Well, I guess it’s about time I start watching some westerns.
On IMDB’s Top 250 Movies of all Time, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance currently sits at the #207 spot and, well. I probably wouldn’t place it that high. But it’s not that it’s a bad movie or anything — I just think it could be a better one.
Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) comes to a small town for the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), and tells the story of how coming to know both Doniphon and notorious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) vaulted him into political power.
1. Before we get to the movie itself, let me tell you how much my sister did not want to watch this film with me: SO MUCH. As I’m sure I mentioned in my review for It’s a Wonderful Life, I find Jimmy Stewart’s voice mildly aggravating, but I can usually get past it because I like a lot of his movies. Mek’s the same way, except she probably wouldn’t describe her aggravation as ‘mild’. As such, it’s always something of a hard sell, getting her to watch a Jimmy Stewart movie.
But Mek said she’d do it anyway — because she’s an awesome big sister — if she got to freely snark throughout the film. And if we wore bandanas and cowboy hats.
I think this might be a good idea for all western viewings from here on in.
2. You know one of the best things about this movie? The names. Come on, Ransom Stoddard? That’s, like, the best name ever. That’s the most western name I’ve ever heard since Jesse Hooker in Near Dark.
I also especially like that Ransom is the good guy and Liberty is the bad guy. That makes for a nice change. When was the last time you saw, for instance, a dude named Craven as a good guy? There are probably exceptions — though I can’t think of any right now — but generally, I hate it when characters are named for their allegiance to the Dark Side or the Light Side.
3. Okay, actually about the movie now — I have the urge to remake it. I know. What heresy is this, remaking a John Ford movie that stars John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart? That’s like solid Americana gold right there.
But I do think the overall story could benefit from a remake. One of the biggest changes I’d like to make?
No, it doesn’t have anything to do with his voice. (Well, not mostly. As Old Senator Ransom Stoddard, Stewart lays it on kind of thick, and it is pretty distracting.) But Stewart has the unenviable task of playing the idealistic, righteous hero who believes in law and order, and when you play that against John Wayne’s cynical, sharp-shooting swagger . . . well, it’s no wonder who the audience gravitates towards.
So, it’s not the easiest role. That being said, Stewart is a little shrieky here for me — every time he disagrees with someone on a moral level, he’s yelling and hollering about it, and it makes it difficult for me to like him. It’s funny, too, because this is usually something I bitch about with female protagonists, but it really is possible to have idealistic, even naive heroes and heroines who aren’t such whiny jackasses.
One of the more interesting things about this movie — at least in theory — is the contrast between Tom and Ransom’s sense of morality, but I think it would be a lot more effective if the film actually gave a more balanced look at both characters and let the audience choose who’s in the right instead of skewing us in favor of Tom’s worldview — which is really what I felt John Ford was trying to do the whole movie.
4. Also in the remake? We would cast age-appropriate actors — because these guys?
They ought to be in their twenties, maybe thirties, not their fifties.
And don’t even get me started on O.Z. Whitehead, who’s supposed to be a teenager in this movie.
People. The act of sucking on a lollipop will not actually convince anyone that a fifty year old man is in his teens. Even if the movie is in black-and-white. I mean, honestly.
5. I really enjoy the hell out of Vera Miles in this movie.
Vera Miles plays Hallie — the love interest for both Ransom and Tom. I groaned out loud when I realized that my very first western of the year also had a love triangle in it, but the fact that I liked Hallie so much helped a lot. (I do have a problem with the conclusion of said love triangle, but I’ll get to that in the Spoiler Section.) She’s something of a spitfire, and I enjoyed watching her on screen. I like sassy women. Not every female character should be sassy, of course, but when your primary role in a film is to bounce back and forth between two men, it helps if you’re, at the very least, not a wilting pushover.
I do feel that her story sort of disintegrates after the first half of the movie, though. I mean, she’s still in there, later on, but she becomes a lot less important as an actual character and ends up more of a pretty afterthought. That’s unfortunate.
Oh, and for any of you out there who think Vera Miles looks familiar but can’t quite place her?
She’s Lila Crane from Psycho. That’s cool. (Although poor Miss Miles. You hear people talk about that movie, and you might be inclined to think Janet Leigh was the only woman in it.)
6. As far as John Wayne goes . . .
. . . overall, I like him. But I really need him to stop calling Jimmy Stewart, “Pilgrim.”
