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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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All the Great, Grand, Glorious Heroes of the Revolution: Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker

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Director Sergio Leone is credited with re-inventing the western film genre by presenting a more graphically violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. Despite his never having visited the United States and not being able to speak English, Leone created western heroes, villains, and films that changed the genre forever. Paying tribute to Hollywood’s westerns while, at the same time, significantly humanizing them, Leone’s characters, heroic or villainous, are dirty, sweaty, and unshaven. It is often difficult to determine which are the heroes and which the villains in Leone’s films since all his characters are “morally ambiguous… [either] generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation [demands].” The relationships of Leone’s characters “[revolve] around power” and are emotionally, rather than politically, driven.

In Leone’s second major trilogy of thematically connected films, sometimes called the Once Upon a Time trilogy — Once Up a Time in the West; Duck, You Sucker (also titled, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, or A Fistful of Dynamite); and Once Upon a Time in America, the setting is not always the American Old West, and Leone concentrates more on the “rituals preceding violence than on the violence itself.” In Leone’s first trilogy of Westerns, the Dollars Trilogy, the protagonist doesn’t change, although those around him often do, if only because of his violent acts. In the Once Upon a Time trilogy, instead of there being a single protagonist, who is most often considered the “hero” of the story though he is neither moral nor “good,” there are at least two protagonists, and they do change during the course of each individual film’s story, which is “unusual” for Leone characters.

Though they might initially oppose each other, these protagonists are even less clearly defined along the traditional lines of good/evil or hero/villain or even protagonist/antagonist. The female, who was intimately connected with the two protagonists’ battle in Once Upon a Time in the West, has completley disappeared in Duck, You Sucker (1971): the story focuses only on its male protagonists.

The moral journey of the emotionally complex protagonists in Duck, You Sucker occurs despite — or perhaps because of — all the guns, explosions, and battles during a revolution, but Leone’s protagonists are not even conscious of their changing behavior or natures.  These two men are trying to survive outside the political situation around them. For them, and for the film’s viewers, the Mexican Revolution is mere backdrop. Duck, You Sucker is, instead, a biting examination of racism, class differences, imperialism, and the violence that is sometimes used in an futile attempt to achieve permanent social and moral equality.

Rod Steiger and James Coburn, as Juan and John, respectively, in Duck, You Sucker ©

Despite the film’s constantly being edited to remove scenes considered too politically sensitive, too violent, or filled with too much profanity; despite its being marketed variously as a comedy or a satire of westerns rather than as a drama; and despite its rather strange original title, which is apparently a bad translation of the Italian Giù la Testa (Duck your Head), and its subsequent release under various other titles such as A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, this film is one of Leone’s best. Its exploration of the individual vs. society, loyalty to personal codes of conduct and honor vs. obligation to fellow man, and private vs. political justice is moving and powerful.

Rod Steiger as Juan Miranda, Duck, You Sucker ©

In a rural desert, a dirty, barefoot, obviously poor Mexican peasant waits at an isolated stop for the stage. Though the driver is intially reluctant to allow the peasant to board, despite his offering to pay for this passage, the driver decides it would be a good joke to put the dirty man aboard with the wealthy patrons. Inside, the others immediately insult and criticize the peasant, talking about him as if he were unable to hear or understand what they are saying. Along the road, the stage is ambushed by armed bandits, and the peasant is revealed as their leader, Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), who immediately takes revenge against the wealthy, upper-class patrons.

Rod Steiger (forefront) as Juan, Duck, You Sucker ©

Before Miranda and his gang have left the scene with the stolen stagecoach, they are distracted by explosions and the subsequent arrival of a motorcyle-riding stranger. Miranda disables the motorcycle and attempts to rob its driver, but is confronted by a man more cool-headed and cold-blooded than himself: Irish political terrorist turned mercenary, Seán (John) Mallory (James Coburn).

James Coburn as Seán (John) Mallory, Duck, You Sucker ©

In the violent struggle that ensues, the two men vainly attempt to outwit and physically master each other. When it’s clear that Irish John cannot be intimidated or emotionally manipulated, Juan decides he can use John’s skills to fulfill his own life’s dream of succesfully robbing the biggest bank Juan’s ever heard of, the Mesa Verde National Bank.

Romolo Valli as Dr. Villega, Duck, You Sucker ©

In Mesa Verde, the two begin working together, although unbeknownst to Juan, John’s motives are quite different from his own. In a secret meeting, Juan is introduced to one of the revolutionary leaders, Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli, above), who wants to overthrow the corrupt and tyrannical local governor, Don Jaime (Franco Graziosi, below), and change Mexico’s entire social structure.

