I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when it came out, meaning I’d have been seven. That doesn’t make it my earliest movie memory — however, that also belongs to John Ford, since it was the final shot of The Searchers, when I was two or three — but it was a pretty vivid one. I clearly remember characters ordering steaks “well-burnt,” and the the big reveal near the end was etched forever in my memory. At the same time, I went for years swearing that when I first saw Liberty Valance it was in color. It even seemed a not entirely untenable possibility, since a few films in that era were shot in color and released in black and white. It wasn’t impossible that a color print might have been mistakenly shipped, but…all you have to do is look at the film to realize it was lit and used filters for black and white. So much for the strength of my youthful memory.
Ford’s 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. It’s surprisingly similar to a real life incident director William A. Wellman once cited, concerning his 1944 biopic Buffalo Bill. As conceived, Wellman and his writers debunked the myth of “Buffalo Bill” Cody — laid bare the unlovely truth about the man and his life — but at the last minute decided that they just couldn’t go through with shattering the illusions of millions of children. So they filmed the legend. Ford is shrewder in that he gives us both the truth and the legend, and then opts for the legend — sort of. After all, we’ve clearly been told that the legend is false, so the choice becomes ours.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Sunday, Aug. 2, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.