Tag Archive: John Wayne


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When I think of John Ford, I think of the wide open Western expanses that define practically every shot of classics like The Searchers. When I think of John Wayne movies, I think of the straightforward moralism of The Cowboys. When I think of James Stewart (barring the final act of Vertigo), I think of the archetypal “Aw, shucks” All-American of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, when all three combine to make such a jarringly out-of-character film for all involved, it should be no secret that I found The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be among the most interesting of the “classic” Westerns this side of High Noon.

Far more a commentary on the death of the Wild West than a traditional oater, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is unlike any Western of the era or, honestly, any other film of John Ford’s career. Removing itself from the iconic Western vistas that are Ford’s metier and placing itself in crowded homes and claustrophobic streets, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance captures the transformation of the West from a lawless frontier to the first stirrings of civilization and law & order. And most surprisingly of all, the film has something honest and fresh to say on ethics that remains fresh 52 years later.

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After his stagecoach is robbed by the brutal bandit and bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and he’s beaten within an inch of his life, East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is rescued by the rough but generally decent gunslinger and rancher Tom Doniphan (The Longest Day‘s John Wayne). Ransom has had every penny to his name and every last worldly possession stolen by the untouchable Liberty Valance and as he has to start from scratch to recover his assets and make a name for himself in the dangerous town of Shinbone.

Shinbone’s Marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is a fat, slovenly coward and even though everybody in town knows Liberty Valance is a crook and a murderer, he won’t lift a finger to bring him to justice. Tom is the only man in town with enough nerve and talent with a gun to stand up to Liberty, but Liberty knows well enough to stay out of Tom’s way to avoid taking a bullet from him. But Ransom wants Liberty brought to justice. However, unlike every other Western hero ever, justice to ransom doesn’t mean a shoot out in the streets. It means a trial and jail. But, in a town without a competent criminal justice system, Tom’s way of the bullet could be the only true answer.

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The film’s framing device is that decades later, Ransom Stoddard has returned to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Ransom is now a U.S. Senator and he could be the Vice-President of the United States if he wished. And, through a story given to a local newspaperman, we hear the real story of the legend that shot him into political stardom. But, in actuality, it gives the film an example to delve into one of the most important philosophical debates of all time: What is more valuable, truth or results? And, to an extent, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes down on the utilitarian side of that equation.

I can’t explore those themes too deeply without ruining the film (although, considering the fact that it’s 52 years old, I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I did), but time and time again, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves itself to be more psychologically and philosophically minded than the vast majority of its late 50s/early 60s peers. The film is essentially an argument that the American West that Ford himself helped to mythologize in the American conscious had to end, and that the typical John Wayne heroes of the past didn’t have a place in the modern world.

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James Stewart plays a character that is simultaneously a deconstruction of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington typical Stewart idealist as well as an argument for why society needs men like him. I’ve probably said this before on this blog, but James Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors (not necessarily one of the ones I think is the best), and along with Vertigo, this is certainly one of his most complex and demanding roles. And as we Ransom struggling to balance his desire for law & order and due process against the brutal realities of the old West, Stewart captures all of the character’s frustration and desperation.

John Wayne and Lee Marvin also shine in the two primary supporting roles (even if Wayne gets top billing in the film, Ransom is the main character). Tom may ultimately be a good man, but he’s also a bitter roughneck who isn’t afraid to be a bully when he needs to make a point. Along with The Searchers, it’s one of the more complicated characters of Wayne’s usually pure white hat career. And Lee Marvin might not have the most fully-written character in the titular Liberty Valance, but he makes the man drip venom and anger, and he steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s not afraid to chew the scenery a little bit.