Poster of Franco Graziosi as Governor Don Jaime, Duck, You Sucker ©

Enter, stage-right: an even more powerful and dangerous opponent, Colonel Günther Reza —Gutierez Ruiz in English versions — (Antoine Saint-John), the ruthless German leader of a detachment of Mexican Federales.

Antoine Saint-John Colonel Günther/Gutierez Reza/Ruiz, Duck, You Sucker ©

Though sometimes considered the film’s antagonist, Reza/Ruiz’s character is completely undeveloped, which makes it clear that he is not important enough to be the antagonist. Reza/Ruiz functions merely as a catalyst for the evolution and moral development of Juan, John, and, in a minor capacity, Dr. Villega. Even Villega, though his character is important enough to be slightly developed, is really only vital to the story because of his treachery toward the major protagonists, Juan and John, and how his betrayal changes them.

James Coburn as John, and Rod Steiger as Juan, Duck, You Sucker ©

The story of this brief moment in the Mexican Revolution is interwoven with flashbacks revealing John’s time in Ireland fighting the British government. Featuring a former comrade and the women whom both men loved, these flashbacks have no dialogue: only a musical soundtrack.

John’s former comrade Nolan (David Warbeck); Colleen (Vivienne Chandler), the woman they both loved; and Seán/John (James Coburn, in Ireland, in flashbacks only, Duck, You Sucker ©

 

Apparently, this time, in Mexico, John wants to get the revolution right. Meanwhile, Juan only wants revenge against everyone for his own poverty and illiteracy. The story’s violence increases, but begets nothing except more horrific violence, more betrayal, more death.

Rod Steiger as Juan, and James Coburn as John, Duck, You Sucker ©

When finally offered a chance to take hold of his dreams, “Chicken-Thief” Juan and “Firecracker” John each realizes that he no longer wants what he once most desired. Each discovers that he is not the man he once was, and that he must now make different moral and political choices, difficult and surprising as those choices may be.

The chemistry between Coburn and Steiger, as “John and Juan,” who eventually form a bond that forces each of their characters to evolve, is one of the things that makes Duck, You Sucker one of the best films ever made. The intellectual political terrorist John (Coburn) begins to see the human element in any revolution while the cynical and amoral Juan (Steiger) stops thinking only of himself and his own selfish gain, learning to care more about his family members as individuals, his relationship with his fellow man, and his country. From a relationship built on fear, intimidation, and coercion rises a relationship built on love, respect, and empathy.

Sergio Leone, Rod Steiger, and James Coburn, taking a break on set, Duck, You Sucker ©

Duck, You Sucker is available for rent ($2.99-$3.99 SD/HD) or purchase from Amazon,  iTunes, and Vudu.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Complex: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West

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If you know films, you know the work of director Sergio Leone, who is credited with re-inventing the western film genre with his “Spaghetti Westerns,” a sub-genre of Westerns directed by Italians and usually featuring a more graphically violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. Old West (“Frontier”) stories typically “[exaggerate] the romance, anarchy, and chaotic violence of the [latter half of the 19th century in the American West] for greater dramatic effect.” Without ever having visited the United States or even being able to speak English, Leone, who often co-wrote his films, created western heroes, villains, and films that would change the genre forever. Beginning with his classic A Fistful of Dollars, the first of the Dollars (or Man with No Name) Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, Leone paid tribute to Hollywood’s westerns while, at the same time, significantly humanizing them.

In Leone westerns, the heroes do not wear white hats, nor the villains, black, as was the Hollywood tradition. Leone’s characters do not wear designer outfits, and, whether heroic or villainous, his characters look dirty, sweat profusely, and rarely shave. Leone’s characters are more well-rounded human beings, with both “good” and “evil” traits, making them more complex and interesting. In fact, it is often difficult to determine which characters are the heroes and which the villains in Leone’s films since all characters are “morally ambiguous… appearing generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation [demands].” Further, the relationships of all Leone’s characters “[revolve] around power” — not around familial or romantic love — and “retributions [are] emotion-driven rather than conscience-driven.”

