When Senator Ransom Stoddard returns home to Shinbone for the funeral of Tom Doniphon, he recounts to a local newspaper editor the story behind it all. He had come to town many years before, a lawyer by profession. The stage was robbed on its way in by the local ruffian, Liberty Valance, and Stoddard has nothing to his name left save a few law books. He gets a job in the kitchen at the Ericson's restaurant and there meets his future wife, Hallie. The territory is vying for Statehood and Stoddard is selected as a representative over Valance, who continues terrorizing the town. When he destroys the local newspaper office and attacks the editor, Stoddard calls him out, though the conclusion is not quite as straightforward as legend would have it. Written by
It's a sad movie in many ways. Ford is closing the book on his meditations on progress here. The black and white photography itself is rather depressing -- most of the scenes, including all the important ones, seem to take place at night, in the dark. And what do they show us? As Edmund O'Brien puts it, the West began with Indians and buffalo and the only law was survival. Then the cattlemen moved in and took the land over and the law was that of the hired gun. Now the West has been settled by hard-working farmers and turns into a garden, once the power brokers are out of the way. But it's a wistful garden. The cactus roses have disappeared and been replaced by turnips. And the rowdy, raucous, plain-speaking heroes and villains have been replaced by pretentious blowhard politicians of th e sort that Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) has become.
The framing story begins with Senator Stewart and his wife, Vera Miles, coming back to Shinbone for the funeral of the uknown Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). "Where are his boots?," Stewart asks upon seeing Wayne's body laid out, "Put his boots on." (Ford claimed this incident was borrowed from Tom Mix's funeral.) A few of the old crowd are still around but the streets of Shinbone are empty and are a tired gray. Everyone is now old. Stewart patronizes Wayne's old retainer, Pompey (Woody Strode), giving him a handful of bills and saying, "Pork chop money." Some "garden"!
Ford could be a sadistic director. He asked Stewart what he thought of Woody Strode's old-age makeup: the white fringe of hair, the overalls, the slouch hat. Stewart said it looked okay, but Ford prompted him for criticism until Stewart finally admitted that, "Wahhll, it's a little Uncle Remus, isn't it?" It's what Ford was waiting for. "I designed that outfit myself, and that's exactly what I had in mind." He called everyone over -- cast and crew alike -- and said, "Mister Stewart here thinks there's something wrong with Woody's wardrobe. Maybe he doesn't like Woody's wardrobe. Maybe he doesn't like Negroes!"
Well, if the present is filled with nostalgia, the past is lively enough, and the flashback, which is to say most of the film, is full of action and gusto. People just don't eat in John Qualen's restaurant. They eat huge platters of steaks, beans, potatoes, and deep dish apple pie. The steaks come sizzling from the vast greasy grill and are large enough to hang over the edges of the over-sized platters. Lee Marvin and his henchmen (Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin) enact their villainy with relish. John Wayne is, of course, the hero of the tale. You can tell because, in addition to his John Wayneness, he wears the only black and white outfit in the cast, which draws attention to his figure whenever it is on screen. In fact, though, Wayne does a reasonably decent job of playing Doniphon after his fall. When he enters the political meeting toward the end, banging open the swinging doors, staggering slightly, bearded, shabby, his magnificent white hat replaced by a battered gray one, slightly bleary, he looks and acts like a man who has been defeated but has not yet died, putting up a brave front with nothing left behind to prop it up. He's not bad in this scene. For the most part, though, he plays John Wayne, the resolute, proud man of principle. Edmund O'Brien is the comic town drunk and editor, the Thomas Mitchell part, and is given some amusing lines, including quotes from Henry V. (Actually O'Brien was pretty good in MGM's "Julius Caesar," as Casca, making Shakepeare's lines believable enough.)
The principle Doniphon represents, however, is O'Brien's second stage of the West's development. He's not only a rancher but a gunman, soon to be replaced by farmers and lawyers, but it's only at the final shootout that he realizes it. He saves Stewart's life the old-fashioned way, then gives up any plans of marriage to Vera Miles, gets drunk, and drives himself and Pompey back to the ranch he'd planned as a home. He burns the ranch down. He and Strode had a problem shooting the arrival at the ranch. Wayne lost control of the horses and Strode reached over to help. Wayne pushed him brusquely out of the way and Strode fell from the wagon. Angry, he threatened Wayne, and Wayne responded the way Wayne would respond. Strode, a former fullback, was several years younger than Wayne and in good shape. Ford stopped the altercation by shouting that the movie needed Wayne's face in one piece.
For all its darkness, however, the movie reflects some of Ford's prejudices in his comic way. A pompous orator at the political meeting (John Carradine) announces in his stentorian public voice that he came here with "a carefully prepared speech" but is going to disregard it and speak the truth. Here he crinkles up the speech and throws it contemptuously to the floor. Someone picks the page up and uncrumples it to find it blank on both sides. The rhetoric is extremely funny -- "The bullet-riddled body of an honest citizen?" -- recalling Donald Meek in "Young Mister Lincoln." During a carefully choreographed spontaneous demonstration after the cattlemen's candidate has been nominated, a band plays, a cowboy rides up onto the speaker's platform and twirls a lasso, and there is a brief shot of the Chairman staring appalled at the cowboy's horse lapping water out of the chairman's pitcher.
But it's still a sad comment from Ford. His earlier work brimmed with hope for the future. Here, the future has arrived and it makes one long for the past. It's the way an old man might feel about life in general.
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