Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paramount, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Saturday, July 16 — the day Charles and I marched in the San Diego “LGBT” Pride Parade (I can’t stand those initials even though I’m supportive of the inclusion of Bisexual and Transgender people in our movement) — I ran for us and our friend Leo Laurence the 1962 John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It was John Ford’s second-to-last film and his last commercial success (though apparently the song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, written to promote the film but not used in it and a hit record for Gene Pitney, was a bigger hit than the movie!), and when it was released it was promoted as the first on-screen teaming of James Stewart and John Wayne. I was especially interested in having Leo watch this film because he was one of the pioneers of Queer Liberation in San Francisco in early 1969 — months before the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that have come to be celebrated as the birth of Queer activism in the U.S. even though there was a Queer rights organization as early as 1924 (the Society for Human Rights, based in Chicago and founded by Henry Gerber) and a continuous history of American Queer activism since Harry Hay (the real equivalent for the Queer community to Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez — not Harvey Milk, who came along later and made a major contribution during his regrettably short life but was not the trail-blazing pioneer Hay was) and four others founded the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1950. Leo is personally bitter that his and others’ “pre-Stonewall” contributions have been at best slighted and at worst completely ignored in the “official” histories of our movement, and every time he’s bitched about this I’ve been reminded of the famous line late in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” (It’s become one of the most oft-quoted lines in any John Ford film, and one Ford biographer even titled his book Print the Legend.) I don’t think I’d ever seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance start to finish before, though I’d seen clips from it in documentaries about Ford and I caught the film’s marvelous ending scene at least once on TV.

Based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson and scripted by Willis Goldbeck (who also produced) and James Warner Bellah (author of the story source for a previous John Ford-John Wayne Western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance begins with U.S. Senator Ransom “Rance” Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) returning to the old frontier town of Shinbone (what state the film takes place in is deliberately kept ambiguous; the old Citadel Press book The Films of John Wayne stated it was Nevada but it’s not specified in the movie itself, despite the similarity Charles picked up on between the name of the film’s state capital, “Capitol City,” and Nevada’s real one, Carson City). When Charlie Hasbrouck (Joseph Hoover), an inquisitive young reporter for the town’s newspaper, the Shinbone Star, meets Stoddard at the train station (Charles inevitably joked that this was the railroad connecting Shinbone to Thighbone), he begs off of an interview and finally tells the reporter, “I’m here to attend a funeral.” The funeral is that of a totally unknown man, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) — though why the writers spelled his last name so oddly is a mystery, especially since the other actors pronounce it “Donovan” anyway — and eventually Stoddard agrees to meet with Hasbrouck and his editor, Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), and tell them the story of his early days in Shinbone. He went there following Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west, young man, and grow with the country” — only as he was on his way through the unnamed territory his stagecoach was waylaid by a gang of bandits headed by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin in what proved to be a major step forward on his path to stardom; three years later he would play a dual role in the 1965 Western spoof Cat Ballou, one a sober, evil gunman copied from his part here and one a drunken, good gunman — a character itself parodied as Gene Wilder’s role in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles — and his Cat Ballou role would make Marvin a major star after he’d been “typed” as character villains for over a decade). Valance is a total psycho who carries not only guns but a cat-o’-nine-tails whip, with which he assaults anyone who particularly pisses him off — and Stoddard, with his lawbooks, his father’s watch, his $14 and change and his determination to bring “law and order” to the West, is instantly #1 on Valance’s hit list. Valance not only steals everything Stoddard has — at one point opening one of the lawbooks and contemptuously ripping out a chunk of pages from it — he whips him within an inch of his life, and only the timely arrival of Tom Doniphon saves him. Doniphon takes him to Shinbone and to Pete’s Place, a restaurant owned by Swedish couple Peter and Nora Ericson (John Qualen and Jeanette Nolan — he was a longtime character actor, one of the so-called “John Ford Stock Company” of actors he liked to use again and again, and she played Lady Macbeth to Orson Welles’ Macbeth in his marvelous 1948 film of Shakespeare’s play). The Ericsons agree to put Rance up and give him a job as a dishwasher — for which he has to wear an apron, an “unmanning” similar to that Nicholas Ray wreaked upon Jim Backus as James Dean’s father in Rebel Without a Cause — but he still has to worry about Liberty Valance returning to Shinbone and finishing the job of killing him.

