The old West versus the new West, with love caught in the middle!
Screenplay By: James Warner Bellah & Willis Goldbeck
Directed By: John Ford
I’ve written a few different times on this blog about Westerns that deal with the death of the West. Prominent in my mind at the moment is the Clint Eastwood film, Pale Rider. For as much as I liked that film, it doesn’t hold a candle to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The difference is in the way that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance tackles the idea of the West dying out. Most end of the West Westerns treat the end of the West as a matter of fact. The end comes, the characters move on, and the world keeps on trucking along. There’s almost always a tinge of, “Hey, the West may have been cool, but all in all it’s a great thing that the West gave way to a more modern age.” The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance shows the passing of the West, very subtly, but it also laments some facets of the West that our culture misses as well as giving good reason for why the West never truly died out.
I was struck, almost immediately, by how smart and subtle the direction and screenplay are in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This is by no means a small film, it is grand in scope and it is taking on some serious issues concerning the historical progression of the United States of America. The grandness and the scope never give way to brute force storytelling. The key moments in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the moments that truly hit home the themes of the film, are perhaps the quietest moments of the film. Heck, the showdown that gives the film its name isn’t a loud affair. Rather, it is a showdown that is predicated on story and character, and in how said showdown ties into the themes of the film. Were the showdown loud and flashy it would take away from the many strengths of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but with a director like John Ford there was nary a chance that the themes would be trampled upon.
I was mightily impressed with the themes in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I sat, staring slavishly, at the screen as Mr. Ford and the writers, James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, delivered a film that was layered, nuanced, and as subtle as could be in its delivery of its themes. James Stewart plays the role of the new West, the man come to town with the instruments to educate and change the ways of the people. John Wayne and Lee Marvin are the old West. Mr. Wayne is the noble old West, the hard working and gruff individual who makes his own future. Mr. Marvin is the seedy underbelly of the old West, the outlaw and rebel who has no need for anything but money and guns. Stuck in the middle are the townsfolk, who clearly want a reprieve from Mr. Marvin, but fear the change brought on by Mr. Stewart. Mr. Wayne represents the best of the townsfolk, but even he fears the changes that education and innovation will bring to the West that he knows. Through these characters and a very smart screenplay the iconography of the West is explored in great detail right alongside the changeover from the old ways to the new ways of living in the American West.
All the thematic depth in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would be for naught if the film wasn’t so darn tense and dramatic. There’s a showdown that takes place inside of a diner, and that showdown is some of the best filmmaking I have ever seen, period. Mr. Ford puts all of the key players in place, and through one tripped individual and a dirty steak he manages to tensely deliver all of the films themes and all of the films drama in a manner that seems cruelly effortless. It shouldn’t be so easy for a film to astutely establish its themes while remaining narratively tense. Somehow, in scene after scene Mr. Ford does just that, and he even manages to toss in some romance and comedy without batting an eye.
There are far better writers who have expounded far greater than I could ever hope to on the brilliance of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and John Ford. All I can add is that I was enraptured by Mr. Ford’s film. I already placed Mr. Ford on a rather high pedestal, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is further proof of his great skills as a filmmaker. Film has changed leaps and bounds since Mr. Ford directed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. All those innovations and all those changes can’t in any way dwarf or erase the masterful filmmaking that is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The times may change, but the greatness of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is forever, which in a fitting way is kind of like the Old West.