Movies 29 Jul 2008 08:44 am

Give me ‘Liberty’

 

That’s Lee Marvin above, the title character (but definitely not the hero) of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford’s 1962 classic Western.

The real protagonists are James Stewart and John Wayne. Stewart is Ransom Stoddard, a young lawyer from the east who shows up in the lawless town of Shinbone to start his practice.  Wayne is Tom Doniphon, a rough-and-tumble rancher. Both men are in love with Vera Miles, who plays Hollie Stoddard. Her character’s last name lets you know which man wins her hand in marriage, but maybe not her heart.

Shinbone is being terrorized by Liberty Valance, who has been hired by big-money ranchers to keep the sod busters in line and keep them from voting for statehood, which would break their monopoly on the range. Valance is handy with a riding crop, which he uses to beat Ransom Stoddard senseless during a stagecoach robbery before he even reaches the town limits. Stewart is so incensed that he wants Valance arrested, but Shinbone’s sheriff, a corpulent coward named Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), isn’t up to the task. Stewart has the law on his side, but as he learns, the law carries only the weight that people give it. It takes the no-nonsense John Wayne and his skill with a gun to keep Valance in check. That irritates Stewart, who doesn’t believe in violence.

A scene in the local restaurant drives this home perfectly. Stoddard is working there for room and board after Valance stole all his money during the stagecoach robbery. Valance trips Stoddard as the lawyer carries a steak to Doniphon. Doniphon wants Valance to pick up the steak and is ready to draw his gun to make it happen. Stewart, however, quickly picks up the steak himself, telling a laconic Wayne that people shouldn’t be killed over a piece of meat.

Stewart is the idealist, Wayne the pragmatist. It will take both men to tame Marvin, who is terrific as the totally irredeemable Liberty Valance, as black-hearted a character as you’re likely to see in any movie. My bet is Valance could give Heath Ledger’s Joker a run for his money.

The comparison between the recent Dark Knight movie and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes deeper than that. Some bloggers and movie critics have noted that the recent Batman film is a dark doppelganger, an inverted remake of Ford’s western. Substitute Christian Bale’s Batman for John Wayne, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent for Jimmy Stewart, Gary Oldman’s Lt. James Gordon for Edmond O’Brien’s Dutton Peabody (a newspaper publisher who is the third leg of the tripod trying to rid the territory of Valance), and Gotham City for Shinbone and you have a fairly apt comparison. Heck, Dark Knight might be nothing more than a really glossy remake of the earlier Western.

And when you consider how central the concept of a hero’s importance is to both movies, all you would need is somebody in Gotham City to spout Liberty Valence’s most memorable line: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Batman comparisons aside, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a very good film. My copy is part of a double feature with another iconic western. Shane, which I haven’t seen since I was a kid. I’m looking forward to watching it again.

2 Responses to “Give me ‘Liberty’”

  1. on 29 Jul 2008 at 1.Steve Wiandt said …

    “Liberty Valance” is a very good western, and a very good film in general. You gotta love Andy Devine’s comedy relief. Stewart was a lucky man. He got to punch John Wayne in this film, and Ward Bond, another man’s man, in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

  2. on 24 Aug 2009 at 2.Phil said …

    Another fairly recent film that harkens back to Liberty Valance was Gangs of New York (not all that recent, but recent enough). The parallels aren’t that deep or extensive, but Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher is definitely of the Liberty Valance mold. That steak he’s carving and eating at the end, before he gets it from the knife of Leonardo DiCaprio (Leonardo… DiCaprio?!) is cut from the same cow as the huge steaks in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Both films are about the taming of a lawless territory, but of course Gangs was an Eastern Western.

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