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JOHN FORD DOUBLE MOVIE REVIEW: The Searchers & Liberty Valance

In film, ideology, morality, politics, review on July 17, 2013 at 11:35 am

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is definitely the B feature in this double. Its release year of 1962 is very late for a black and white movie. But maybe Ford was trying to make a point, like he didn’t want it to be a color, all-star blockbuster in the way of How the West Was Won the same year: a bloated, tiresome excuse for a way to spend three hours. As a kid my friends and I bragged how many times (up to double figures) we’d been to see this MGM-Cinerama spectacular: more a reflection on our childishness and how inexpensive it was to go to the movies in those days. The wide-screen vistas were great to look at, but that was all. Henry Hathaway helmed most of it — having seen his most interesting period in Forties film noir before switching to routine westerns — John Ford taking over for the Civil War sequences and George Marshall the extended train hold-up scenes. All of the stars had been used to better effect elsewhere: Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Henry Fonda, Carroll Baker, Richard Widmark… Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird), Fonda (Advise and Consent) and George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) had come straight from classics and now this marked a lowpoint in their careers. It earned $50 million worldwide for the producers: more than a $billion today in terms of butts on seats.

I believe Ford was not making a western in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but was the politically astute Irishman making a comment on American politics as he did in The Last Hurrah four years before: poking fun at the Irishness of it, the erecting of heroes on pedestals maintained by populist sentiment. Also, the manner of election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy just a year and a half before couldn’t have escaped his attention — whisked along to victory by his pappy’s connections and accentuating his war record. World War II leader Ike Eisenhower was just vacating the White House and sterling wartime feats was one of the few public image advantages Kennedy held over opponent Nixon at the 1960 general election. And ever since, phony self-proclaimed heroes like George W Bush and John McCain have tried to makes themselves into a JFK or John Kerry, if not a full-blown general like Ike.

Fifty-four-year-old James Stewart ludicrously playing young, naive lawyer Ransom Stoddard sweeps into the western town of Shinbone toting $14.80 in cash and a passel of law books. He is beaten up, his money is stolen and his law books destroyed by hold-up man Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang. I always thought the Disney animated badguy Black Pete was based on a hybrid of Ernest Borgnine and Marvin as they played town bullies in the Fifties — see Bad Day at Black Rock — and here Marvin is joined by main henchmen Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin, acting a lot like Biggy Rat & Itchy brother from the DePatie-Freleng cartoons on tv in the early Sixties.

Enraged, persnickety dishwasher Stoddard is protected by Tom Donofin (John Wayne) against Liberty Valance. Marvin stands on tiptoe to look more imposing than the 6ft-4 of the two protagonists.

Enraged, persnickety dishwasher Stoddard is protected by Tom Donofin (John Wayne) against Liberty Valance. Marvin stands on tiptoe to look more imposing than the 6ft-4 of the two protagonists.

Stoddard is a horse’s ass of an Eastern dude who doesn’t know it, preaching about the law and parliamentary procedure and casually ridiculing his wife-to-be Halley (Vera Miles) because she can’t read and write. When Duke Wayne, the only guy with the guts and ability to stand up to Valance and his lickspittles, sees that his girl Halley is gone on the embryonic politician’s pompous ways and ineffectual hypocrisy he does the decent thing by covertly killing Valance and leaving Stoddard with the credit. In the forty years of history passing offscreen, the politician is elected to “three terms as state governor, two terms as senator, Ambassador to the Court of St James, and back to senator” and has the vice-presidency in Washington for the taking — all based on two myth-making “facts” of the kind politicians thrive on: he was the first lawyer west of the Rockies and killed Liberty Valance single-handed, and with his weaker gun hand.

At the end of the film, attending old Tom Donofin’s funeral, Senator and prospective vice-president Stoddard is easily persuaded by the town newspapermen that the truth and the people’s right to know isn’t paramount after all. He keeps his shame (told him by Donofin, on Stoddard’s first step up to office) a secret from the public — though the wife now knows, and maybe suspected all along — and he and the Mrs ride off contentedly on the train back to Washington for the last time. In an empty gesture to sentiment, Stoddard resolves to settle back in Shinbone after a life of false glory. Ford’s final condemnation of the American political system: And little lawyers shall lead them.

The Searchers (1956) must rank as the greatest western made in the Fifties, along with Shane (1953), and therefore probably the greatest ever. As a solid work of art from Ford it might be only challenged by The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and My Darling Clementine (1946). Each shot is painstakingly worked out using the natural setting and lie of the land to utmost effect to add to the rising and falling drama, and the acting overall is superb, especially from the two leads, John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter (later of The Last Hurrah and King of Kings).

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) interrogate "Look" for the whereabouts of "Scar", the Comanche war chief who holds Debbie (Natalie Wood) captive.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) interrogate “Look” for the whereabouts of “Scar”, the Comanche war chief who holds Debbie (Natalie Wood) captive.