Rance and Doniphon form an edgy friendship — the sort of thing a modern screenwriter would call a “bromance” — though they also get into arguments, with Doniphon, like a typical John Wayne character, arguing that the West is no place for law and lawyers because it’s a frontier community and men settle their own arguments. “That’s exactly what Liberty Valance told me!” Rance says in shock. Doniphon is also dating Hallie, the Ericsons’ daughter, but she loses interest in him and drifts towards Rance when Rance, shocked when he realizes Hallie can’t read, offers to teach her and sets up a class for Shinbonites of all ages who want to become (or make their children) literate. Doniphon convinces Rance that he needs to buy a gun and learn to shoot to protect himself against Valance’s return, but when the two go out to Doniphon’s ranch Rance is totally inept at aiming his gun — Rance misses three paint cans Doniphon sets up as targets and Doniphon not only hits all three paint cans in succession but does so in a way that drenches Rance in paint. Valance returns to Shinbone as agent for a group of cattlemen north of the “Picketwire,” which doesn’t mean a fence but is slang for the Purgatoire River (a tributary of the Arkansas), who want to keep the unnamed locale a U.S. territory instead of a state because that will mean the land will remain open range — while the homesteaders of Shinbone and other communities south of the Picketwire want it to become a state so there will be a functioning state government that will recognize their land titles. Valance and his gang (including a young Lee Van Cleef, who’d also become a major Western star later in the 1960’s, mainly on the strength of the so-called “spaghetti Westerns” shot in Italy which also made a star of Clint Eastwood) crash the election meeting at Hank’s Saloon that’s supposed to send Shinbone’s two representatives to the territorial convention in Capitol City that’s supposed to decide whether to apply to the federal government for statehood. Rance Stoddard chairs the meeting and insists that the bar remain closed during the election — much to the discomfiture of Shinbone Star editor Dutton Peabody (a virtually unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien in a role Ford would have no doubt cast with Thomas Mitchell if he’d been well enough to work — Mitchell died in L.A. of bone cancer on December 17, 1962). Rance nominates Tom Doniphon as one of the representatives but Doniphon turns it down, and eventually Stoddard and Peabody turn out to be the candidates against Valance, who runs but is disqualified because he doesn’t live in Shinbone. Valance insults Stoddard at Pete’s Place when he trips him while he’s carrying a steak, and Stoddard accepts Valance’s challenge to a gun battle even though he hates the idea of two grown men settling their differences with weapons in the street.

On the day of the big gunfight (which takes place outside a Mexican cantina and therefore gets scored with cheesily clichéd “Mexican” music — most of the score is by the usually bouncy Cyril J. Mockridge but Ford also rips off the main theme Alfred Newman composed for Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln 23 years earlier) Valance shoots Rance in the arm, then shoots the gun out of his hand, then challenges Rance to pick it up again. Rance fires, Valance goes down and the town doctor, Dr. Willoughby (Ken Murray) — who, like Peabody and quite a few other members of the dramatis personae in Ford movies, is a drunk — pronounces Valance dead and Rance his killer. Valance’s gang members threaten to lynch Rance for killing Valance, but the rest of the town proclaims him a hero — only later, after Rance returns in triumph from the convention that has decided to pursue statehood, Doniphon tells him, “You didn’t kill Liberty Valance — I did.” It seems that Rance’s shot went wide and Doniphon picked off the outlaw with his rifle. Rance tells all this to Shinbone Star editor Scott and reporter Hasbrouck in the framing sequence, imploring them to print the story and thereby establish the truth of what happened a quarter-century earlier — but Scott tears up the notes Hasbrouck took of the conversation and tells Rance he isn’t going to run the story because “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” On the train leaving Shinbone to take Rance and Hallie back to Washington, D.C., Rance says that as soon as he finishes work on the irrigation bill he’s pushing he’s going to step down from the Senate and retire to Shinbone, and he’s given V.I.P. treatment on the train which he thinks is for his illustrious service as the state’s first governor, a multi-term U.S. Senator and ambassador to Great Britain — until the conductor tells him, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.” The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great film despite some technical sloppiness — Ford either chose not to shoot on his spectacular Western locations like Monument Valley, Utah (though a couple of stock shots of Monument Valley’s famous elevated mesa appear as process-screen backgrounds) or wasn’t given a big enough budget by the studio, Paramount, to do so; and there’s one scene in which we see the exterior of Pete’s Place through a window and it’s a matte painting of surprising crudity (Ford’s grandson told biographer Lindsay Anderson that by then Ford was getting bored with the whole process of filmmaking and no longer considered it fun — and a similar ennui-driven technical sloppiness impacted Alfred Hitchcock’s last films as well) — mainly because of its elegiac quality.

