The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

God, I love this movie. I first saw it on VHS probably fifteen years ago, if not longer. At that time, I was ambivalent at best toward Westerns and the machismo culture built around John Wayne. I'd seen It's a Wonderful Life, but I don't think I'd seen any other James Stewart performances. By the time the movie was over, I knew I'd found an instant, all-time favorite.

I've always been a lot like Stewart's Ranse Stoddard: Idealistic, high-principled (high-minded to those I've rubbed the wrong way), and entirely opposed to the kind of gun-toting tough guy shtick represented by Wayne's Tom Doniphon. The message of the story couldn't be clearer, or on-point with my values.

But what makes The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance so special isn't what it's about, but how it is about it. We know from the outset that we're headed to a showdown. We know Liberty Valance dies and Ranse Stoddard survives. There's no surprise in that, and yet the buildup is so expertly constructed that our foreknowledge is irrelevant.

A few years ago, I finally read Dorothy M. Johnson's original short story. I can safely say that this is one of the times where the movie is definitely better than its source material. Johnson's Stoddard is essentially a wimp whose experience standing up to the bully makes him into "a man".

What makes the film so endearing is what screenwriters James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck added to his arc. This Ransom Stoddard doesn't hold his head up high and think himself accomplished for having taken a gun in hand; he feels sullied for resorting to something so garish as all that. I honestly can't think of anyone more perfectly suited to the role than James Stewart except, in his younger days, maybe Tom Hanks (whom my friend and others have remarked is more or less the modern Stewart).

Likewise, no one else could have had the right gravitas to play Tom Doniphon other than John Wayne. And I give him credit for this performance, whose nuances are only apparent once you've seen it all the way through and learn the depth of his feelings for Hallie. He plays it all close to the vest, which is why the big reveal at the end is so moving. "Cold blooded murder, but I can live with it. Hallie's happy."

Lee Marvin, as Liberty Valance, is one of the most loathsome screen villains I've ever seen. That guy is the bully who bullies other bullies. He's not a mastermind by any stretch of the imagination, but give Marvin credit: He holds the screen against two legends and never gives an inch.

The leads are supported by a terrific ensemble. My favorite is Edmond O'Brien as the scenery chewing Dutton Peabody. As he remarks while pleading to get out of being nominated as a delegate, Peabody is the conscience of not just the town, but the film. He knows Ranse represents not just law and order, but the future. There is a sense that Peabody recognizes in Ranse something of his younger self. Surely, he must have taken a ribbing in his day as the guy who wanted to be a writer.

There is, unfortunately, a blemish on the film and that's its depiction and treatment of Pompey (Woody Strode). His "Yes, Mr. Tom" dialog is embarrassing, though of course the fact is that was how African-Americans were expected to address whites, so I suppose an argument could be made that the issue is with the time being depicted rather than the film itself.

Pompey also figures murkily in two of the film's greatest scenes. There's the classroom lecture on government, in which "...all men are created equal" is invoked. It was nice to see Pompey allowed to be included in the class, but I've always resented that he wasn't afforded the dignity of having been a successful student; he's the only one who doesn't know the answer to the question he's called to answer.

But my favorite Pompey moment is in the restaurant showdown earlier in the movie. There's Tom Doniphon, calling on Liberty Valance to pick up his steak. Valance warns Tom that there are three of them to just him. Coolly, though, Tom replies, "My boy Pompey, kitchen door." We cut to Pompey pumping his rifle, ready to go. It's a truly badass sidekick moment, tainted by "my boy". Though "boy" has transcended its racist origins recently, so maybe younger viewers unaware of the earlier connotation can enjoy the moment without realizing its unpleasantness.

Later, of course, there's the genuinely terrific moment when Pompey comes into the bar to collect Tom and the barman starts to object, "Now look, Pompey, you know I--" and Tom forcefully retorts, "Who says he can't?" The barman backs down instantly. Pompey, of course, is too noble to partake of the offered drink so we can assume it's unlikely he ever again set foot inside the place.

I also adore Jeannette Nolan and John Qualen as the Scandinavian immigrants. His pride at being a citizen voting is heartwarming, and when I saw the film play at the Louisville Palace in 2011, her characterization of the nature of a republican form of government drew one of the most raucous rounds of applause I've ever witnessed for a movie.

Plus, there's Strother Martin and Denver Pyle, and John Carradine shamelessly milking every last syllable as the self-aggrandizing orator, Major Cassius Starbuckle at the convention in the finale. There have been lots of movies with great ensembles and supporting casts, but offhand the only one I can think of that was stronger than this one was Casablanca.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#74/1627)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance > Swing Vote --> #74
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance > Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows --> #74
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance > Son of Frankenstein --> #74
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance > The Spy Who Came in from the Cold --> #74
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance > Batman: Mask of the Phantasm --> #51
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance > Shaun of the Dead --> #25
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance < The Transformers: The Movie --> #25
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance < The Bridge on the River Kwai --> #25
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance > Certified Copy --> #21
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance < Star Trek: First Contact --> #21

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #21/1627

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