Yes, yes. I’m aware “pilgrim” is something of a trademark with John Wayne, and it’s kind of neat knowing that this was the first instance of him calling another character that. But for Christ’s sake . . . this is a little overkill. It unfortunately didn’t occur to me to start counting until far too late, but most of my Google search results indicate that John Wayne says “pilgrim” 23 times in this movie. That’s . . . that’s just too much.
On the upside, if you’re interested in playing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Drinking Game, well, you probably only need the one rule.
7. John Ford is generally considered one of the greatest American directors, like, ever. This is the first movie I’ve ever seen of his, at least all the way through. (I’ve seen bits and pieces of The Quiet Man — I like Maureen O’Hara — but never from beginning to end.) I think I’ll have to watch more of his movies before I have much to say on him as a director.
I will say that I think the movie could have been trimmed down just a little, maybe ten or fifteen minutes. There are some scenes that run a little long — as much as I like newspaper man Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), I really don’t need seven minutes of him slurring to his empty bottle of booze. Also I would cut some stuff near the end — like John Carradine’s whole role — because I find it unnecessary and actually a bit distracting from the film’s main takeaway.
8. I also really, utterly despise the town marshall.
I expect I’m supposed to find him funny, but I . . . don’t. At all. I would be perfectly fine with a cowardly marshall, or a not-that-terribly bright marshall, but the village idiot marshall routine drove me up the fucking wall. If this movie did get remade, I’d really like that role to be rewritten so I didn’t feel the need to start chewing on my hair every time he popped up.
9. Also in a remake — I’d probably recast Liberty Valance.
I mean, clearly, I’d have to because Lee Marvin has been dead for about twenty-five years now. But while Marvin is serviceable enough as a black hat, I wish I found him actually menacing. Not every story calls for a nuanced or sympathetic villain — I certainly don’t want Liberty Valance to be all soft and gooey — but mostly Marvin just staggers around, growling at people in a super deep voice that my ears worked frantically to translate into actual words. He seemed to have the whole town at his mercy, so I kind of wanted him to be a ruthless badass, not just a grownup bully that I couldn’t take very seriously.
10. Finally, I wouldn’t object to Pompey (Woody Strode) getting a little more to do, either.
I don’t need him to be a total badass, exactly — I’d just like him to have the opportunity to show a little more personality. I don’t find The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be horrifically objectionable, but it’s hard to ignore that Pompey’s whole role in this movie consists mainly of running back and forth doing errands for two white people. (Oh, and being a backup gun — which has got to be a little more interesting than being a backup singer. Oooh, now I want to do a gunslinger musical! God, shut up brain.)
A slightly deeper glimpse of Pompey’s friendship with Tom would probably satisfy me — I like friendship stories. It’s sort of my thing.
Now, for more about the ending and my problems with it, follow below . . .
Okay, actually, let’s briefly go back to the beginning of the move. Senator Ransom — because that’s way more fun than calling him Senator Stoddard — comes back to the somewhat-less-little-than-it-once-was town of Shinbone for Tom Doniphon’s funeral. The big cheese at the newspaper actually interrupts Tom’s miniature funeral because, as he puts it, he has the right to know why a Senator has come all the way to Shinbone to mourn some nobody like Tom Doniphon.
And . . . look, you assclown. Freedom of the press doesn’t actually mean that people are legally required to answer your insensitive questions, particularly not at a fucking funeral. (History/Legal types, feel free to correct me if this was different back in western times. As far as I understand it, you have the right to ask, investigate, and report, but the people you’re questioning also have the right to punch you in the face. Or, at the very least, they can say, “No comment.”)
I do actually like that Ransom, himself, feels the need to be open with the press since the news was such a contributing factor in his rise to political power. I just wish that he had slammed that bastard’s head into a wall first. Or just given his exclusive story to the eager beaver reporter instead.
Anyway, so Ransom tells his story, most of which I’m going to skip over because, hey, if you’re reading this, you should already know it, and I’ve got a horror story to work on that I’ve been procrastinating — because I like to pretend that if I wish real hard, the story and all its brilliance will suddenly appear in my Word document without my having to do something silly, like, write it.
So, near the end — Ransom supposedly kills Liberty, but we later find out that Tom was actually the one who shot him. If this is supposed to be particularly surprising, well, it’s not, but I’m actually okay with that. Tom finds Hallie hanging all over Ransom, grateful that he’s alive, and he leaves to go get drunk and burn down his house because Hallie was his girl, dammit. (More on that in a bit.)
