Westerns make more overt claims to historical importance than those of other major directors of his time. Howard Hawks' heroes are just making a professional's living, while Ford's are almost always glorified as building a nation. Even his My Darling Clementine has a profound symbol, in its half-built Church, of an American Utopia in the making. Strange, however, that these Western movies are all set in the most barren of deserts, that can grow almost nothing and could barely support goats for grazing. Are all the denizens of Shinbone miners, perhaps? Even the farms of The Searchers are cropless nothings. But Tom Doniphon brings Hallie a cactus rose, the symbol of the garden in the West he wants to build, as if it were some kind of fantasy. The harshness of desert settings in Westerns is more photogenic than the rural-agricultural kinds of places that were the object of strife in the old West; by eliminating complex political issues and sticking to open vs. closed-range politics, things are kept simple. Ford's simplification of the O.K. Corral into Good Earps vs. Bad Clantons, makes John Sturges' revisionist Hour of the Gun a must-see. Here in Valance, we're handed the old idea that eliminating one demonized bad man (wonderfully played by Lee Marvin) will solve all of Shinbone's problems. This is incredibly conservative, this fairy tale that there are no complicated issues to understand and resolve, only demonized baddies to eliminate, and it's the way we Americans tend to look at the world.
But Savant needs to back-track away from these critical readings of Ford to emphasize the honesty in Valance. John Ford IS America, they used to say, and they're right, as his sentimental way of smoothing over the rough edges of American society expresses well the virtues of the country even as it exposes shortcomings. No matter how I try to analyze his films, the better ones have a ring of truth and pride that is almost familial. Enjoying movies doesn't mean you have to agree with them, and Ford's movies are the perfect vehicle for understanding the American mindset, which has a strange relationship with its Western myths. The Western doesn't even begin to come into focus without the foundation of Ford's West; all the movements that came afterward are a reaction to him. Sergio Leone started with abstract cynicism but eventually made his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West as an anti-capitalist response to the world of Ford; Sam Peckinpah in his major Westerns deconstructed the John Ford world, with frequent direct quotes of his films. 2 John Ford's idealizing of the West is the conservative's way of finding peace and rest in the safe and secure past ... where the big issues are already resolved, and controversy is the tool of petty troublemakers. Ford's followup Paramount film would make this Ford world-view even more acute ...
Paramount's DVD of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a snappy pressing of this b&w classic, finally back in its proper aspect ratio. Some viewers balked at this version that (correctly) mattes off the top and bottom of the frame: The problem is that they've gotten too used to seeing the movie on TV, with a mile of head and foot room above and below the essential compositions. If you doubt this, look at how perfectly framed are the main title text blocks; more picture could be cut off and it would still look fine. Savant's grudge against Paramount's late entry into the DVD biz is just a memory now, after a long succession of consistently well-transferred films with fine 16:9 formatting. On a big screen TV, Valance looks as good as it did theatrically. There's a 5.1 surround remix, plus the original mono. No additional languages are offered, and the only extra is a trailer. The liner notes are misinformed and generally dumb, trying to plug the movie as a simplistic love triangle.
Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema said that Donovan's Reef was like some kind of heaven that Tom Doniphon and Liberty Valance, both fun-loving uncivilized types, had retreated to in the afterlife. And it's the key to appreciating this broad comedy.
Just appreciating this show on any level will be an accomplishment for younger fans. There's a lot they may despise here, starting with the faux-Hawaiian song concocted from 'tiny bubbles', a Lawrence Welk favorite. ( actually, lounge music fans may love it) The use of Polynesians and particularly Asians is stock stereotyping at its most extreme ("plitty lady, show legs, nice picture?"), but is only the most salient aspect of a fantasy constructed almost entirely from stock ideas. Even the critical champions of Ford had to make excuses for his favorite subplots involving amusing drunks and giant brawls where nobody's seriously hurt; Donovan's Reef is almost completely composed of this kind of material, a lot of which is fall-down funny, especially with Marvin and Wayne clowning around.
But that's the whole point. John Ford obviously wanted to make a light comedy in the paradise of the South Seas he had reconstructed in The Hurricane 25 years before, and had seen for himself during the War in the Pacific. Haleakaloa is no real place but instead IS the Valhalla for fallen Ford heroes, especially the misfits who don't belong in society. 'Guns' Donovan, 'Boats' Gilhooley and the Doc are refugees from Ford's more serious films, living in a paradise for Navy veterans. A tourist's paradise it is, not unlike Shangri-La, a place populated by charming, clean natives who always smile, wear bright clothes and speak English with endearing child-like accents. The natives of Haleakaloa might as well be sub-human Eloi, easy to convert to Christian spirituality and easy to take to bed, but not on the same level as the whites. Blacks somehow need not apply; even Woody Strode's servile Pompey of Liberty Valance doesn't earn a place in paradise, it seems.
The brawling goes on non-stop, and is just another ritual for birthdays and Christmas in a film constructed almost entirely of Ford moments: arrivals, departures, memorials, church services, pagaents, parades. Here's where the appreciation might kick in, for far from being some kind of stiff & square non-comedy by has-beens, Donovan's Reef comes off instead as a surreal, almost abstract progression of kabuki-like rituals from the world of John Ford.
