(recommended: the beautiful B & W print with several mini-documentaries on the film)
John Ford’s last great film is an allegorical study and appreciation of the old West as it transitions into the new West.
Lee Marvin plays Liberty Valance (in one of his best movie roles) personifying the ‘wild West’: primitive, nasty, lawless, savage, intimidating, and uncontrollably violent. John Wayne personifies the rough, but decent and pro-law man of integrity symbolizing the old West. James Stewart personifies the educated, smarter, nonviolent, lawful new West. The conflicts between each of these three characters and ways is the core of the film.
The secondary storyline has to do with Vera Miles, a pretty, hard-working, relatively innocent pioneer woman whom Wayne and Stewart are in conflict for. She wants a better life, but loves the old West as borne out later, symbolically, in the film.
There is a third specific storyline that involves the town drunk newspaper editor (humorously played by Edmond O’Brien) who dares to tell the truth about Liberty Valance and supports Stewart’s state representative election. This storyline intertwines truth, justice, and the major sea-change in the West’s history.
As well, there is a strong supporting cast featuring Woody Strode (as Wayne’s able assistant), Andy Devine (as the selfish, cowardly, freeloading sheriff), and Strother Martin (as the crazy, sadistic gang member of Liberty).
The film was purposely shot in black and white to keep the movie’s appearance uncheesy-looking and this fits the timelessness of the film’s statements in any case.
Spoiiers; The man who shot Liberty Valance, ironically, turns out to be different from first impressions, and there are subsequent undercurrents from that revelation extending to Vera Miles’ character and her true feelings revealed at the end of the film. And so it is ‘the other man’ who turns out to have his views changed by these late revelations.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the great old westerns which has volumes to speak of in truly engaging, entertaining ways. And it is also among the great films of James Stewart, John Wayne, John Ford, and Lee Marvin, which makes it even more worthwhile checking out. Two big thumbs up.