John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is my favorite western. Westerns are my least favorite genre, so the film is pretty special to me. There’s plenty to love about it, from its gorgeous black and white cinematography to its characters and themes. But the primary reason I love it is because of Lee Marvin.
I honestly didn’t care about Lee Marvin when I first saw him in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). I was either more interested in the dynamic between Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, or too put off by Lee throwing coffee in Gloria’s face. I also have a soft spot for Glenn Ford. But about a year later, I came across a photo of Lee and I did a double take. I didn’t recognize him at all. Since The Big Heat was blotted out from my memory, I thought, “So this is the Lee Marvin I’ve always heard about but never seen.” (He was a lot older in that photo, however. The defense rests).
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was, in a sense, my first Lee Marvin film. This is where I became infatuated with him. It was infatuation mixed with awestruck fear, because Lee Marvin was a scary dude. That was his screen image: scary, tough, blisteringly violent. He turned down the lead role in The Wild Bunch (1969), but he and the film’s director, Sam Peckinpah, had similar attitudes about portraying violence onscreen. Both felt that viewers shouldn’t be spared from authentic violence. It couldn’t be watered down or be considered remotely appealing. So Lee made sure not to pull his punches.
Now, I love my share of offbeat characters, but a sadistic outlaw like Liberty Valance who delights in terrorizing innocent people? Surely a line needs to be drawn. Actually, I think the line has been crossed; or wiped out entirely.
The film opens with Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), a prominent senator paying a visit to a small town named Shinbone. His visit is causing a stir among the residents. The editor of the town newspaper keeps pressing to know why Ransom is there, and doesn’t believe that local man Tom Doniphan’s funeral is the only reason. So Ransom’s story unfolds in a flashback.
When he was a young man (about as young as a 54 year old Jimmy Stewart can look), Ransom, an attorney, ventured out west. One night the stagecoach he was riding in got robbed by Liberty Valance and his gang of outlaws. Although unarmed, Ranse stands up to the bandits. Outraged, he shouts that as an attorney, he has the full capability to prosecute Liberty and throw him in jail. Liberty really doesn’t like that. At all. He silences Ranse by first striking him across the face with his whip. Ranse falls down, weakened. Liberty isn’t finished yet, although that would have been enough. He rips out pages from Ransom’s law books before telling him that he’s going to teach him western law. And then he just lays into Ranse, lashing him with that whip until his two other cronies pull him off.
It’s a scene that cuts through me every time. Hearing the whip slice through the air and into Ranse’s body, seeing that twisted look of anger and savage satisfaction on Liberty’s face as he “teaches” this guy a lesson…I’m sickened and yet, intrigued all at once.
Thankfully, Ranse is rescued by rancher Tom Doniphan (John Wayne), who brings him into Shinbone where his injuries are tended by Hallie (Vera Miles), a waitress in a restaurant called Pete’s Place. Ranse learns that Liberty Valance regularly terrorizes Shinbone and that the town marshal, Link Appleyard, is too much of a spineless coward to do anything about it.
Now, although Ranse has nearly had the life beaten out of him, he doesn’t cower in fear or defeat. He’s determined to bring Liberty Valance to justice, an effort that Tom scoffs at. He suggests that Ranse get a gun if he wants to go up against Liberty, which echoes the latter’s own words about western law.
I like that, for all his bashful quavering, there was a steeliness to Jimmy Stewart. It made him the ideal “American hero,” a concept that can be elusive and contradictory at times. Jimmy to me, represents the very best of America. So does Ransom Stoddard. He’s a naive but unflagging idealist.
In Lee Marvin: Point Blank, Dwayne Epstein writes that Lee’s career was based on an “incontrovertible truth: Man is a violent animal, and the American male the most brutal of them all.” Who else could collide head first with Jimmy Stewart’s homespun decency and honor? Who else, but a fellow American? Liberty Valance is essential the way most villains are; if the hero’s goodness isn’t threatened and able to emerge, perhaps bruised but still intact, what purpose does it serve?
There’s one scene in particular that illustrates just how noble and necessary Ransom’s vision for a civilized west and a compassionate America is. And of course Liberty Valance wants to destroy that vision. Anything worth fighting for naturally attracts opposition.
Ransom is eager to teach Hallie how to read and write. He even sets up a school for the illiterate townspeople and children. One of his pupils is Tom’s ranch hand, Pompey (Woody Strode). Woody Strode was a rarefied onscreen presence and fairly significant in regards to black images on film. And he’s significant in this one too, despite his minor role.
Tom regularly refers to Pompey, a fully grown adult man, as boy (par for the course ~Back Then~ I know, doesn’t mean I can’t still roll my eyes & suck my teeth over it). In one scene, Tom orders Pompey out of the school and back to work. Pompey is docile. Whatever Tom’s virtues and respect for/friendship with Pompey, that interaction has implications that I can’t really ignore. That might just be life for a hired hand, but would Tom call a white ranch hand boy? Would he tell his white ranch hand that his schooling is over? If Pompey was white, would he be able to protest or even defy Tom? Contrast Pompey’s meek obedience to Hallie’s fiery assertion that Tom doesn’t own her and can’t tell her what to do. Pompey can’t say the same. I’m just so curious about Pompey because he’s the only black person in this town, and whatever respect he’s earned is because of Tom. When Tom is gone, what is life like for Pompey in Shinbone? Many questions, no answers.
