The Original Unforgiven: The Man who shot Liberty Valance

When Eastwood’s Unforgiven came out, it was an instant classic, deconstructing (there’s that friggin’ word again) the Western genre and Clint Eastwood’s own familiar hero role, reducing Western archetypes from dusty opera to realism. Also, it was kickass movie, and funnily enough, a fusion of the stouter American western and the seedier Italian one. But never mind the ’90s. Liberty Valance, released in ’62 already commented on legend and myth-making. “This is the West.” says a reporter at the end; “when legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

Directed by the legendary John Ford, Liberty Valance stars John Wayne, Jimmy (sorry –James) Stewart and Lee Marvin. Even Lee Van Cleef pops up.

The movie gets off to a rather sad start. It opens with Stewart and his wife, Hattie, arriving to see John Wayne get buried. At the end, we glimpse that perhaps it’s not just Hattie’s roots that tie her to the little hamlet, but something else. Stewart must come to terms with living a lie of sorts.

Ford states that the law must be enforced with action. Sad as it may be, it’s true: one can hardly expect the criminals to show up on their own accord. By force, the West was won, and it’s a mostly unromantic view he takes of the frontier.

Marvin plays mean like only he can and does a great job of it. There’s a gleam in his eye that tells you he is bad right to the core. He has a druken swagger that you expect to explode into violence and a vicious mean streak boiling just beneath the surface. Ironically, he would send up this type or role with his turn in the Jane Fonda comedy Cat Ballou but a few years later.

Wayne is the real hero (duh), even though he’s part anti-hero. It’s Stewart’s film; Wayne may be get the top billing, and his role more substantial than it looks. You know he’ll come through in the end. He lets Stewart take the “glory” of killing Valance; he willingly lets Hattie go, because he knows she loves Stewart more than him; if only a bit. He dies in penury (Stewart has to tell the undertaker to bury Wayne with his boots on), while Stewart, “the man who shot Liberty Valance”, gets rich and famous. And yet, Wayne knows what he gives up; he could easily take the credit for the killing, but he wants to be left alone; he is of the past, a loner of the frontier range, while Stewart is of the future, statehood and bureaucracy.

The movie is surprisingly brutal in places; when Valance whips Stewart and the editor, for example. All we see is Marvin’s enraged, starkly mad face and his arm coming down, down, down…suggestion still works great, and we flinch in horror. Even his men are uneasy, and Lee Van Cleef must restrain his boss on both occasions. Like in most old westerns, there’s less wild action than you’d think. The guncraziness that came later was mostly thanks to the Italians. Tempo-wise, it’s more High Noon than Django; a lot of talking, deliberating and then a brief moment of violence. Westerns can be quite the philosophical vehicles in the right hands. Like I said, the movie is as much about myths and legend as it ois about telling a cracking good story of a man who refuses to budge. You probably have seen it already, but if not, you should.

  • Director: John Ford
  • Cast: John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin
17.01.2003 • Permalink