It’s a film made by old men who were all too well aware that they weren’t getting any younger — James Stewart and John Wayne were both at least 20 years too old for their parts — and it’s a film that draws not only on the classic Western clichés but on quite a few other parts the stars, Stewart in particular, had played before: echoes of Stewart’s characterizations in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (the reluctantly drafted politician), Destry Rides Again (the Western lawman who’s afraid of guns) and Winchester .73 (an even darker film than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and one I’ve described as “a film noir in Western drag”) appear here. Yet it’s also a film about the peculiar yin and yang that seems to drive American politics in general and its attitude towards political violence in particular — as well as drawing on the same sort of romantic triangle between a woman, a rather bookish man and a man of strength and power Ford had used in his unsung silent masterpiece Three Bad Men in 1926 (a little-known precursor of the “psychological Westerns” that became all the rage — and were considered so “innovative” — in the 1950’s). In modern equivalents Rance Stoddard is Barack Obama, convinced that any threat, no matter how immediate or dire, can be solved through negotiation and appeals to reason and due process; while Tom Doniphon (as befits the real-life politics of the actor playing him) is Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, and even more his possible successor, Donald Trump, in his conviction that the only way to meet violence is with more violence. John Wayne’s comment to John Ford on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that he didn’t want any ambiguity in his character — “Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don’t like ambiguity. I don’t trust ambiguity” — certainly comes from the same place as George W. Bush’s famous remark, “I don’t do nuance” — whereas Obama’s statements on terrorism both abroad and at home seem so mired in nuance it’s easy for the Rightists of today to proclaim him “weak” and say we need a strong, tough hand who will take out the bad guys “by any means necessary.” (The shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge have pushed American progressives into an odd position where they want to condemn the people who kill police officers while also maintaining the criticism of police officers for the way they treat people of color — while the Right has no problem: in their view, police officers are good and anyone who questions their tactics are bad and likely to get them killed.)

After we watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Charles said that the film’s politics were “all over the map” — Doniphon may be the spokesperson for political violence and taking the law into one’s own hands but he’s also a supporter of civil rights in the scene in which he forces a reluctant bartender to serve his Black servant Pompey (Woody Strode, whom Ford tried to make a star by casting him as a Black Civil War officer in 1960’s Sergeant Rutledge) — and this was true of Ford in real life as well: he was generally considered a conservative but in the late 1940’s he courageously spoke out against the Hollywood blacklist (of which his friend and frequent star John Wayne was one of the strongest and loudest supporters). The opposition of James Stewart as the reluctant warrior and John Wayne as the enthusiastic one gets even more ironic when you consider that during World War II it was Stewart who put his movie career on hold, signed up for the Army Air Corps and flew in combat, while Wayne wangled deferments and fought his “war” from the safety of Hollywood’s soundstages. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was also Ford’s last film in black-and-white, and explanations for why it was filmed that way vary — some sources say Paramount regarded Stewart and Wayne as waning stars and didn’t want to give Ford the budget to make it in color, some say it was a practical choice because it was easier to make Stewart and Wayne look younger in black-and-white than it would have been in color, and some say it was an aesthetic choice on Ford’s part. Whatever the reason, the black-and-white photography by William H. Clothier adds greatly to the film’s power; Clothier shot almost the whole movie through a red filter, which gives the sky an ominous, almost black look against which white clouds are silhouetted menacingly. Also, it’s unusual for a Western in that a great deal of the film takes place at night — though it isn’t as relentlessly dark as Winchester .73 or an even earlier noir Western, Blood on the Moon (1948), it’s clear that instead of opening up the vistas and locating the characters in great expanses of landscape, Ford and Clothier were closing them in and confining them to the settlement of Shinbone — oddly appropriate for a story which presents the urbanization of the West and the end of the open range as “progress.”

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is full of symbolism, some of it pretty ham-handed and obvious — it wasn’t enough for Ford to have Woody Strode recite the Declaration of Independence in James Stewart’s classroom; he had to do so with a photo of Abraham Lincoln in the same frame — some of it rich and moving (like the burned-out house Doniphon lived in, which he set on fire — and from which he was barely rescued — when he realized Hallie Ericson was going to marry Rance Stoddard instead of him, and which is still standing in its ruined state when Rance returns to Shinbone for Doniphon’s funeral, and the rose cactus flower Hallie gave Doniphon to plant in his front yard and which reappears at the end) — and it’s also a work that contains the “luminous quality” Walter Legge wrote is often found in an artist’s late work, “as if the creative mind had already seen the world beyond death and [was] conscious of things infinitely greater than the emotional experiences of this world.” John Ford never considered himself an “artist” in that sense and he was openly contemptuous of people (especially “intellectual” critics) who tried to present him as one, but he was an artist and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an odd summing-up of themes that had been present in his films throughout his career — as well as being surprisingly innovative in at least one particular: Liberty Valance himself is an out-and-out psychopath, a trail-blazing departure from the standard Western tropes. Most Western villains had been rationally evil men with a specific goal in mind; Valance is willing to hire himself and his men out to the cattle barons who want to preserve the territory as lawless open range, but personally he couldn’t care less: like the Joker in the Batman film The Dark Knight Returns, he’s the sort of person who blows things up (or shoots them, or whips them) just for the sheer fun of doing so, and despite the thin veneer of idealism with which ISIS surrounds itself one gets the impression that a lot of its recruits — especially the ones in Western countries that are responding to the call to jihad without much, if any, connection to the “parent” ISIS in Iraq and Syria — are just signing on because they like to kill people and by pledging “allegiance” to ISIS they can do the psychotic things they’d like to do anyway with a thin veneer of “idealism.”