Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Man Who Really Shot Liberty Valance

I've never really been a John Wayne fan.

While he was living, I suppose I could have been called a casual fan — if such a thing exists. I didn't watch many of his movies — as opposed to some of my friends, who saw them all.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call me a selective fan.

(On the other hand, maybe that is nothing more than semantic gymnastics.)

Anyway, today is the 50th anniversary of the theatrical release of one of my absolute favorite John Wayne movies — John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" — and the thing that I like about it is that, in the end, it turns out that John Wayne was not the man anyone thought.

Oh, he was a rancher named Tom Doniphon, of that there was no doubt, and, as the movie opened, there was also no doubt of something else. He was as dead as a doornail.

But it turned out that he hadn't really been the man people thought he was.

The movie paired Wayne with Jimmy Stewart for the first (but not the last) time. Stewart played an aging senator who returned to the western town where they had met as young men for Wayne's funeral.

While paying his respects, Stewart was asked to sit down for an interview with a local reporter, and he proceeded to tell the story of their friendship through a series of flashbacks.

In spite of being two very different personalities, Stewart and Wayne became friends. Stewart was the more cerebral of the two, a young lawyer with a commitment to justice and education. Wayne was the strong–and–mostly–silent type he often played, a man more given to action than words.

There was a third character without whom the stories of the other two would have had no real meaning — the character whose name appeared in the title, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He was a bully who manipulated and terrorized the town's residents.

The moment of truth finally arrived. Stewart's character agreed to face Valance in a gun duel, even though he wasn't very handy with a firearm. To everyone's surprise, including his own, Stewart killed Valance with a single shot.

Or, at least, he seemed to.

It was the clear turning point for Stewart's character. Now known as "the man who shot Liberty Valance," he rode his new reputation to a successful political career. By the time Wayne's character died, Stewart's character had been a senator twice and an ambassador once and was the apparent favorite for his party's nomination for vice president.

Wayne, meanwhile, lived his life in relative obscurity. Stewart also married the woman Wayne wanted (Vera Miles) so it was also a life of solitude.

And it was a life spent concealing a secret — Wayne was the man who actually shot Liberty Valance, but he persuaded Stewart to accept the credit and pursue his career in public service. His motivation? The happiness of the girl he loved — but who did not love him.

Stewart chose to reveal the truth during the interview, but the reporter chose not to print it and burned his notes instead. The truth remained known only to a few people in the movie — and to the audience.

(By the way, if you're one of those people who likes to do an unofficial imitation of Wayne's speaking style, it may interest you to know this was the movie in which he spoke of a "pilgrim."

"Whoa, take 'er easy there, Pilgrim," he says at one point, inspiring a generation of John Wayne imitators.)