From Paramount Pictures
Directed by John Ford
Directed by John Ford, one of the Hollywood greats, in the western genre he was most comfortable with, starring two legends of the silver screen, comes this classic film that was an easy pick for my 50 Favorite Films. Not only were Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne two of the greatest western actors of all time, they were dynamic inhabiting the same frames of this giant of a film.
Billing is often an issue when two mega-stars appear in the same picture. But Wayne and Stewart resolved it by giving Wayne top billing on the screen and Stewart in all the print ads.
This was the first of three times these two Hollywood heavyweights would work in the same film. Later in the same year they would both be a part of the huge all-star cast of How the West Was Won, but they had no scenes together. For The Shootist in 1976, Wayne's final film, Stewart played a small part of a doctor who tells Wayne he has cancer and will not survive. In real life Wayne did have cancer and would not survive. It was a special film and their scenes together were very touching.
Ford won four Academy Awards for directing. In 1939 alone he made Young Mr. Lincoln with Henry Fonda and they also paired up for the wonderful "eastern," Drums Along the Mohawk, and the rousing western Stagecoach, which began his long association with Wayne. They would make nine more films together before they struck gold again with Liberty Valance. Stewart had worked with Ford the year before and would once more.
Vera Miles plays the fiery woman who had loved them both, She had worked with both Wayne and Stewart before, in The Searchers (1956) and The FBI Story (1959), respectively. Both Ford and Wayne had a steady company of actors who worked with them repeatedly and a number is featured in this large cast of character actors.
There is a rousing spirit to the story at several levels but the one that always captivated me was good triumphs over evil. You rooted for these good people against sinister forces. That feature is often at the heart of westerns and is likely why I have always been so taken with the genre.
A young lawyer is accosted and beaten up on his way to Shinbone, a small town in a western territory. While he is recovering from his injuries, he washes dishes at the local diner run by Qualen and Nolan (yumpin' yiminy) and employing Miles. She is the girlfriend of Wayne who looks out for Stewart.
In the film's best scene, Stewart is confronted by the nasty Liberty Valance (played with great relish by Lee Marvin) in the diner. He trips the gentle Stewart, sending Wayne's tray of food all over the floor. Tensions boil among the three men. Ford puts all three actors through their paces showing us what great acting is all about.
A scene or two later comes the one that brings focus to the title. Just who was the man who shot and killed Liberty Valance? Was it Stewart who was engaged in a street showdown with the thuggish Valance or someone hiding in the shadows?
Stewart is beloved by everyone in the town (he teaches a number of them to read) and encouraged to run for political office, which he reluctantly does. He was the right choice for the job because of his calm and thoughtful demeanor and because he believes in the law and not a gun. Wayne believes in the opposite approach and this difference and Miles provides some good tension between the two men.
I will forever think of Wayne's use of the word "pilgrim" when addressing Stewart. I don't recall whether he also used the word in previous films but it is certainly in full view here, as is the smile on my face.
I probably would have preferred this to be filmed in color. It was filmed in black and white, which has a way of making a western look older and more stark, I think. The black and white and the sets gave the film a sound stage kind of look, which I think detracted from the overall effect.
But it was a small distraction compared to having these two men of mythical proportions act in a well-written story directed by one of the western genre greats.
It has been said it was about a man's greatness. It is told in flashback as the renowned senator and his wife are returning to the town where they met to attend the funeral of their dear friend. It's also about legends, true and manufactured. As the senator ends telling his story to several men, one of them, a newspaper editor, says, "This is the west. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Despite my love of westerns, I have very few of them in my top 50 favorite films. The Man Who Shot LibertyValance deserves to be among them. Here's a peek:
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