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When Legend Becomes Fact: John Ford’s Classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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Westerns are an “indigenous American art form,” romanticizing and nostalgically eulogizing the geographical territory west of the Mississippi before it was “tamed.” Set in eras when the West was wild, rough, and wooly, the major protagonists in Westerns are typically divided into easy-to-identify categories of Good Guy and Bad Guy, complete with white and black hats, respectively, and these protagonists often fall into the most dreadful stereotypes. Law and order, or the lack thereof, is a typical theme, and these films are often set at isolated forts or homesteads, or in small towns that are just beyond the reaches of Eastern “civilization,” towns that have not yet been dramatically changed by the arrival of the railroad. Most Westerns feature “romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain,” all filmed in gorgeous technicolor.

When famed director John Ford decided to make The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a Western adapted from a short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson, and starring John Wayne and James Stewart, Ford chose to shoot the film in black-and-white, and he did so on a Paramount stage-set. Critic David Courson believes that these artistic decisions about location and film choice stemmed from Ford’s fundamentally “re-imagined” vision of the mythic West; a vision that was now “pensive and thoughtful,” according to film critic (Roger Ebert); a vision which, according to fellow Westerns director Sergio Leone, who was influenced by the film, revealed that Ford had “learned about something called pessimism.

James Stewart as Ranse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Whatever the reason for Ford’s newly imagined, more pessimistic vision of the West, his artistic changes were a critical and financial success. The film’s budget was $3.2M, and it earned $8M when it was released. Edith Head’s surprisingly understated costumes were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design (black-and-white), one of the few Westerns ever nominated for this category. With a cast of great stars and loads of marvelous character actors, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a one of the best classic Westerns. Despite its almost claustrophobic setting, the film examines the more expansive issues of frontier independence vs. civilization; social equality of men vs. that of women, children, and non-whites; and legal vs. moral justice vs. common sense, all while doggedly examining the role of myth in both culture and art.

James Stewart as Ranse, and Vera Miles as his wife, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

The film opens with a Senator Ransom (Ranse) Stoddard (James Stewart) returning, unannounced, to the frontier town of Shinbone for a funeral. While he’s there, the local reporters doggedly question the “famous man’s” return to the wilderness, which they believe must have some other purpose than his attending a mere funeral. Senator Stoddard agrees to tell them the story of his past, taking viewers into the flashback that will form the bulk of the film.

Lee Marvin (center) as Liberty Valance, with his gang members, played by Lee Van Cleef (L) and Strother Martin (R ), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Ranse, a young attorney who goes West as a young man, hopes to bring civilization as well as law and order to whatever town he settles in and sets up his legal practice. He’s a greenhorn and a dude with an education, and when the stagecoach is robbed by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, above center) and his gang (Lee Van Cleef (L) and Strother Martin(R), above), the idealistic and naïve Ransom Stoddard is beaten and whipped, almost to death.

John Wayne as Tom Doniphon (Donovan), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

A local rancher, Tom Doniphon (pronounced “Donovan”) (John Wayne) finds the badly injured Ranse and takes him to town for help.

Vera Miles as Hallie, and Woody Strode as Pompey (foreground), Jeanette Nolan as Nora and John Qualen as Peter (background), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

While his injuries are being tended by Hallie (Vera Miles) and her Swedish-immigrant employers Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and Peter (John Qualen), Ranse urges them to send for the local Marshal (Andy Devine, below L) so that Valance can be arrested.

Andy Devine as the Marshal, and Woody Strode as Pompey, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Everyone present, but most notably Tom, tells Ranse that Liberty Valance has no respect for the law, understanding only violence, brute force, and retaliation, but Ranse refuses to listen, insisting that he can get justice for his injuries and the stagecoach attack.

James Stewart as Ranse, and Vera Miles as Hallie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Without any money, Ranse is forced to accept the hospitality of the restauranterus Nora and Peter, so he does kitchen chores to repay them for lodging and meals. When Ranse learns that waitress Hallie can neither read nor write, he offers to teach her — and anyone else who wishes to learn.

Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, and Lee Marvin (L-R) as Liberty and his gang The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Then Liberty Valance and his gang come into the restaurant, mocking the apron-wearing “dude” Ranse, and setting up a violent confrontation among Ranse, Liberty, Tom, and the newspaper editor Peabody (Edmond O’Brien).

James Stewart as Ranse, Edmond O’Brien as Peabody, and John Wayne as Tom, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

As a sort of unofficial protector of the townspeople due to his own shooting skills, which are at least equal to those of Liberty Valance, Tom teaches Ranse to shoot, expecting that Ranse will be able to defend himself against the notorious Valance.