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I wrote half of this review last night and True Detective is coming on in five minutes (seriously, watch that show; it’s the best new HBO show since The Wire and easily the best show on TV right now) so I’ll draw this review to a close. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Western that even non-Western fans can get behind. In fact, it’s so drama-driven that fans of more traditional, action-driven old West epics may find it to be a bit of a bore. But for everyone with an open mind for the possibilities of Western storytelling, it’s a must see classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A-

 

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The moral spectrum of pre-Clint Eastwood Westerns (High Noon being a notable exception) is fairly easy to delineate. The criminals wear black hats; the heroes wear white hats; and all is right at the end of the day. If there are Indians, they are the bad guys as well. 1953’s Hondo attempts to be a thematically complex film in the vein of High Noon, and while what it believes to be its own enlightened attitude is actually dated and somewhat offensive by today’s standards, Hondo‘s take on the eternal Western conflict between white settles and Native Americans is years ahead of its time. With a constantly surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, despite their place as the film’s villains, Hondo is a frustrating film that makes steps forward in Native American portrayal in American cinema while also still indulging in racist Hollywood stereotypes.

John Wayne (The Searchers) plays “Hondo” Lane, a half-Apache loner making a living riding dispatch for the United States army in the Western territories as the peace treaty between the U.S. and the Apache has fallen apart because the U.S. broke the treaty and killed Apache without cause. After being ambushed by an Apache patrol, Hondo loses his horse and wanders on foot with his loyal dog Sam into the ranch of abandoned wife Angie Lowe (The Pope of Greenwich Village‘s Geraldine Page) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker). Angie’s husband is a worthless layabout and months ago he left Angie and Johnny behind to drink and gamble away his days in a nearby town, leaving Angie to the mercy of any natives who would happen upon her ranch.

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Despite Hondo’s warnings to abandon their ranch because the Apache are on the warpath, Angie and her son stay and Hondo rides off to continue his job. In his absence, an Apache war party led by the noble Vittorio (Michael Pate) invades the Lowe ranch. Angie tries to invoke the friendly relationship her family has had with the Apache in the past but it is to no avail. She and her son are only saved when her son tries to kill one of the Apache warriors to save his mother. Vittorio recognizes the courage of the young boy and makes him an official Apache warrior and leaves mother and son in peace though he tells Angie that she has until the next planting season to choose an Apache husband. And when Hondo realizes that the Lowe’s are in the path of the Apache, he makes his way back towards their ranch with Angie’s jealous husband in his wake.

I say that this film is progressive for the early 1950s but still terribly offensive by modern standards because it gives context for the Apache being pissed off and murdering people as well as creating an almost heroic Apache figure, but it also indulges in many of the worst “noble savage” stereotypes of Western storytelling and once Vittorio disappears from the film, the Apache devolve into a crazed murderous horde with seemingly no direction. But, when Vittorio is around and he’s testing both the Lowe family as well as the values of the half-Apache Hondo, the film seems like it actually has something to say. That thematic energy not only disappears upon his second act death, but the film loses any sense of context or meaning.

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Geraldine Page was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, and although I don’t know if I thought there was anything particularly Oscar-worthy about her performance, she was certainly a better performer than John Wayne. The only thing John Wayne’s ever had going for him was presence, and unlike The Searchers, he doesn’t get the opportunity to put his presence to a more subversive effect. The film also has Gunsmoke‘s James Arness in a smaller bit part, and it was clear just from his few lines that he was going to be somebody later on. John Wayne’s status as one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons has always been something that’s confused me. He’s not a great actor or even a particularly good one, and Hondo most certainly doesn’t rank in the top tier of Wayne roles.

Hondo starts off ponderously slow although it does thankfully take that time to establish the details of life on the Lowe farm as well as Hondo’s past living with the Apache. The action does eventually kick up once Hondo leaves the farm for the first time and realizes that Angie and Johnny being in danger isn’t something he can turn his back on (especially since her husband won’t be doing anything to help them). And for a while, Hondo becomes a surprisingly enjoyable old-fashioned oater. But, it sadly falls apart by the film’s end and the progressive stances it was trying to make early on become merely an interesting afterthought in the story of Hondo. For fans of Westerns, it’s worth a watch. Everybody else can skip out.

Final Score: B-

 

Trying to make a war film that is neither jingoistic propaganda or patent exploitation of historical tragedy is a very fine balancing act. During Hollywood’s history, there have been far, far too many movies about military conflict that are just clear-cut propaganda supporting the conflict that don’t even begin to look at the actual details of what brought us to this war in the first place or to place you inside the mindsets of the men fighting the war. They are just made to glorify battle and to satisfy the public that our men aren’t dying for no reason. This hasn’t been as common post-Vietnam (when war films became increasingly anti-war), but before that, it’s hard to find a single war movie that wasn’t meant to glorify battle. The second problem (exploiting historical maladies to make a film for entertainment) is the more common modern issue. Unless you are opening your audience’s eyes to something many people didn’t even know existed or you’re creating a genuinely original artifact or thematic statement, why rehash ideas that have grown completely old and stale. You’re simply making money off of other’s people past suffering, and where is the art in that?

