Friday, July 8, 2016
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Okay, maybe not, but it sometimes feels that way with all the other things I have to do. Which is amazing, because when I started the Film Registry Project a few months ago, I had nothing to do but the occasional paper for school. Now I’m graduating in a few weeks and actually getting out of my house to vend at Renaissance Faires and SCA events. But anyway, meatspace for the blogger is less interesting than the film. I’m not usually big on Westerns, but I do love Jimmy Stewart… and Andy Devine, even if I still think of him primarily as Friar Tuck (yes, even despite Green Acres). I knew this film mostly because of the song, which anyone who grew up listening to the Oldies station has heard approximately one million times. Which is okay, because it’s a good song. Which is now stuck in your head because HE SHOT Li-ber-TY Va-LANCE!
The movie is definitely a classic because of its artistic merit. The whole thing has elements of Shakespearean tragedy, with the deep questions of the law of civilization vs. the law of brute force, the nature of manhood, the rights of self-defense, and where the necessity of the truth is opposed to the necessity of legends and symbols. And then there’s the central question posed by the title: who is the man who shot Liberty Valance? Did the pacifistic law man truly break what he believed in? Did Tom Doniphon lie to make Ranse feel confident enough to become the statesman that the territory needed? Did Tom Doniphon take the backseat in history because that's what history needed? The fact that these questions are never made clear is why this movie is still worth the watch over 50 years after it came out. The movie does seem like it has a generally happy ending – Liberty Valance is defeated, Ranse gets the girl, gets the territory statehood, becomes the governor and the senator, but for Ranse's happy ending, Tom had to lose his own. The last frame on Vera Miles and Jimmy Stewart, as they stare tight-lipped and defeated, knowing that so much of what they achieved was because Tom went unrecognized and because a man had to die... it's just haunting.
Maybe John Ford did learn pessimism with this picture and that's why it's such a masterpiece, but the cast does have a lot to do with it. I can definitely recommend this film to anyone, even if you don't like Westerns. I don't care for them myself, but this really is like Shakespeare in the desert.