More than the usual John Wayne/John Ford vehicle, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance examines the often untold, sometimes shaming, truth behind the legendary heroes of the west—the sort of men Wayne spent his entire career playing. Here, the actor again plays the quintessential skilled gunman, with Jimmy Stewart as a fumbling and reserved lawyer who tries to bring law and order to the town of Shinbone. The film is bookended by Stewart as an old man, telling the story of the man who shot the outlaw Liberty Valance, with Lee Marvin marvelously playing the titular character with beady-eyed menace, snarling his famous opening line from behind a bandana with equal parts authority and venom: “Stand and deliver!”
For a film so often either referenced or parodied in later works (it’s here that Wayne regularly refers to Stewart as “pilgrim”), Liberty Valance has its mutton moments with hammy scenes involving Vera Miles crying over the fact that she can’t read and Stewart insisting he can teach her. But there’s something about Wayne’s on-screen performance that’s still captivating nearly half a century later. As a man who had spent, when this film was released in 1962, the better part of 30 years playing these kinds of characters, he seems a natural part of the western milieu, as much as the dusty plains ranging out in the distance. Likewise, Marvin holds his own opposite Duke, providing the sort of antagonist that would be cloned by other actors for decades to come—almost impersonated by Powers Boothe in his role as Curly Bill Brocius in 1994’s Tombstone. Stewart is cast in the unlucky role of playing middleman to these two heavyweight character actors, but the part seems tailor-made for an actor best known for his romantic comedies and as a Hitchcock everyman. Who else to play such a frustrated fish out of water?
Though Liberty Valance was panned by critics when it was first released, it went on to become a hallmark in every major player’s career, including Ford’s, and made Marvin a star. The film maintains itself as one of the most original western films ever made as Wayne, ever the on-screen hero, becomes a drunk by the third act, and Stewart, ever the scrawny second fiddle, turns out to lead the heroic life. It’s a Ford western that manages to turn the usual Ford western on its head by inverting these classic roles, and leaves the audience wondering if they would truly want to be the man who shot Liberty Valance.
Comparisons to the earlier release show this version is a bit brighter, but correctly so as details like stitching on dark coats can be seen for the first time. There’s no cropping or stretching evident, and the image contains sharp details with deep blacks. Audio is available in 5.1, but it’s an unimposing mix. The original mono mix is also thankfully included.
Peter Bogdanovich, who seems to have placed himself in the midst of every major director’s career, provides commentary for the feature with some great backstory on Ford and insight into the making of the picture. The addition of interview clips with Ford and Stewart fill things out nicely. The additional select-scene commentary is worth hearing, but much of it is repeated in the only bonus featurette, "The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth," which takes a close look at the making of the film and its historical context. Unlike other Centennial releases, the extras on this edition are minimal. The most disappointing aspect of this release is that while all the other major stars and the director are given a voice in the form of taped interviews, there are no interview clips featuring the film’s headlining star, John Wayne.
An excellent and thoroughly unFord-like Ford western.