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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

While John Ford ventured into several film genres during his 56-year career, he will always be remembered for the western. He almost single-handedly reinvented and revitalized the genre with 1939's Stagecoach, and later classics such as My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Searchers (1956) were perfect vehicles for the Fordian hero — the resourceful, rugged individualist who provides order in a chaotic world, often protecting families and communities from destructive forces. Arriving in 1962, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was one of Ford's last films, and it is widely considered to be one of his best. But it is unusual. It lacks the epic sweep that marked so much of his previous work. In fact, most of the story is confined to interior settings, and for a "western" it has precious little action, instead focusing on a handful of people in one small town at a crucial crossroads in American history. The Fordian values — community, honor, courage — remain intact, but Ford may never have been more elegiac, or more introspective, than in this modest allegory. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about everything that made John Ford great, but it also is about the closing of the Western frontier.

Jimmy Stewart stars in Valance as Ransom "Ranse" Stoddard, a U.S. Senator who returns to the little western town of Shinbone at the turn of the century, where he started his political career many years earlier. The local press has no idea why he's there, but Ranse eventually reveals that it's for the funeral of an old friend, which then leads Ranse to recall his early days as a tenderfoot lawyer. And thus he tells the story (or legend) of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance": Moving to the frontier from back east, Ranse is held up during a stagecoach robbery by sadistic bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and horsewhipped mercilessly. Badly hurt, Ranse is brought into Shinbone by rough-and-tumble cowboy Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), and he soon finds room and board in the local restaurant, earning his living as kitchen-help. Ranse is looked after, and even pitied, by Tom's girlfriend Hallie (Vera Miles), but he cannot forget the beating, and he vows to bring Valance to justice. "I don't want to kill him," he tells Tom. "I want to put him in jail." But Tom thinks Ranse's high-minded ways are out of step with his surroundings. "Out here, a man solves his own problems," he says, hinting that the only way to stop Valance is to gun him down. Tom continues to prepare his home for his bride-to-be Hallie, but Ranse doesn't take his advice, instead opening a law office and a school, and eventually taking the side of area homesteaders and their political campaign for statehood — all the while unsure how to deal with Valance and his ceaseless harassment of the townsfolk.

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For a film that is unapologetically about the formation and sustenance of civil democracy in a land that only understands brute force, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, unsurprisingly, contains small, instructive moments. Among the folks who attend Ranse's new school are young Mexican children, as well as Tom's black ranch-hand Pompey (Woody Strode), who attempts to recite the Declaration of Independence (Ranse coaches him through the line "all men are created equal"). In a later moment, Tom loses his temper with the local tavern owner when Pompey is refused a drink. And Ranse speaks eloquently about the plight of homesteaders, and how statehood will defend their rights against cattle interests. But Valance isn't merely about the idealistic promise of America; in fact, its two protagonists, while embodying different philosophies of social rule, are equally flawed. For all of his lofty ideals, Ranse Stoddard is both proud and headstrong — it's hard to tell if he wants to see Liberty Valance behind bars because of his lawless acts, or simply if it's because he's been publicly humiliated by the bandit (he later warns Tom that "Nobody fights my battles!"), and by the film's conclusion it's clear that Ranse has been willing to build his political career on the stuff of legend. He is, in fact, a master politician. In the same vein, Tom Doniphon — while on the surface a traditional Fordian male — is entirely self-centered. He and Valance almost draw guns on each other, but Tom does not stand up to him because Valance is a criminal; rather, the outlaw ruined his steak dinner. In fact, throughout most of the story Tom advises restraint, claiming that anybody who crosses Valance will get killed. For Tom, the frontier begins and ends on his property, which he will defend if necessary. And while both men participate in the central act of the film, the shooting of Liberty Valance, by the time it's over it is clear what has been gained, and what is lost. The ideal of order — of government, democracy, progress — has transformed the West. It is finally Ranse's country, where he can craft laws for its people and live in peace. But this very same order has done away with the Tom Doniphans of the world, the cowboys who defined the West — and defined so many John Ford films.

Paramount's DVD release of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a strong black-and-white source-print, and while the disc only offers the theatrical trailer as an extra feature, it does include a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, along with the original monaural audio. Essential viewing for Ford admirers. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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