Directed by John Ford
“when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”
The relationship between John Ford and John Wayne was tumultuous but undeniably fruitful, legendary even. They are two icons of the movie western, but for all the worship laid at their feet, it sounds like their lives, both professional and otherwise, weren’t all that happy. In a way maybe they embodied some of the darkness of their films, whether it’s the racism of a particular character (or of the entire film itself) or the capacity for self-destruction that seems inherent in the whole genre.
This is not a happy film, but it’s a good unhappy film. It’s not in color, like The Searchers, and it’s not shot out in Monument Valley like so many of Ford’s other films. Instead it looks kind of flimsy, filmed in black and white on Paramount soundstages, closer to something like a half-baked tv western than Stagecoach.
The apparent restraints within which the film were made (the budget and black and white having to do with Paramount’s demand to cut costs) only add to the story, though perhaps that’s a generous interpretation. It feels like a bunch of race horses stuck in a small kennel, men who had (or would) become legends in their own field (in addition to Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, Lee Van Cleef) but who were now forced to act the part of humans.
As Tom Doniphon John Wayne is heavyset, no less iconic but not all that heroic, until a twist-ish ending re-contextualizes him. For Stewart, he plays Ranse Stoddard, a lawyer whose attempts to bring law and order to the old west are presented as comically futile. Even just his gangly frame is played for a grotesque feature, with Ford having him move in ways more like a crumpling spider than a former Hitchcock hero.
It also doesn’t help that Wayne and Stewart are about thirty years older than the characters they play, a rather deliberate choice once the studio forced Ford to cast Wayne, the man whose career he made and who he now resented for needing just to finance the film.
So everything about this is a bit ugly, but because the film is about the death of the old west (with the rise of the railroad and more conventional means of law & order, rather than a gunslinging shootout), that makes sense. This is an inflection point in a time that other Wayne heroes might cower from, if they were capable of cowering. The classic image of the male hero is no more, and instead becomes someone like Ranse Stoddard.
It’s not hard to see Jimmy Stewart as a friendly hero, but as Stoddard he deliberately represents Doniphon’s opposite. He is earnest and gullible, booksmart but street weary. He’s been raised in a bubble, in some sense, and he will return to one. He only earns Doniphon’s respect when he punches him and doubly earns the people’s respect when he kills (or appears to) Liberty Valance. He’s a man incapable of violence, or of even squashing a fly, and yet he can only demand others’ admiration through violence.
By the end he will leave everyone behind, granted he is chosen as their delegate to be sent to Washington as they are given statehood. He’s a politician, and though still an admirable character, even he by the end expresses distaste for the capital. He wants to come home, and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), looks like she’s been waiting for him to say that ever since they left.
So it’s a strange movie about death and transformation, of things modernizing both in ways good and bad. It’s a certain inevitability, just like death I suppose, but death is rarely a pretty thing, at least in movies. Characters only die with dignity, it seems, if they close some kind of narrative loop, if they tell a loved one how they feel or save the life of another.
The ‘death’ of the old west, at least in Shinbone, is loud but tinged with melancholy because Stoddard knows the reason he is championed has to do with a lie, that he shot Valance when in reality it was Doniphon out in the shadows who killed the man.
It’s Doniphon’s death years later that gets Stoddard to return home and to tell this story, the truth, to a journalist who demands it. Doniphon’s death happens offscreen and for all we know was neither glamorous nor bombastic. It just happened.
He vanishes off into the shadows after giving the film it’s title, then burns his house down and otherwise disappears, like a dog slinking under a porch to die alone. To make matters worse, no matter how friendly (or something like it) he became with Stoddard, he had to watch him leave town with the Hallie, the woman Doniphon had hoped to marry.
The friendship between the two men develops over time, two opposites coming together much as they’re supposed to within narrative film, but it’s never as wholesome as you might want or expect. They respect the other but because of what the other represents you get the feeling that only one will survive, and because Stoddard represents the future, you know he will. Their relationship isn’t the most mutually beneficial one, even if one does save the life of the other.
In the end we return to the film’s present, years later when Stoddard, now a powerful politician, admits to the truth-seeking reporter that he never killed Valance. The reporter then tears up his notes and says, ““when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Maybe it’s a romantic sentiment, even if he’s advocating for a lie. Stories needn’t always be true, but the suggestion here is that there’s more power in this legend than in reality. There is something people can take away.
Stoddard must keep on knowing his career hinges on a lie, and the real ‘man who shot Liberty Valance’ dies in obscurity. It might not be that Ford is advocating for the “legend,” but that he’s saying this is how it happens, the legend usually wins out over fact.
Up Next: Rio Bravo (1959), Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans (1927), Transit (2018)