I am not steeped in the ‘Western’ genre but, as a layman, I think this movie is a masterpiece.
This is not just a piece of entertainment – this is social commentary and US history portrayed on celluloid, glued together with great characters, an ‘edge-of-the-seat’ story line, comedy and romance.
One only needs to look at the movie’s personnel:
EDITH HEAD – there she is again. She had that costume department to herself. WHAT a career, a record 8 Academy Awards (Oscars) for Best Costume Design. I always thought of Edith Head in relation to glamorous movies like ‘All About Eve’, ‘Sabrina’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (Claudette Colbert in that wedding dress…out of this world!!) but to see her name in the opening credits of ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’, I was both surprised and delighted;
Lee Marvin – he is brilliant as Liberty Valance. He certainly stirs my emotions and I found myself genuinely repelled by the character;
Lee Van Cleef (you can see the beginning of that menacing look);
Woody Strode: I didn’t know the name Woody Strode before I watched this movie but not only do I now know that Toy Story’s ‘Sheriff Woody’ is named after Woody Strode, not only do I now know him for his brilliant performance as ‘Pompey’ in this movie but I also know him as a fantastic actor (born in 1914, died in 1994) who had a long and impressive career. In this movie, he is one of my favourite characters;
Andy Devine: he deserved an Oscar for his performance as the shivering wreck of a Marshal, Link Appleyard;
John Carradine (David’s dad) – what a speech, as Cassius Starbuckle!!
Edmond O’Brien: another one who deserved an Oscar for his performance. His Dutton Peabody is ‘off-the-scale’!
Denver Pyle, most famous as Uncle Jesse in The Dukes of Hazzard;
How this movie did not win an Oscar in 1963, I do not know – a travesty (of course, the Academy Awards is home to many travesties but that is a subject in itself!). That said, it was up against greats like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ so timing was not on its side. Only one nomination, Edith Head for ‘Best Costume Design – Black and White’. Well, Academy, for what it’s worth, I, and many millions of people, think this movie is a classic. It’s great to see that the National Film Preservation Board saw fit to award ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ with a place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry which cements the status of the movie, a movie of cultural importance in the history of movie making and, much wider, in the history of the United States. This movie is not just enjoyable, it is important.
‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ highlights a crossroads in US history – times they were a changing.
The ‘Wild West’ was indeed wild. The gun, not the law, ruled. It was a time when justice was served summarily. Men were more related to their neanderthal cousins than to men today. Women had their place (a place which, thankfully, is not their place today…in most cultures) but Hallie Stoddard, played by the stunning Vera Miles, she had had enough of it. She was ashamed of her lack of education and was excited by the prospect of being able to read and write, thanks to lessons provided by Ransom, and she certainly didn’t think that her place was in the kitchen:
(at this point in the movie, Tom and Hallie are unofficially attached, romantically, and Tom intends on marrying Hallie):
Tom Doniphon: “Hallie, go on back where you belong, I don’t want you going to school or no shooting gallery”
Hallie: “Now you listen to me, Tom Doniphon, what I do and where I go is none of your business, you don’t own me”
Tom: “Like I said, Hallie, you’re awful pretty when you get mad”
It was a time when education was the reserve of the privileged and had no place in towns like Shinbone. Townsfolk didn’t talk about the US Constitution because they had never heard of the Constitution.
In this great movie, we have Liberty Valance (there’s some irony in his name!), a brutal, sadistic man who lives according to the ‘rules’ of the Wild West, aided and abetted by Reese (Lee Van Cleef) – although it must be said that he tries to hold Liberty back when he ‘explodes’ – and Floyd (played by Strother Martin) who is frighteningly psychotic, facing the ‘new’ man, Ransom Stoddard, a man who represents change, who wants to introduce that change and the benefits thereof to the townsfolk, a man who believes that his law books, not Liberty Valance’s guns, were the way forward. We see a battle between those who want the status quo to remain and those who want Statehood (and civilisation). We also see the disgrace that was US segregation: when a meeting on Statehood is taking place, Pompey stays outside the hall and when he walks into the bar, he is told by the barman that he can’t serve him, i.e. that he can’t have a drink – Tom responds: “Who says he can’t?”
As expected, the scenery is wonderful.
The music stirs the emotions (and, thanks, Burt, Hal and Gene).
There’s comedy: examples – Peabody desperately trying the get the barman to serve him a drink on Election Day and his newspaper headline misspelling, “L.V. DEFEETED”. Peabody is a wonderful character. There are some great touches, for example, Marshal Appleyard ‘courageously’ threatening Liberty when he is so far off in the distance that he probably can’t hear him, turning round to walk back into the saloon, the door hitting him on his behind and Link jumping out of his skin.
Drama, it’s all there, the showdown between L.V. and Ransom and the nomination (as Delegates to Congress) speeches…and on and on…
…and love…Hallie seeing a brokenhearted Pompey at the undertakers, they both loved Tom. Hallie’s tears when she revisits, on her return to Shinbone when she is the wife of Senator Stoddard, the home which Tom was building when he hoped and believed that he’d be marrying her, Tom’s broken heart when he realises, and accepts, that her heart belongs to Ransom.
It’s all in this great, classic movie.
I said at the beginning of this blog, and I repeat, that ‘Who Shot Liberty Valance’ is a masterpiece. So much subject matter, so many diverse characters, so many creative strands, drama, power, comedy, romance, perfectly blended and packaged. I enjoyed this movie immensely but I also respect and am in awe of the achievement and excellence that it represents and reflects.