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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Review

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has long been a favorite movie of mine. It’s the tale of a senator, who after becoming famous for killing a notorious outlaw, returns for the funeral of an old friend and tells the truth about what really happened on that fateful day. Jimmy Stuart is the returning politician and John Wayne the recently deceased. With such an iconic cast that includes Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Edmond O’Brien and John Carradine, what’s not to like?

While watching Valance on the big screen for the first time at the 2015 TCMFF it struck me that this movie is really about bullying. Liberty Valance and his belligerent pals are most certainly bullies, behaving in a drunk and disorderly manner and pushing around the town folk with threats and violence. The general public and the green horn lawyer (Jimmy Stuart) are cowed into letting Valance have his way. For his part Valance thinks it is all a great joke, physically abusing everyone within arm’s reach as he goes, including women, children and dogs. No one escapes the ill-mannered conduct of this ultimate example of a bad man of the west. Were it not for Marvin’s talents as an actor the character could easily fall into caricature. His depiction of a bully is dead-on and represents the essence of all bullies, regardless of location of era, weapon or words.

Being a John Ford western there is of course a secondary-story of a love triangle centered on an uneducated waitress played by Vera Miles, which is effected by the presence of the bully. It’s a pretty sweet story too as she is wooed by John Wayne but demonstrates a preference to the company of the more sophisticated Jimmy Stuart. It seems clear that because of her knowledge of the Vance character, she is opting for the type of man who is as different as possible. Or to put it plainly, the good girl goes for the good guy with ambitions over the rough-edged local man who reminds her too much of the rough world that sustains a man like Liberty Valance. Wayne’s admiration for the woman is obvious but not overtly so. It’s a pleasure to see the larger than life persona of the silver screen work ever so subtly to make his intentions known. It is a performance full of quiet gestures, (SPOILER) that it makes it that much more heartbreaking when he does not get the girl and suffers his loss in a wild exhibition of emotion witnessed only by his faithful field hand. In case you were ever in doubt that Wayne can act, this scene should prove it to you.

However, to my mind the real story is about standing up to a bully. No, I do not mean the answer to bullies is to shoot them, unless they shoot first of course, as in this case. What I refer to is the refusal to be bullied and having the support of others as you follow your convictions. When the Stewart character decides not to continue to be a victim or accept the situation, Wayne (ever the large, honorable, and unmovable object) quietly has Stuart’s back. But Stuart does not know to what lengths Wayne will go and valiantly faces the ruffian regardless of his lack of skills as a gun fighter. Both heroes do what they must do the way they see fit with neither one intentionally seeking approval or praise from their neighbors. The result is extremely different for each, with one being exulted as a demi-god and the other drifting into obscurity. Although the path for each from this point forward is paved in secrets and lies, it is clear that it is deemed in the best interest of the public to maintain these fictions.

In addition to all its other positive aspects, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance provides an opportunity for the viewer to play “name that actor”. In addition to the previously named A-list actors you’ll spot character actors Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Jeanette Nolan, Lee Van Cleef, Ken Murray, and Denver Pyle. Wow! What a cast! Particularly notable is the scene that features a debate between Edmond O’Brien and John Carradine. Although the plot certainly doesn’t need it, it’s a real treat to watch these two great “emoters” go at it in a most satisfying scene of democracy at work as they argue the benefits of statehood.

This is a great John Ford western. This is also a great lesson in bully management. But mostly The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is just plain enjoyable to watch. Thanks to the 2015 TCMFF for providing my big screen John Wayne fix for the year.

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