There's the Clementine-like good girl from back East, who Donovan 'humanizes' with a spanking and a kiss. There's also the local, dark, bad girl played by Dorothy Lamour, who evokes not only the Hope and Crosby comedies in her sarong, but reminds us that she started the fad with The Hurricane. In that movie her native husband Jon Hall travels afar and wants to buy her some special things to bring back as gifts; Lamour's 'Miss LaFleur' is like the ghost of that woman, singing boozily about a man promising to bring her petticoats and dresses. The entrance of the boat into the harbor with 'heavenly' singing is a cliché practically invented by Ford in The Hurricane, that continues through The Long Voyage Home and even into Mr. Roberts. The feeling imparted is that the weary travelers have arrived at a place far from home free of civilization and its restrictions, where one can be at peace, as if it were a welcome refuge for everyone who's lost the essential Ford idea of Home. 3
Ford's heroes arrive at Haleakaloa by literally swimming ashore, but even on the beach there's a formal native gate that frames every arrival (Gilhooley greeted by his fans) and exit (the very surreal assembly at the end, with all marching forward & while staring out to sea). Ameilia and Michael's first handshake is framed by this gate. The fact that a 'native' runs through the frame with a handy towel for Ameilia to dry herself is a reflection of the lack of concern for realism. Mike tear-asses around in his jeep, even with tots aboard, as harmlessly as in the comic barfights where nobody gets killed, despite the lethal blows that are being exchanged. There are a lot of similarities between Haleakaloa and the Judgement City in Defending Your Life, where there are also no consequences for one's actions.
Mike Doniphon, I mean, Donovan, says that his destroyer was sunk offshore, and they swam to the island to be welcomed by the natives. Donovan's Reef is so fantastic, it's fun to speculate that the sailors actually all went down with the ship, and that the whole film is the wishful thinking, Ambrose Bierce-style, of life-loving sailors killed prematurely. After all, the Doc never contacted his family ever again, and Gilhooley and Donovan might as well have dropped off the face of the Earth with him. It's an idea that goes only so far, but it does help explain why this tropical island is populated by fantasy natives from a Hollywood movie, why the only Asians are harmless comic relief, even why the houses and lawns are manicured to picture-postcard perfection. This Polynesian paradise is the one of Tourist shows, with lines of smiling young women insultingly presumed to be available to the Howlies. 4 The reverence accorded the hereditary descendant of Manulani is amazingly sincere, given the bald tourist baloney of the pageantry surrounding her.
So Ford's film is the ultimate Navy fantasy, where grown men get to live in a state of frozen adolesence, playing with toy trains, the dark floozy gets to marry her hunk instead of dying off in the last reel, and the Clementine Carter character stops being such a priss and gets down to basic chemistry with the hero. If modern teen movies can have every kid hero be a champion kickboxer, and warp historical events (Pearl Harbor) to indulge the selfish fantasies of 21st-century know-nothings, than surely John Ford and his pals - who actually lived through some of these world-changing events - should be permitted the luxury of having their own surreal fantasy, even if the fantasy includes unlimited beer and cigarettes. In other words, they saved the world, so cut 'em some slack, already. Much like loving the idea of America, loving John Ford movies is like loving an ideal that you know should not be confused with the Truth. If my parents' generation had mastered the miracle of honoring the legend, but telling the Truth, well, things could have been a lot different.
16:9 enhanced and beatifully remastered, Paramount's Donovan's Reef is a visual treat almost as good as a vacation on Maui. William Clothier's lush photography takes full advantage of what must have been inspiring conditions ... it's hard to believe there are bugs on the plants, and you want to rush forward and fix the divot ripped out of the lawn by Wayne's jeep. It's almost offensive when Wayne tosses his cigarette butt into a Hawaiian bay. Anyhoo, the disc is just gorgeous, and the restored proper framing makes Ford's formal intentions more apparent than on flat television prints. The only extra is a trailer, but this title has a French mono track in addition to its standard English Mono. The brief package notes are by someone who inanely says that the heroes brawl to 'stave off the sameness of tropical living.' Sheesh, I'll take my crackpot theories any day.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The liberal taint in latter-day Ford never coalesces into anything like a changed
point of view; The Searchers very strongly communicates a moral dilemma, suggesting that the Indians might have
had justification for resisting Yankee encroachment ... a huge admission for the maker of Fort Apache.
Cheyenne Autumn, on the other hand, comes off as pitiful whining that expresses very little except some
urge to cleanse himself of the cultural ills his earlier movies had foisted on native Americans.
2. Yes, sure, the obvious Peckinpah lift is his use of Ford's favorite hymn 'Shall we
gather at the river;' I'm talking about tiny references, like the shawl on the old lady that Pike Bishop helps
across the street. William Holden takes the old lady's arm and shawl just as Henry Fonda in the classic
Ford filmhad taken Clementine Carter's. It's one of the highest expressions of instinctive chivalry in
all of Ford. Then Peckinpah
make a vicious comment by having that same shawl be what Holden pulls from his spur and discards, after trampling
the old lady to death under his horse!
3. This feeling of 'the lost home' is transmuted by Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch in the ride OUT of Agua
Verde, where even the hardbitten outlaws are touched by their acceptance by the villagers. The song they
sing is 'La Golondrina', a sad tune about a bird, fast but tired, stranded in the 'lost region' and unable to fly.
The song describes perfectly the situation of Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers; in Ford,
all the heroes are trying to build a home (Tom Joad, Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine, Grapes
of Wrath and Drums Along the Mowhawk) or avoid one. The 'avoiders' (Ethan Edwards, Tom Doniphon,
Frank Wead) always end up with a horrifying sense of loss.
4. This is just the way WW2 'good neighbor' propaganda films pictured Latin America, with
lots of bare-shouldered señoritas willing to hop in the hay with any gringo who comes along, particularly
in uniform. See the eye-opening, almost disgusting Panama Hattie sometime ... the implication is that
the Latins & Polynesians are just 'culturally oversexed', not that economic destruction of their societies forced
large numbers of women into prostitution.