Ransom goes to this big convention deal for statehood and is nominated as a representative. He has a whole crisis of conscience about it because John Carradine argues (in a supremely annoying, overwrought sort of voice) that a cold-blooded murderer shouldn’t be a representative of law and order. Tom pops in and informs Ransom that he didn’t kill anyone and should thus buck up and take the nomination, especially since Hallie’s his girl now. (“You taught her how to read and write. Now give her something to read and write about!”)
So Ransom accepts the nomination, and we go back to the future. The Aggravating Newspaper Man rips up the whole story because legends sell better than facts — so it’s good to see that he disrupted a handful of grieving people for absolutely nothing. Ransom and Hallie take the train back to DC. Ransom is thinking of retiring and moving back to Shinbone for good. Hallie loves the idea. She also admits to Ransom that she put the cactus rose on Tom’s coffin, indicating that she’s never really gotten over him after all.
Finally, the train conductor tells Ransom that, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!” and Ransom stares rather pensively out the window, and that’s about the end of that.
Now, a few more notes:
1. Liberty is playing poker before he’s killed — he wins the pot with aces over eights. This is also known as the dead man’s hand because, supposedly, it was Wild Bill Hickok’s last hand before he was murdered. I’ll have to remember that for the next time I play poker, so I can try and throw my eights away, lest someone just come up and shoot the hell out of me.
2. As I mentioned earlier, if I had it my way, I would entirely cut John Carradine from the movie.
I don’t think he serves much purpose — yes, he’s the impetus for Ransom’s crisis of conscience, but I think Ransom could easily have gotten there on his own with everything we already know about him and his ideals. It would shave at least five minutes off the movie — which, it’s not a ridiculously long film, but the momentum suffers a bit after Liberty Valance is killed, so this could help.
Also, I think Carradine’s big, “He’s a murderer!” speech gets in the way of the whole point of the story. When Carradine’s speechifying, you think Ransom might lose the nomination because he (supposedly) killed Valance, when in actuality, the whole reason he’s nominated is because he (supposedly) killed Valance. The tragedy is that Ransom got where he got because of something Tom did, and Tom will never be acknowledged for it. Carradine’s oratory makes that a little less clear by suggesting a complication that never really comes to fruition.
Although I will admit that the idea of losing a guy named Major Starbuckle does make me sad. Point of interest: when I eventually get a puppy someday, that’s totally what I’m naming it.
3. According to Wikipedia, Hallie is still hung up on Tom after all these years because John Ford wanted John Wayne to be the real lead and hero of the movie. This is certainly the impression I got from watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and it’s kind of my biggest problem with the whole film.
I do have sympathy for Tom, to an extent, but I don’t know that I ever feel as deeply sorry for him as Ford wants me to. Part of that is the lack of balance between Wayne and Stewart that I mentioned before — as an audience member, I feel like I’ve been guided to pity Tom, that his whole tragic hero is, in a sense, constructed and artificial. And the second something feels artificial to me, my heart hardens up like a stone — which is why that Sarah McLachlan animal cruelty commercial will never move me to tears and, in all honesty, makes me significantly less interested in donating money than I was before.
Besides, while Tom lets Hallie go — she was never really his to begin with. He thought of her as his, but even though the whole town was basically waiting for them to get married, he never actually proposed. They weren’t even really dating. (No, giving someone a compliment and a cactus rose now and then does not actually constitute dating.) Very early in the movie, Tom actually says, “Don’t rush me,” in a way that indicates it’s never occurred to him that someone else could try and swoop her up first. Later, when that does occur to him, he tells Ransom to back off (even though Ransom hasn’t really done anything — and this I do like, that they aren’t secretly carrying on behind Tom’s back or something), but Tom doesn’t go to Hallie. He doesn’t tell her that he loves her. He never makes his intentions clear. And that means when Hallie chooses someone else, he’s partially to blame, and I feel like the movie sweeps that under the rug a bit.
I don’t mind that Hallie still has feelings for Tom at the end of the movie, but the actual execution of that reveal bothers me. I wish the film would let me make up my own mind if Hallie made the right choice or not — and if Ransom should feel guilty or not.
4. Finally, the ending might have a touch more drama if we didn’t already know that Hallie ended up with Ransom. I actually sometimes like seeing the ending of a story first and figuring out how everyone arrived there, but I do feel like something is lost after Liberty Valance is killed, and since Tom’s secret revelation isn’t exactly stunning, waiting to reveal who Hallie ends up with might be a good way to extend the suspense.
Decent story and some good ideas, but some of it felt a little too contrived and forced for my tastes.
In the West, the gun is mightier than the pen.