Friday, 29 January 2016

John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," Nice Guys Come Last

American senators are generally played for laughs in Hollywood films, with character actors putting on their most obsequious, corrupt and slimy expressions.  Think Senator Stern in The Avengers or Senator Finistirre in Thank You For Smoking.  Not so when James Stewart plays the part, as in Valance.  Then it’s right back to what American schoolkids learn about in their books – honest, decent men, a living embodiment of the Declaration.

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Talking of the Declaration, one of the best lines comes from Stewart’s character.  He is teaching the token black character in the film, Pompey, how to read and Pompey has just fluffed the bit about all men being created equal.  ‘That’s okay, Pompey.  A lot of people forget that part,’ quips Stwart.

There is a Dickensian compression of society into single roles: the doctor, the lawyer, the press, the cowboy, the law etc.  And then each man’s role feels like it carries a greater weight as the events plays out, since between them they somehow represent all human life.

Review continues below...

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John Wayne has a largely subdued part, spending more time getting out of people’s way than acting for himself.  He is the muscle that allows Stewart’s narrative to exist in a town full of toughs.  No sentimental allowance is made for Stewart’s bravery.  Without muscle and gunpower to back him up, he would be snuffed out in a moment.  And even his eventual beating of the bully comes with a twist.

Deep-crust-apple-pie America needs good men with guns ready to back it up, seems to be the message.  Of course if the bad guys didn’t have guns themselves… whoa! I’m not getting into that one…

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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