Few films are as deeply flawed yet so essential to a great director’s filmography as John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). I suppose Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman (1935) runs a close second, and for a lot of the same reasons. Both films contain all the trademarks of their creators — maybe too much so. In the case of Ford’s film — his last great Western — one has to add that it’s a film out of its own time.
This tale of the passing of the Old West was old-fashioned and out of date even in 1962. It contains all the elements of films of 20 years earlier — the broad comedy, the stereotypes (Woody Strode in Uncle Remus makeup being given “pork chop money” by James Stewart!), the tendency to simplify and glorify the past. But it’s deliberately, even defiantly out of step. It’s an aging filmmaker accepting the fact that time has moved on (this is even more obvious in his next film, Donovan’s Reef, released the following year), but he’s accepting it on his own terms.
His stars — John Wayne and James Stewart — are impossibly old for their roles (especially the 54-year-old Stewart as an idealistic lawyer fresh out of law school), but they’re Ford’s stars and that’s that. And that’s partly the point — Ford spends the entire film debunking a myth, only to turn around and decide that the myth and the power of myth are essential (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”). Its very unreality consciously mythologizes the film and its genre.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke