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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
"A Lawyer ....and a teacher....the first west of the Rosey Buttes."
Senator James Stewart and his wife Vera Miles get a telegram from their old home in Shinbone about the death of a friend. They arrive in Shinbone and go to a sparsely attended service. When prodded a bit by the editor of the Shinbone Star, a paper he was once employed at, Stewart sits down and tells the story of just how his political career got its start.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is John Ford's final homage to the western film genre that made his reputation. It's maybe the most nostalgic of westerns he ever did. Beginning with the cast all of whom are way too old for their parts. But if you notice there's a kind of soft focus photography used on John Wayne, James Stewart, and Lee Marvin which masks their age. The skill of these players does the rest.
Stewart arrives in Shinbone, a newly minted attorney who has taken Horace Greeley's advice and the stagecoach he's riding on gets held up by the local outlaw Liberty Valance and henchmen. When Stewart protests Valance, played by Lee Marvin beats him with the butt end of a silver knob whip and leaves him on the road.
He's found by John Wayne who brings him to Shinbone to get medical attention. Stewart stays with restaurant owners John Qualen and Jenanette Nolan and their daughter Vera Miles who's Wayne's girl. Miles who can't even read or write takes quite a shine to the educated easterner.
But Stewart and newspaper editor Edmond O'Brien keep getting on Liberty Valance's bad side, especially when they come out publicly for statehood whereas the big cattle ranchers who hire Liberty Valance and henchmen want to keep this part of the USA a territory for as long as they can. This is all leading to an inevitable showdown.
Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance is one evil man. No subtle psychology here, no explanations of a mom who didn't love him or a girl that dumped him, he's just an evil guy who likes being evil. If Liberty has any redeeming qualities, despite repeated viewings of this film, I haven't found any. Marvin clearly enjoyed this part, but he never turned it into a burlesque of himself. That he waited for Cat Ballou to do.
John Wayne who by this time was playing more roughhewn types than he did when he was Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, gets back to that kind of a portrayal here. He's more Ringo than he is Ethan Edwards. But that's at the beginning. Over the course of the film he changes into something like Ethan Edwards, his character from The Searchers. What happens to make him that way in fact is the story of the film.
But actually the film really does belong to Stewart. He's on screen for most of it, he's the protagonist here and until almost the end, what's happening to him is what The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is all about.
Ford once again rounds out his cast with many of his favorite players in support. Andy Devine as the cowardly marshal, John Carradine as a pompous windbag politician, Woody Strode, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, all who had appeared in Ford films before.
There are two to single out however. This was the last film Jack Pennick ever did with John Ford. You might not know his name, but he and that horse-face countenance appeared in just about every sound John Ford film there is. He has a bit role as a bartender. Pennick died after completing this film.
Edmond O'Brien made his one and only appearance in this film as Dutton Peabody, founder, editor, and owner of the Shinbone Star and as he said himself, he sweeps the place out occasionally. He's a regular character in Ford films, the wise friend of the hero who has a bit of a drinking problem. Kind of like Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone in Stagecoach.
Like Stewart, O'Brien is an eastern immigrant who came west to be his own newspaper editor like his former boss Horace Greeley. Words are his weapons, like the law is Stewart's. It's no wonder that these two annoy Lee Marvin so. Even the fast draw hired gun can't kill public opinion.
When they're both chosen as Shinbone's Delegates to the territorial convention it is O'Brien who makes the nominating speech to draft Stewart for the job. It is one of his finest bits in his long and distinguished career. It encapsulates a lot of what Ford was trying to say about progress and progress in the American west. In the end it is the farmer, the merchant, the builder of cities will eventually triumph just about anywhere. Stewart and he are as much pioneers as Wayne and the others in Shinbone are, they're just the next logical step.
Progress always comes at a price. We see the price in the beginning and the end of the film, the scenes of Shinbone during the early Twentieth Century. The paved streets, the electric lights are there because of who came before and what they did. There wasn't room in the changing west for many like Wayne and Marvin, their time came and went, just as Stewart's time came and went too.
Actually I think the real winner in this film was always Vera Miles. She started out as an illiterate girl working in her parent's restaurant and wound up the wife of a United States Senator. That's progress too.
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