Pompey volunteers in class to recite the Declaration of Independence. He forgets the line “all men are created equal”, but Ranse reassures him that lots of people do. No one can convince me that Ranse saying that particular line to Pompey was unintentional. All men are created equal wrote the founders of this country, yet they owned slaves and black people were only counted as 3/5 human. That sordid reasoning is embedded in this country’s soil. Ransom, to me at least, seeks to challenge that by offering education to those who still aren’t quite equal.
When Tom shows up at the school, he does have legitimate reasons for ordering Pompey out. It appears everyone’s schooling is now over. Shinbone is part of a territory that can be granted statehood, something the big cattle barons don’t want. Statehood would improve life for the residents and offer much more security. The cattle barons hire Liberty Valance in a campaign of intimidation to keep it a free rein territory. Discouraged, Ranse dismisses school.
“When force threatens, talk’s no good anymore.”
It’s the man who shot Liberty Valance, not the man who quelled Liberty Valance’s brute force. Even if the latter doesn’t triumph in the harsh landscape that is the Great American West, it does still have value. Ranse bravely attempts to introduce law and order, even as he’s thwarted by Liberty and Link Appleyard’s profound cowardice. Heroism is presented in two distinct, imperfect ways. And both forms of heroism are necessary in eliminating one form of evil.
Tom Doniphan is the hero of this story, technically; the hero who can summon force. Tom and Liberty occupy two sides of the same coin. They both believe in western law, which isn’t found in Ranse’s books, but in the barrel of a gun. It’s just that Tom uses his powers of force for good and doesn’t brutalize anyone simply because he can. Tom is the only one in Shinbone who isn’t afraid of Liberty. The latter isn’t afraid of Tom either, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he respects him. Liberty just wishes he could crush Tom as easily as anybody else.
One of Liberty’s acts of violence is even more traumatizing than Ransom’s beating. It’s one that I don’t see many people acknowledge for just how disturbing it is. Dutton Peabody is another of Liberty’s victims. He may very well be Edmond O’Brien’s greatest role. Mr. Peabody is editor of the Shinbone Star, jovial, a boisterous drunk, and someone you can laugh at and with. Eddie O’Brien, bolstered by his Shakespearean training, makes Mr. Peabody a really worthwhile character. He and Ranse have been chosen as delegates for the statehood convention over Liberty, which angers him of course.
One night, Mr. Peabody is ambushed by Liberty in his office. Liberty uses his whip again. As with Ranse, you don’t see the whip crack into Peabody’s flesh, you just hear it. And it produces the same jolting effect. Peabody is attacked beneath glaring light, whereas nightfall covered Ranse. This scene really just – it just confirmed to me that Liberty Valance had to be punished, or die.
Liberty, to use the familiar phrase, is a force of nature. He’s like a horrifying combination of a fire and a hurricane. He really didn’t have to catch Peabody unaware. He could have stormed in and gave him fair warning. This force of nature can also sneak in.
I love this scene, how the darkness is dispersed when Mr. Peabody lights his lamp, and these three are revealed. Seeing Liberty here is like being doused with cold water. I love it, even though a torrent of more pain and terror awaits.
And I still love Liberty Valance. I even want to name one of my hypothetical future children after him. I’ve also started “joking” that I’m being haunted by Lee Marvin’s ghost. Why else are most of my waking hours spent thinking about him, laughing about him, and bothering my friends about him? I personally, find it odd that I should be drawn to Lee Marvin at all. I hate violence. I’m not a fan of aggressive masculinity. I love fairy tales, musicals, Disney Princesses and Audrey Hepburn!
Classic movie fans often have inexplicable connections to dead people. What I felt when I saw Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance was immediate, visceral, and just weird. I don’t know of anyone else who could rival him in intensity. He left scorch marks.
Liberty Valance has no redeeming qualities. He also doesn’t have a tragic backstory. While I’ve tried inventing reasons for his behavior, reasons to make him safer, more contained, more easily understandable, there is just no method to his madness. He is simply bad. And he enjoys it.
The first time Ranse encounters Liberty following his attack, it’s in Pete’s Place. They don’t see each other right away. Liberty bursts in and the whole place falls quiet. The camera shifts its focus to Hallie, framing her in a medium close up, where her face is rigid with dread. She hurries away, turning back to look at Liberty again. I do relate a lot to Hallie in this moment. Liberty Valance scares the hell out of me too. I would certainly want to put distance between the two of us. But I would still risk another glance.
Do you have any weird character crushes of your own? Would you like to read about some more? Any ghosts living in your house rent free too? Then check out the entries for Reel Infatuation!
Thanks to Font & Frock and Silver Screenings for hosting such a cool blogathon!
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is currently streaming on Netflix.