Sunday, June 7, 2015

Macho Moments: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

First and only time I ever saw John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in a theater was during writer/director Edgar Wright's programming at The New Beverly Cinema. Basically, Wright selected two weeks worth of films he'd never seen before and experienced them with an audience. 1962's Liberty Valance is a classic western about big ideal lawyer Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), who travels to the wild west and gets brutally whipped by the outlaw Liberty Valance (a really mean Lee Marvin) during a stagecoach robbery. Setting up in town, Stoddard is saved and schooled by manly man Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) and told that western law doesn't adhere to what's printed in a book. Stoddard works to turn the territory into a state and civilize the land but a confrontation with Valance just keeps trucking towards him.

During a busy dinner scene, Stoddard is doing women's work of serving food to help out the folks who took him in. Valance and his cronies (young Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin) waltz in, scare off some cowboys and sit down for a huge steak dinner. Still bearing the scars from Valance's whip, Stoddard steels himself and goes about his work but Valance just won't let him and trips him, spilling a tray of steak, beans, potatoes and deep dish apple pie. That's when Doniphon stands up and delivers "That's my steak, Valance" and a true, defining movie Macho Moment is upon us. I remember laughing and applauding in the theater because it was just too perfect a scene. Valance is set up to be this hardcore outlaw but you're not sure if he actually is because he always has back up. Doniphon isn't the type to back down and is more or less just looking for a reason to put Valance six feet under. Stoddard can't believe how kill crazy these people are and picks up the steak himself.

Liberty Valance was a critical and commercial hit upon release, grossing $8 million bucks off a $3.2 million dollar budget, making it the 16th highest grossing film of 1962. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design and spawned a Top Ten hit for singer Gene Pitney. But the James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck scripted film wasn't a very pleasant shoot according to some of it's stars as Ford, who was a big part of Wayne's rise to stardom, needled the actor endlessly for not making it in the NFL like co-star Woody Strode or enlisting in World War II like Stewart. The two had been working together for over a decade and would reunite just a year later for Donovan's Reef. In 2007 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".

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