The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Bad guys as bullying toddlers.  Womenfolk and racial or ethnic minorities as obedient but helpless bystanders. Good guys as (choose one):

a). drunks

b). cowards

c). toddlers

d). highly-principled schlemiels

e). all of the above

That’s right.  You can have it all with “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.”  John Wayne is his iconic heroic self as loner Tom Doniphon, but he turns into a self-pitying drunk after doing the right thing:  killing the bullying toddler bad guy but keeping quiet about it, letting Jimmy Stewart’s character get all the credit AND Doniphon’s girl.

Lee Marvin is terribly bad as the villain Liberty Valance.  He fights dirty, cheats at cards, whips a man when he’s down, throws furniture, breaks windows, trashes every room he enters and shoots up the town on his way out.  When this parody of a bad guy enters the parody of a saloon (cowboys drinking shots at the bar, slamming down the whiskey glasses, piano playing a medley — a medley! — of minstrel songs), everything gets quiet.  But it’s boring, waiting for him to pick on somebody, watching him get away with it because nobody’s willing to stop him.

Where’s the thrill?  All I can figure is that audiences who loved the genre craved the security of the standard scenes.  So if John Ford wanted to get a bit tricky and suggest that the truth lay outside the clichés, if he wanted to put Jimmy Stewart to good use and throw in a little civics lesson, he had to give a nod to the familiar western conventions before he undermined them.

But in the end, we’re not supposed to take this film seriously, right?

(18 August 2011)

2 thoughts on “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

  1. Wonderful! Was Lee Marvin the one with the palimony suit? I can never get those cowboys straight. It’s true grit in my sensibilities.

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    1. Indeed he was, Bev. I’d forgotten about that little episode and how he complained afterwards that the trial was a circus. Maybe the toddler villain roles suited him.

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