Among the final pictures by John Ford, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance reveals the legendary filmmaker poking a stick at the Old West mythologies he helped create. It's a classic, one of the director's best, and one finally given its due with this handsome Paramount Centennial Collection edition.
Liberty Valance, in form and content, is unmistakably a Ford Western, exploring the tensions between the rugged individualism of the West and its inevitable transformation into orderly society. But the 1962 film's elegiac tone is darker and sadder than most works in the director's canon. In The Western Films of John Ford, author J.A. Place calls it "Ford's clearest expression of the current of nostalgia and regret that runs through his work, isolated in this film from the compensating forces of the grandeur of the outdoors and the purifying effect of Ford's visual beauty."
To be sure, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a long way from the majestic landscapes of Ford's Monument Valley. Shot in black-and-white and largely on soundstages, it is literally and figuratively framed by the death of the West. In this case, that era is embodied by John Wayne's Tom Doniphon, whose funeral opens the movie and prompts the lengthy flashback that comprises the bulk of the story.
Aging U.S. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), return to the small town of Shinbone to bury Tom, an old friend of theirs who has died a pauper. Stoddard, or "Ranse" as he is affectionately known, is cornered by a nosy newspaper editor demanding to know why the august senator would come all the way to this godforsaken town to bury a forgotten old drunk. What unfolds is Ranse's recounting of how he came to know Tom Doniphon and how the men's fates became inexorably linked.
Through flashback, we see Ransom Stoddard as a young lawyer who has the misfortune of being on a stagecoach robbed by vicious baddie Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin in a role that put him on the Hollywood map) and his thugs. The idealistic attorney comes to the defense of a fellow passenger and is consequently the recipient of a whipping by Liberty.
An unconscious Ranse is eventually found and saved by Tom and his trusty sidekick, Pompei (Woody Strode). The attorney remains in Shinbone, although he doesn't practice law. Instead, he waits tables at the local restaurant and later goes to work for the drunken newspaper editor (Edmond O'Brien, channeling the soused spirit of Ford regular Thomas Mitchell). A love triangle develops, in a fashion, when Ransom becomes friendly with Tom's would-be sweetheart, Hallie.
But Liberty Valance and his brand of lawlessness continue to terrorize the region. The cowardly town marshal (Andy Devine) is no help. On a more abstract level, civilization's potential responses to Liberty Valance are neatly encapsulated by Ransom, the law-abiding intellectual; and tough-as-nails Tom, who warns the tenderfoot newcomer that the only force of law that matters in these parts is that which is supplied by a gun. The film's title makes it clear that Liberty's eventual comeuppance is no spoiler, but John Ford's response to the titular mystery is hardly straightforward.
Despite having made an impressive number of bona fide classics, Ford's critical reputation has diminished somewhat over the decades as a result of his conservative politics and embrace of traditionalism. Certainly, it is tough to appreciate the alleged comic relief in The Searchers when Jeffrey Hunter abuses his American Indian wife. Similarly, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has drawn a bit of criticism over the years. The Tom-vs.-Ransom dynamic is surely weighted in favor of the gun-toting cowboy, while book-smart Ranse is subjected to the humiliation of wearing an apron and waiting on tables (evidently taboos in the Old West). Of course, the tale ultimately backs up the contention by Tom Doniphon and Liberty Valance that judicial law is no match for a bullet. SPOILER ALERT (skip to next paragraph if you've not seen the movie) "Nobody fights my battles!" Ranse sputters to Tom at one point, but, of course, the attorney owes his very life to Tom's shadow offense.
Liberty Valance is a fascinating, moving portrait of the debate between diplomacy and violent response. Ford and his screenwriting team of James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck offer shadings and nuance to the partnership/rivalry of the principal characters. The movie delves into a past full of complexities. SPOILER ALERT (skip to paragraph after next to avoid revelation of key plot points). Ransom Stoddard builds a storied political career on an act of violence that is completely antithetical to his value system -- not to mention something for which he falsely accepts credit. Meanwhile, Tom Doniphon, breaks his own moral code by taking a sniper's shot at Liberty Valance. In so doing, he saves the life of his romantic rival, and effectively destroys his own future.
Ironies outnumber tumbleweeds here. A bittersweet meditation on the death of the West, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance paradoxically suggests that the romanticism of that bygone time largely stems from falsehoods. "This is the West, sir," the newspaper editor tells Senator Stoddard after the old man has revealed the truth of his ascendance to power. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Maybe so, but the movie's ending scene hints at the guilt, sorrow and loss that haunt the Stoddards.
Perhaps one of the film's unintentional ambivalences is its casting. Jimmy Stewart was 54 years old when the picture was made, making his portrayal of a young twentysomething more than a bit of a stretch (Peter Bogdanovich suggests on the DVD commentary that Stewart's old-age and young-age makeup is likely why Ford made an 11th-hour decision to film in black and white). Similarly, Wayne was 55. The casting might have been curious, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance likely wouldn't have been made without the Duke's star power. Age aside, both are terrific.
The two-disc edition is housed in a plastic keepcase that comes with a sturdy cardboard slipcover.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the Paramount Centennial Collection edition boasts a beautiful picture that appears to be scrubbed of grain and scratches. The picture features strong lines and nice shadings of blacks and grays.
A 5.1 Surround track doesn't have much of an opportunity to shine, but the sound is full and clear, devoid of nagging issues with distortion or drop-out. A mono 2.0 track is available, as well as a 2.0 Spanish track. Optional subtitles in English, Spanish and French are available for both the film and the retrospective documentary.
There isn't an overflow of bonus material, but what's included is first-rate. Disc One includes two commentaries. The first includes filmmaker and film historian Peter Bogdanovich, along with archival recordings of interviews he conducted with Ford, Stewart and Wayne. Although there is no disputing Bogdanovich's breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm, his low-key vocal delivery can be grating. Bogdanovich's quasi-whisper is more appropriate for covering a golf tournament than scholarly commentary.
A generous dose of anecdotes mark the second commentary, which features Ford biographer and grandson, Dan Ford. Included are archived recordings he did with his grandfather, Stewart and Marvin. Both commentaries are insightful and revealing, and worthwhile viewing for all John Ford buffs.
The centerpiece of Disc Two is The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth, a 50-minute, 52-second retrospective on the making of Liberty Valance. The featurette employs generous amounts of archival photos, home movies and film clips to tell its story, while a slew of cinema scholars -- Bogdanovich, Molly Haskell, Richard Schickel, Scott Eyman and others -- provides wonderful insights and anecdotes. Some of the material appears to be lifted from the commentaries.
Also included is a theatric al trailer and four photo galleries (John Ford, Production, Publicity and Lobby Cards).
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Paramount Centennial Collection is a handsomely packaged showcase of John Ford's last great film. Its thematic complexities are just as provocative today as they were in 1962, and the two-disc set has the added benefit of a terrific retrospective documentary and two strong commentaries. While a few more extras would have been nice, this overdue version certainly warrants the DVD Talk Collector Series designation.