If I were forced to choose a Western as the only one I could watch among the hundreds I cherish, I suppose I would select The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the classic directed by John Ford and sarring John Wayne, James Stewart, and Lee Marvin. It is, for my tastes anyway, an enduring work that never fails to move me or to offer me ever deeper, resonant insights into human nature. I wrote the following article for The Reader (www.thereader,com) in advance of a revival screening of the picture. In the piece I was able to express my thoughts on some of the complex shades this film presents. It reminds me in many ways of Wayne’s last film, the great Western The Shootist, which I could have easily chosen ahead of Liberty. Both are dark films in the sense that they do not offer up easy or happy denouements. The central characters in each are conflicted individuals making hard decisions that have unforeseen or unintended consequences. Each film is set in a version of the dying West and their stories turn on the figure of a Westerner (Wayne) who has outlived his time, yet who has something invaluable to give before he fades away. If you have never seen the film or if perhaps you have caught a snippet of it without sitting through the whole thing, then give it a chance. It is well worth your time. And just remember that the fake-looking sets and washed-out black and white images are intentional and wholly in keeping with the themes of the story. I promise, if you sit through the picture, you will not be able to shake it.
NOTE: This blog also contains my take on Ford’s and Wayne’s other late masterpiece, The Searchers, in a story I called, The Searchers, a John Ford-John Wayne Masterwork. I also have many more film entries on the blog, including pieces on such other classic films as Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life and on filmmakers as diverse as John Landis, Joan Micklin Silver, John Jost, and Alexander Payne.
Through a Lens Darkly: A Western Masterpiece Looks Past the Fog of Myth to Find the Truth
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The famous line is uttered in the classic 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to decry the public-media inclination for myth over truth. The film is set in the dying Old West and its story is told almost entirely in flashback. The line refers to the unreliability of imagination and memory in sorting out the truth about the taming of the West. The implication is that getting at the truth about any history is problematical. If these spin-doctored times are any indication, then nothing much has changed. Just witness the hyperbole swirling around the War on Terror.
A revisionist Western starring the genre’s two most potent figures in John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart and directed by the genre’s greatest interpreter, John Ford, Valance both celebrates and debunks myths. Its theme of legend versus fact gains resonance from its two iconic stars subverting their Hollywood personas to play flawed characters who cover a lie that binds them to secrecy.
The way inconvenient truths get covered or distorted to further personal/national interests makes the film relevant today, which, in turn, makes impresario Bruce Crawford’s April 27 screening of Valance a must-see. The 7 p.m. event at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall commemorates the centennial of the Duke’s birth and benefits the Omaha Hearing School for Children Inc..
Special guest A.C. Lyles, going on 70 years with Paramount Pictures, knew Ford, Wayne and Stewart. Valance was shot on Paramount’s back lot and Lyles, then a producer of “B” Westerns, visited the set. He saw first hand the fear and respect commanded by Ford, the four-time Oscar winner as Best Director. “John Ford was not one of a kind, he was his own kind,” Lyles said. He also saw what made Wayne a thorough professional. “He was like John Ford — he believed in doing it and in doing it right. That’s why their pictures hold up to the test of time,” Lyles said.
In his present capacity as a goodwill ambassador for Paramount, a duty that finds him speaking at events like the upcoming one in Omaha, Lyles is a myth keeper who always polishes, never tarnishes, the patina of the Golden Age legends he knew. When it comes to Ford’s famous temper, for example, he prefers to couch it as “he had a job to do.” A.C.’s mantra could be, When the legend becomes fact, speak the legend. He’s also a consultant on HBO’s acclaimed Western series, Deadwood.
Any Wayne tribute must include at least one of the many films he made with Ford, under whose stern guidance he came to embody the male American ideal. Their collaboration was perhaps the most significant of any director-actor in Hollywood history. Together, they made at least a half-dozen Western masterpieces (Stagecoach, Rio Grande, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and Valance). The last two Ford and Wayne teamed up for were darker in tone than the preceding ones. In The Searchers Wayne’s rugged individualist Ethan Edwards, a Civil War vet turned renegade, runs amok pursuing a racist brand of justice. Even as he reunites his family, he belongs to the wild and therefore remains isolated from his own people and community. In Valance his Tom Doniphon is once again a loner, but this time he is a bridge builder, not a destroyer, even enjoying a friendship with a black man. Then, Doniphon violates the Code of the West, sublimating himself for progress and the greater good.
Wayne’s Doniphon, a rancher handy with a gun, and Stewart’s Rance Stoddard, a greenhorn lawyer from the East, represent the wild and civilizing opposites of the West, respectively. Despite their differences they share a love for the same proverbial good woman, Hallie (Vera Miles), and a hatred for the same heinous villain, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Doniphon’s and Stoddard’s fates are sealed when one acts to save the other and, in the process, rid the territory of Valance.
The last great film Ford made, TMWSLV is replete with the theme of legend blurring truth and the consequences that result when lore obscures reality. The one who intervenes on behalf of the other is forgotten. His sacrifice costs him his sense of worth, his way of life and his woman. The sacrifice goes unrecognized and unrewarded. He dies penniless and alone. The one who owes his life to the other gains power and privilege and steals the woman right under his friend’s nose. The debt owed his friend never fully acknowledged. The fraud’s reputation is built on a lie the two men conspire to keep. What really happened is revealed in a flashback within a flashback, which shows how difficult and subjective the truth can be.
Even when the man credited with shooting Liberty Valance comes clean in an interview years later, a newspaperman dismisses it, telling him that when hype is accepted as fact, it trumps the truth.
It is a jaundiced take on American values and the costs associated with them.
“Liberty Valance is a masterpiece. It’s rich, it’s profound. It’s theme echoes something President John F. Kennedy said in a speech. ‘That the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie…but the myth. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought,'” Crawford said. “In this film Ford deconstructs the myths. It’s so moving. What a powerful, beautiful movie.”
As much as any artist, Ford promulgated such indelible images of the mythic West they became ingrained in the collective consciousness. The poetry and sentiment of his Westerns spoke so deeply and authentically to audiences that his movies were accepted by many as gospel. Whether or not he felt responsible to as Crawford suggests “set the record straight” is unknown, but late in his career he clearly did challenge some of the very precepts he advanced in his earlier work.
The philosophy behind the film’s great line — “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” — may express how Ford, the super patriot liberal Democrat who never discussed his work, felt popular conceptions of the West, including his own, or of any history, could not be trusted. It may have been as much a call for vigilance in the search for truth among disparate voices as it was an old man’s cynicism in the emerging media age of managed sound bites and headlines. God only knows what the old man would think of these politically correct-parsed times.