Alright, we’re done with Oscars talk, seriously. I really appreciated Daniel Radcliffe’s comment in an interview right after the Oscars; he was asked his opinion on the Will Smith scandal and he said that he’d become so “dramatically bored” reading everyone else’s thoughts that he didn’t want to weigh in at all. It is ironic, though, that this next film examines the ethics involved with resolving disputes with violence.
Actually, the glib review I gave Roommate Russ was that it was “like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington‘s Western grandpa.” James Stewart is “Ransom Stoddard”, the Senator for an unnamed Western state. At the start of the film he has made a return visit to his home town of “Shinbone” with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to attend the funeral of their mutual friend, rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Their visit attracts the attention of the local newspaper, and the editor corners Stoddard to ask how the esteemed Senator knows a low-stakes rancher like Doniphon.
Stoddard’s tale takes up most of the rest of the film, told as a flashback to when Stoddard was an idealistic newcomer to Shinbone, eager to start a law practice and assist during the territory’s transition to statehood. He’s held up almost immediately by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the thug who’s been terrorizing Shinbone for the past handful of years at the behest of the local bigwig cattle ranchers. The one person Valance respects is Doniphon – mainly because he’s the one person in town who’s a better shot than he is. The penniless Stoddard takes a job as busboy in the local inn, washing dishes alongside Hallie – who was then Doniphon’s girl.
Stoddard insists on opening his law practice as soon as he’s more settled, even though Doniphon warns him things work a bit differently out west. But Stoddard stubbornly insists that violence isn’t the way to solve disputes. He also insists on opening a school once he learns that Hallie – along with several townspeople – can’t read and are generally uneducated. Doniphon isn’t impressed by the way Hallie seems to be taking a shine to Stoddard – and Valance is unimpressed by Stoddard’s civilizing crusade, ultimately challenging Stoddard to a showdown on Main Street one evening. Hallie and Doniphon both urge Stoddard to leave (although, likely for different reasons) but Stoddard takes him up on it. And to everyone’s surprise – Valance is shot.
Stoddard becomes the hero of the day, with the town going so far as to nominate him as Shinbone’s delegate in Washington. But he’s uneasy with how the town is celebrating him more for his one violent act than for his legal work. However, Doniphon pays him a secret visit to tell him his showdown with Valance didn’t quite happen the way he’d remembered it did…
I liked this a little better than I thought I would. Both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart seem to be playing caricatures of themselves at first – Stewart as the idealistic do-gooder, and Wayne as the sharpshooting macho cowpoke. Doniphon’s habit of calling Stoddard “Pilgrim” even made its way into countless “John Wayne impressions” for years after – I recognized it as a trope impressionists used back when I was a kid. And director John Ford had to forgo his usual epic location shoots and filmed the whole thing on a backlot. Wayne and Stewart were also starting to get a little long in the tooth for their parts, and in fact many believed Ford had filmed in black and white to hide their ages.
But both men still end up doing decently enough, as does Vera Miles; she gives Hallie a good deal of spunk and sass, and a forthrightness that convinced me that Hallie was genuinely starting to warm to Stoddard as opposed to it being a script convention. And let’s face it, both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart looked old even as younger men, didn’t they?