Release Date: May 19, 2009
Starring: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine and Ken Murray
Based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson
Screenplay by James Warner Bellah & Willis Goldbeck
Directed by: John Ford
”This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance embodies a palpable sense of melancholy, almost from the moment that the opening credits stop rolling. To be sure, this is not large-scale panorama of western adventure, or even a traditional good versus evil story. Instead, it can be seen as a look back at a moment that has ended, and that is no longer remembered in its true light. (In this way, the film is very much a precursor of Unforgiven.) Told in flashback, the story concerns the confrontation between young, idealistic lawyer Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and local outlaw Liberty Valance (a great, vicious performance by Lee Marvin) in the fictional town of Shinbone out west. As Stoddard attempts to bring some civility to the west, he is challenged both by Valance and by friendly rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) to resort to violence rather than reason. The inevitable result of this conflict is bitterly ironic, leaving Stoddard with the awful knowledge of what lies between the legend of the west and the fact of what actually happened. Constrained by budget, John Ford made the film in black and white on soundstages and local Hollywood ranches rather than at the Monument Valley locations he had preferred in the earlier years of his career. These constraints actually help the film, in that they focus the attention on the acting and the story rather than the spectacle. There is one major issue that holds the film back from being a complete classic – namely that Jimmy Stewart in his 50s is too old to be playing a 25 year old college graduate, and the film’s attempts to ignore this problem don’t make it go away. On the other hand, it’s an absolute pleasure to watch Stewart and Wayne play scenes together, something that had not happened before this film, and would only happen one other time, in The Shootist. The character performances throughout the film are also an absolute pleasure. And Lee Marvin is both electric and convincingly scary in the part of Valance.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is now in its second DVD release. The first release, in 2001, included the film and a trailer. This new version, #8 in Paramount’s Centennial Collection, offers a new transfer, a pair of commentaries and a new documentary about the making of the film. Fans of John Ford, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne will certainly want to add this to their collections without my prodding. More casual fans should absolutely take this opportunity to see the film if they haven’t already – and for that reason I recommend this title for purchase.
VIDEO QUALITY: 3/5
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer that vividly brings the black and white photography to life. It is a bit bright and soft for my tastes, but not to the point that it detracted from the experience of the film.
AUDIO QUALITY: 3/5
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in English, as well as mono mixes in English and Spanish. The 5.1 mix pretty much lives in the front speakers, with the dialogue clearly ringing through the center channel. The surrounds and subwoofer are rarely used, but that’s to be expected, as this isn’t designed to be an immersive film.
SPECIAL FEATURES: 3/5
The special features included here are spread over 2 discs. The first disc includes the film itself and two commentary tracks. The second disc includes a documentary on the making of the film, along with the film’s trailer and some stills galleries.
On Disc 1, we find:
Feature Commentary with Peter Bogdanovich, including archival recordings of John Ford and Jimmy Stewart - This is a scene-specific commentary, with Bogdanovich critiquing and discussing the elements of most scenes. Bogdanovich also includes various recorded interviews he did of Ford, Stewart and John Wayne. There’s a bit too much repetition of what we can already see onscreen, but there are plenty of gems as well. Many of the recordings can also be heard in the documentary on the 2nd disc.
Selected Scene Commentary by Dan Ford, including archival recordings of John Ford, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin– (22:44 Total) – Dan Ford, grandson of the great filmmaker, contributes his own recorded interviews as commentary to several scenes from the film. This feature has to be viewed separately from the film, in its own menu. The viewer can either play all the sections or just pick which ones are desired. As with the Bogdanovich recordings, much of this material can be heard in the documentary on the 2nd disc.
On Disc 2, we find:
The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth (50:55, Anamorphic) – SOME SPOILERS IN THIS FEATURE – WATCH THIS ONLY AFTER SEEING THE FILM! - This is a 7-part featurette that efficiently covers the making of the film, from John Ford’s attempts to get backing for it through the production, to its eventual reception. Various critics and family members of the principals are interviewed on-camera, buttressed by recorded interview material with John Ford, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin. Footage from the film is intercut with stills taken on the set of John Ford at work with the actors. This is a fairly honest piece of work – John Ford is not idealized here – he comes across as a fairly demanding director and a difficult person, both in the discussions about him, and in his own answers to Bogdanovich’s questions on the recordings. (At one point, he essentially tells Bogdanovich off, muttering “How many more questions you got, Pete? I’m getting bored as hell with this crap. Oh Jesus, no!”) For fans of John Ford or this film, this is a helpful documentary. It is a welcome addition to the library of “Film School in a Box” documentaries we have been lucky to receive over the years with the advent of laserdisc and DVD.
Trailer (2:43, Anamorphic) – The original theatrical trailer for the film is included here. It shows its age, to be sure, but it’s interesting to see. Of course, it pushes the Wayne/Stewart/Ford element right away, but would you expect anything else from an opportunity like this? As an interesting curiosity, the trailer also plugs the song written for the film but not used in it.
Galleries (Anamorphic) – Four galleries of stills are included here, one each for John Ford, Production, Publicity and Lobby Cards. Many of these are the photos seen in the documentary, but they’re also fun to see on their own.
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish for the film itself, as well as for the documentary. A standard chapter menu is included for quick reference.
IN THE END...
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an irresistible collectible in its current release as part of Paramount’s Centennial Collection. In one package, you get a solid film and a good lesson in film history. And if you haven’t already seen his films, you get a pretty good introduction to the world of John Ford. And as a closing note, this is the film that most firmly establishes John Wayne’s usage of the term “Pilgrim”, which he inflicts on Jimmy Stewart no less than 23 times!
May 21, 2009.