In Leone’s Dollars Trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — the protagonist, played in each by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t change, although his violent acts often alter the natures of those around him, making them either more dangerous and desperate, or more reflective and compassionate. In Leone’s second major trilogy of thematically connected films, sometimes called the Once Upon a Time Trilogy — Once Up a Time in the West, Duck, You Sucker (originally titled, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution), a western set in Mexico during its revolution, and Once Upon a Time in America, a crime drama about organized crime in New York — the same actor does not play the major protagonist in every film and the setting is not always the American Old West. Instead of the films’ being somewhat quirky and upbeat, the films in this second trilogy are slower paced and thematically darker.

In this second trilogy, Leone concentrates more on the “rituals preceding violence” than on the violence itself, which may have been why some critics and viewers called “slow” scenes in which not much happens. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) marked a new phase in the style of Leone’s films as well as a new phase in his character development. The protagonists in these films, who are even less clearly defined along the traditional lines of good/evil or hero/villain, actually do change during the course of each individual film’s story, which is “unusual” for Leone characters. Because of its protagonists’ attempts to become different though not necessarily better people, Once Up a Time in the West is one of Leone’s best films and one of the greatest westerns. Its characters are so morally complex that critics and viewers often list it as one of the “greatest films of all time,” not just one of the greatest westerns.

The story of Once Up a Time in the West may seem predictable, with its Old West tropes of wealthy, land-grabbing villain going after the defenseless, newly widowed homesteader, but it is the shootists on opposite sides of this battle that are the film’s triumph. These shootists (sometimes called “gunslingers” or “gunfighters”) are so fascinating and disturbing that they justifiably become the story’s focal point. Instead of viewers’ caring about who wins the land-battle, they become more interested in the shootists and how their characters change.

opening gunfight in Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film opens with a stunning scene: three men (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock) terrorize people at a train station and then wait to ambush a traveller. Their target (Charles Bronson), who has no name throughout the film but who is called “Harmonica” because he often plays one.

Charles Bronson as Harmonica, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Harmonica has arrived to keep an appointment with someone named “Frank” who is not at the train station. The resulting shoot-out between Harmonica and the three shootists is the first indication that this film is different from Leone’s previous westerns. Harmonica is wounded during the shoot-out: he is not invincible.

Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at an isolated homestead, a widower and his family are massacred. In one of the most startling Reveals in film history, viewers are introduced to Frank (Henry Fonda), a shootist and one of the most heinous villains ever. Frank has been ordered to scare Landowner McBain and his children into leaving so his boss can acquire the land. Instead, Frank kills them all.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

That is, Frank kills all the family except Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who has just arrived via train from New Orleans and who has become the landowner by default due to her recent secret marriage with the now-deceased McBain.

Jason Robards as Cheyenne, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at a roadhouse where Jill is awaiting transportation to her new home, Harmonica, who is pursuing Frank without knowing what he looks like, informs an escaped prisoner Cheyenne (Jason Robards) about the ambush at the railroad-station. The killers dressed like members of Cheyenne’s gang. Because Cheyenne himself has been accused of the McBain massacre, where the killers also wore the his gang’s characteristic dusters, Cheyenne must find out what happened.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, and Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film’s violence increases as the lives and interests of Widow Jill, Shootist Frank, No-Name Harmonica, and Prisoner Cheyenne now all converge on the McBain homestead. Cruelty, betrayal, (implied) sexual violence, and murder become so commonplace that the violence itself becomes less interesting than the natures of the protagonists themselves. For the film’s characters and its viewers, the initial McBain massacre — as well as the reason behind it — becomes merely a metaphorical footnote in the “real story” of Once Upon a Time in the West: how these characters themselves will change because of their interactions with each other.

Fonda was originally hesitant about taking the role of the murderous Frank — of the the wittiest and most caustic villains ever created — and did not accept Leone’s initial offer. After talking to his best friend Eli Wallach, who had worked with Leone in his classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and who told Fonda he’d have the time of his life working with Leone on a film, Fonda accepted the part.

Henry Fonda as his blue eyes as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

He showed up for filming with facial hair and brown contacts, believing that his fans would more easily accept him as the bad guy if he looked different than he did in his other films. Leone insisted that Fonda shave and that, furthermore, his piercing blue eyes were necessary to symbolize the “cold, icy nature of the killer.” Fonda, cast against type, became one of the first lead actors to play a villain in a western.

Hugely popular in Europe on its release, though performing poorly in US markets — perhaps due to editorial cuts which were later restored to American versions in directors’ cuts — Once Upon a Time in the West is now considered to be a masterpiece and one the “greatest films ever made,” often ranked in the Top 100 lists of Best Westerns, Best Action, or Best Films.

Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) or purchase from Amazon (free with 7-day Starz trial), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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