1962’s The Longest Day doesn’t actually suffer from either of those problems (though it encounters others). This three hour long epic look at the D-Day invasion (whether this is the sea landing at Normandy or the parachutists landing behind enemy lines) tries to paint the complete picture of that day through stories told through the eyes of the Americans, the French, the British, and every surprisingly sympathetic Germans. So, there’s certainly a certain air of patriotism to the film and a focus on some of the heroism of not just our soldiers but of every nation fighting in the battle, but the film never tries to beat you over the head with a jingoistic pro-America message. Similarly, although the film came out 20 years after World War II, it’s safe to say that it’s detailed and specific approach to capturing the historical reality of what was happening in a scale that no one had tried to capture before means it wasn’t exploiting that horrific day. American audiences deserved to know what happened and film is our most universal storytelling format. It hadn’t been done to death yet. However, as I said, despite avoiding those two pitfalls of military storytelling, The Longest Day fails to live up to the standards set by modern military films like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers which covered similar ground in a much more effective manner.

To the film’s credit, it has one of the most impressive and star-studded casts in the history of cinema. To wit, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Robert Wagner, Richard Burton, Sal Mineo, Rod Steiger, and I’m sure there were other big names that I missed when I watched the ending credits. This would be like if a movie had George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise, and Clint Eastwood all in one place today. It would never happen. No movie could afford that kind of budget for actors, but back then, epics in the vein of Cecil B. Demille were a little more common and thus this fantastic pairing was allowed to occur. It’s a shame that none of their characters have any memorable traits and that I literally don’t know the name of a single person in this film besides historical figures like Omar Bradley and Eisenhower. Everyone else is so one-dimensional and forgettable that I never took the time to remember who was who, why they were killing the specific Nazis they were fighting, or one single characteristic of their role other than things I associate with all of their parts (John Wayne is a bad-ass, Henry Fonda is dashing, etc).

As a history lesson, the movie is a success. As a movie with real artistic value, it’s pretty distinct failure. History buffs will assuredly delight in all of the locations that are named, all of the historical and (I’m assuming) accurately re-enacted battles. Real generals and lieutenants and other soldiers from the battle are named and ranked and we see how they lived or died (or both). There are lots of interesting tidbits about what was happening on the German side of the equation that led to us being able to pull this massive gambit off (mainly we caught them with their pants down and they made several strategic mistakes). Unless you’ve already went out and learned as much as you can about Project Overlord (I think that was the code name for the Normandy Invasion and what came after), you are guaranteed to learn something new about World War II from The Longest Day. However, if I want to watch a documentary about WW II, I’ll find something that Ken Burns made (I think his WWII documentary was called The War). I want to watch a film and create emotional connections with the action unfolding on screen, and in that regard, The Longest Day was colder than my NYC apartment without the heat on (which is to say what’s happening right now. I’m freezing my ass off).

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the gritty and graphic realism of Saving Private Ryan, but The Longest Day was just a little too soft. I understand that by the film code of the day, they couldn’t make it as violent and real as Saving Private Ryan, but if I judge the film by modern standards, you can’t make a serious war film that is rated G (which this movie is). I felt as if I was watching some History channel re-enactment and I never once connected with the action on screen other than bemoaning the sad sacrifices that this world had to go through to take down fascism. Maybe I should judge the film as a product of it’s times (where it would probably have seemed much more groundbreaking), but it is almost laughably simple by today’s standards. There were exactly two moments in the film of real emotional impact (one was a man hanging helplessly from his parachute caught on a building as he watched all of his friends be massacred and the other was the second to last scene of the movie where two men simply talk about the apocalyptic violence of the day) and that was it. So, for all history and military buffs, you may enjoy this more than I did, but for everyone who wants a little life in their films, you can steer clear.

Final Score: C+