Friday, July 27, 2012

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): Good Western Storytelling

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been released in the same year as the epic How the West Was Won. Both movies share also director John Ford and several of their stars, most notably James Stewart and John Wayne. But unlike the beautiful to watch and colorful Western epic about the westward expansion, the former film has quite a good story despite not looking nearly as good as the latter and the story is what makes it the better movie. It's a fine example how a black and white film could be superior to a color movie of the same time and genre with (partially) equal actors and director.

The story of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) who became a legend for killing the famous outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). The senator returns to Shinbone, the town where he met his wife (Vera Miles) and which made him famous, for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Apparently, Doniphon has not been very popular lately so the senator is challenged to tell more about Tom. Ransom Stoddard's narrative begins with his arrival at Shinbone many years ago and recounts his dealings with Liberty Valance, Tom Doniphon and Ransom's future wife Hallie. It appears Stoddard arrives in Shinbone after graduating a law school only to find there are different laws in this territory. With a hope of a better and lawful future, the territory strives for Statehood but this is not to everyone's taste. Ransom Stoddard has to confront with Liberty Valance one more time.

Since we are presented with Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife Hallie in the very beginning of the movie, the narrative is not full of unexpected twists. You can actually predict where the movie is going although at one point the initial forecast seems to be erroneous. So, huge surprise is not the main instrument of the story. What makes it interesting is the way it is told. It is not until near the end of the film that your expectations are fulfilled. But what is even more charming is how the people prefer the legend to the truth and the way they respect a man because of his fair yet legally illegitimate deed instead of his numerous lifetime achievements.

Of course, the movie benefits from its cast as well. James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles and Lee Marvin all have worthy performances. John Wayne and Lee Marvin are probably more notable as portraying energetic characters that despite being enemies have a lot in common. Stewart and Miles are also good although playing more restrained parts. The supporting actors Edmond O'Brien and Andy Devine are vigorous in the roles of the local newspaper editor Dutton Peabody and the cowardly Marshal Link Appleyard.

The movie commences a bit static including a few almost still scenes, which may put some spectators off if they are not patient enough to wait for the real goods. Once the actual story begins though the audience is quickly involved in the film. It's one of John Ford's nostalgic tales about the good Old West that has been changed irrevocably. The movie is a must for Western lovers but it is also a good choice for any fans of intelligent storytelling.


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