John Wayne as Tom, and James Stewart as Ranse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Meanwhile, Hallie, who is being courted by Tom, begins to have feelings for Ranse as well as for Tom, setting up yet another arena for disaster and tragedy in Shinbone. To make matters even worse, the Territory in which Shinbone is located wants to be granted Statehood, to help protect itself against the cattle barons, who have apparently hired the notorious Liberty Valance to sabotage the town’s efforts.

James Stewart as Ranse, Lee Marvin as Liberty, and John Wayne as Tom, (with Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin as Liberty’s gang, background), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

The initial conflict among Ranse, Liberty, and Tom intensifies and becomes political, endangering not only Ranse’s life but the physical safety and the lives of everyone who has befriended him in the town. Liberty Valance is not going to step aside without a gunfight, and Ranse, who’s not much of a shootist, is the man in Liberty’s sights.

Star-studded entertainment, with just enough humor to keep the film a drama without turning it into a tragedy, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) or purchase from Amazon (free with a 7-day Starz subscription), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu, and is always free for Starz subscribers.

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I’m Your Huckleberry: 5 More Top Westerns

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The Magnificent Seven (original) ©

Most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are usually considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing the iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. Sometimes called “Spaghetti Westerns” and sometimes classified as “Action & Adventure,” all these films still resonate with elements that make the Western iconic in Hollywood, and imitated worldwide.

My top Western films and mini-series are sometimes set in the American West; often they are not. But their characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, but they end honestly, with the finale of the movie developing out of the characters’ natures, their conflicts, and the decisions they’ve made previously.

And, yes, Deadwood — the series — is one of my favorite Westerns of all times, and can read about it in detail in No One Gets Out Alive, but it’s a series, and I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere. This group of five westerns originally appeared in a post about 10 films, but I shortened that post to update it, including trailers and availability, and so that people might have a chance to explore the films without feeling overwhelmed. The top five films are in I Ain’t Like That No More: Top 5 Westerns. Here are the remaining of my five top Western films.


Red River
(1948)

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John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and Walter Brennan, Red River ©

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big John Wayne fan. Whether Hollywood pushed him into “The Duke” mold or whether audiences simply preferred that role, many of Wayne’s films portray him playing basically the same character. (That kind of thing always leads the viewer to wonder if the actor is acting or just being himself.) But Wayne’s early work in Westerns was much more daring as well as varied. In fact, he should have received Oscar nominations for quite a few of his early Westerns, rather than the token one he received (and won) for playing Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.

One of Wayne’s finest roles and one of his best Westerns is 1948’s Red River, directed by Howard Hawks.

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John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, Red River ©

Starring Walter Brennan (Groot) and Montgomery Clift (Matt) along with John Wayne (Dunson), Red River is a fictional account of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. As a boy, Matt — sole survivor of an Indian attack — joins Dunson’s group and is adopted by Dunson. Though Matt is his adopted adult son, Dunson is continually forcing Matt to prove himself, leading to many conflicts, as well as to a split in the group on the cattle-drive.

Dunson is tyrannical and angry; Matt, who is fair and stalwart, rebels, taking many men with him. Dunson sends a posse after the group, intending to force his authority on all of them, but especially on his adopted son. The final showdown is stunning and effective.

Red Riversome of the best acting that Wayne and Clift ever did, is available for rent, starting at $2.99, from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube. Free for Starz subscribers.


Open Range

(2003)

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Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall, Open Range ©

Beginning as a relatively quiet film that deals with free-grazing, or individuals or small groups with small herds grazing on public lands, and who come into conflict with larger corporations or ranchers who want the land exclusively for themselves, Open Range (2003, directed by Costner) is a powerful statement on individual rights, expansion in the west, land ownership, and power.

Kevin Costner (Charley) and Robert Duvall (“Boss”) as the free-ranging partners are the principals, with an excellent supporting cast which includes Annette Benning as the town Doctor’s sister Sue, who becomes Charley’s love interest, and Michael Gambon as the ruthless and powerful Irish immigrant rancher Baxter who “don’t want no free-grazers” and uses violence and murder to terrorize them into leaving the area.

Though Boss, Charley, Sue, and other characters don’t seek violence, it becomes inevitable as they must defend their lives, property, freedom, and individual rights, which incorporates many of the themes of the most enduring Westerns.

Open Range, which was both a critical and box-office success, is available for rent ($2.99-3.99)  from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.


Tombstone
(1993)

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Bill Paxton, Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, and Val Kilmer, Tombstone ©

Concentrating on the story of the Earp family — all three brothers and their wives — and Doc Holliday after their move to Tombstone AZ, this movie usually ranks high in any Western “Top Ten” list, not just because of the historical characters and events, but because of its fine acting and production values.

Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) convinces his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) to join him “for retirement” in Tombstone, where Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer, in his Oscar-winning, and most brilliant career performance) is already settled and winning outrageous amounts at gambling.

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Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, Tombstone ©

The Earp brothers “acquire” interest in their own gambling establishment, and seem only to want to make money and live comfortably with their wives. Their gunslinger pasts, however, cause them to come into conflict with a red-sashed gang, The Cowboys, and with the Dalton Gang. Once the Earps become lawmen, they are bound for the historical confrontation at the OK Corral.

The film’s unique and interesting interpretation of historical characters and events, along with plenty of action and love interest, make it worth watching. But Kilmer’s Oscar-winning performance as Doc Holliday is mesmerizing. Tombstone is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.


The Magnificent Seven
(1960)

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Cast of The Magnificent Seven, including from L to R, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn (4th), Charles Bronson (5th), and James Coburn (last) ©

Based on Japanese filmmaker’s Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, these seven are transformed into gunslingers and hired to protect a small Mexican village from a notorious bandit who is extorting money, livestock, and grain from the villagers, leaving them to starve. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn are among the magnificent seven, each of whom has a past he’s running away from.

Though notorious or shady in their previous lives, they are convinced to help protect the villagers for virtually no pay whatsoever, reluctantly showing their moral side as the film progresses.

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Eli Wallach, The Magnificent Seven ©

As the seven teach the villagers to defend themselves against the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his gang, the 7 become emotionally attached to their charges. Some of the scenes with the young boys and Charles Bronson’s character are among the most amusing yet moving.

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The Magnificent Seven ©

Set to a rousing score by Elmer Bernstein, the film embodies the iconic Western theme of the strong protecting the weak, and landowners (or townspeople) defending themselves against villainous intruders (or outsiders).

McQueen was apparently envious of Brynner’s mega-stardom [from The King and I] and was constantly trying to upstage him, even standing on his tiptoes to be taller than Brynner [who was shorter than McQueen in any event]. Producers eventually supplied a box for Brynner to stand on when they were in set scenes together, to prevent McQueen’s antics. The Magnificent Seven is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon and YouTube. Free for Starz subscribers.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(1966)

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, top to bottom, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef ©

No list of great Western films would be complete without Sergio Leone’s classic “Spaghetti Western” (because shot by the Italian director) The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, supposedly represented by Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach), and Angel Eyes (Lee van Cleef), respectively, as each searches for stolen and buried Confederate gold during the American Civil War. They need each other because none has the complete list of clues as to the gold’s burial place.

As you might guess, nobody trusts anyone in this film, least of all the three protagonists who, despite the title and the heavy-handed identification as “good,” “bad,” and “ugly,” are actually all comprised of those characteristics. This combination of good, bad, and ugly in each of the major protagonists makes them some of the most fascinating characters in any Western.

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Lee Van Cleef (back to camera), Eli Wallach (kneeling), and Clint Eastwood, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly ©

Besides many memorable images and music, Eli Wallach supposedly improvised one of the film’s most famous lines. While bathing, his character is confronted by other gunslingers who argue with him about revealing the gold’s location, and explain repeatedly that they’re going to kill him if he doesn’t reveal it. Wallach’s Tuco raises his gun out of the murky bathwater and kills them all, stating afterward to their corpses: “If you’re going to shoot, shoot: don’t talk.” (In interviews, Wallach still expresses surprise that such a simple line garnered so much attention.)

The final showdown and gunfight in the cemetery, accompanied by an unforgettable score by the venerable Ennio Morricone, make The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly a classic. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

Related Posts

It Ain’t How You’re Buried That’s Important:
3 Western Coming-of-Age Films

I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
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No One Gets Out Alive:
Why You Need to Watch HBO’s Deadwood

Deadwood Strikes Gold!
Again! Still!

The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
Though It Tries to Be

My Favorite Film & TV Villains

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Filed under Actors, Classic Films, Classics, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Historical Drama, Movies/Films, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Westerns

“If you’re going to shoot, shoot: don’t talk”: Top 10 Westerns

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My original Top 10 Westerns post If You’re Going to Shoot, Shoot: Don’t Talk is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:

We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and

I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

Related Posts

It Ain’t How You’re Buried That’s Important:
3 Western Coming-of-Age Films

I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
More Great Westerns

No One Gets Out Alive:
Why You Need to Watch HBO’s Deadwood

Deadwood Strikes Gold!
Again! Still!

The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
Though It Tries to Be

My Favorite Film & TV Villains

Share Button

Leave a Comment

Filed under Actors, Movies/Films, Movies/Television