Ethan Edwards arrives three years after the end of the Civil War at his brother’s (Walter Coy) Texas homestead. His brother fought on the other side, the Union, and there are strong signs that Ethan was the wife’s (Dorothy Jordan) first choice for a hubby. Instantly, we’re in the action and a Comanche raid on cattle draws the Texas Rangers under Rev/Captain Ward Bond away from the homestead. The Comanches attack and Ethan’s brother’s family are slaughtered, all but the two girls — Ethan’s sole remaining kin. And the hunt is on. It lasts six years, with Ethan and Martin constantly on the trail through desert and deep snow drifts. Ambivalent as Ethan is about his young adopted nephew’s one-eighth Cherokee blood, he reserves pure hatred for the Comanche. Martin is motivated by the constant knowledge of having to save Debbie from Ethan — who maintains she’s been ruined by turning into a Comanche — as much as from the Comanches. The ambivalent interplay between these two is the core of the film.

Special mention should be made of the exceptionally endearing performance of Lana Wood (Natalie’s sister) as nine-year-old Debbie. Also Ford’s semi-regular Hank Worden in his turn as hilarious comedy relief “Old Mose” Harper. A Bronx cheer for poor John Qualen and his dialogue as Lars the Swede, twice playing Vera Miles’ father and forced to say “By golly!” and the inevitable “By Yiminy!” repeatedly through The Searchers and again in Liberty Valance, a very irritating Ford joke.

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MOVIE REVIEW: THE WILD BUNCH (1969)

In film, morality, review on July 8, 2013 at 3:01 am

Sam Peckinpah might have been a film director who hated humanity (not in itself a disqualifier for an artist in expressing himself), or at least held a healthy contempt for many people who populated the American West. Out of tune as I am with all the critics of the day when supposedly his best film was released, obviously I’m missing something very central to Peckinpah’s oeuvre. Either that or I’m getting soft in my old age. But I can only call ’em as I sees ’em — and stand to be corrected. His Ride the High Country (1962) was a refreshing adventure movie that somewhat recalled John Ford’s The Searchers of six years before in having a hero substantially more staunch — read ruthless — than the invariably white-hatted tv cowboys of the time. By the time of The Wild Bunch (1969) his villains were still utterly despicable but the hero was only slightly less so. I believe, with this film, Peckinpah’s thrust went way overboard in depicting violence for its own sake without including any balancing elements of positive humanity and enlightenment. Straw Dogs (1971), in a modern setting, saw a young Dustin Hoffman in the uncharacteristic role of a homicidal, vindictive newly-wed. He carries out brutal vengeance on a gang who raped his wife, including his wife’s ex-boyfriend, maybe because he suspects his wife enjoyed it. Peckinpah’s films are peopled by those definitely on the margins not only of society but any human feeling. Forget tenderness entirely.

The Wild Bunch took the ambiguous good guy in Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone movies — who in the late Sixties turned out in the end to be good at the core — way beyond to unambiguous callousness, the tack Eastwood would follow in upcoming westerns like High Plains Drifter (1973). The movie opens with a botched raid on a town bank by a gang led by the nominal hero, played by William Holden. To date, the Holden type that had won the star enormous popularity in Sunset Boulevard (1950) after 11 years in insipid lead roles had been the too-handsome, somewhat cynical and exploitive flyboy who does good in the end. Again, Peckinpah’s ‘progression’ would see him go one better in Straw Dogs by totally reversing Hoffman’s pipsqueak-milksop image (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy) to vengeful killer. But in this the townspeople, organized in ambush by the railroad bosses, kill off half of Holden’s dozen men. Literally dozens, plural, of uncomprehending townsfolk caught in the crossfire are slaughtered — from old ladies and men, to kids — and Holden’s only regret is when he finds out the railroad has planted washers in the moneybags supposed to be full of gold coins.

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The central problem of the movie morally — if you look for morality in movies — is that the only three men painted as winners are also the most ruthless and destructive: Holden, his enforcer Ernest Borgnine, betraying something of a crush on the boss, and despicable railroad exec Albert Dekker, who makes Machiavelli look like Shirley Temple. Others in the gang, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, lowlifes as they are, display at least some sense of fair play and are ridiculed for it by their colleagues. Two more lowlifes in the characters played by Strother Martin and L Q Jones, in the pursuing posse led by Robert Ryan, provide comic relief and happily do not have the power or basic competence to inflict the destruction of Holden. They too are losers, tortured and killed by Comanches.

Holden, after years of alcoholism at 50, is a grotesque caricature of the pretty boy he was on screen from age 20 to 45. His character is said to be “the best” by Robert Ryan, playing his former outlaw partner, a figure of contempt to Peckinpah (and in the person of Dekker?) by being a hired man of the all-powerful railroad company and working for a man he hates, blackmailing him, holding him over a barrel under pain of being forced back to prison. But Ryan is only in this position because Holden messed up their last job and ducked out on him to save himself. Now Holden has failed again, but is still portrayed in the movie as the figure to be admired. Taking their rest and recreation at a Mexican whorehouse, it’s all Holden can do to flip a couple of pesos at his chosen one, a teenage solo mother with babe in arms.

With nowhere to go, at the very end in the celebrated climax, the four surviving of the Wild Bunch mow down many, many Mexican Federales — in slow motion, with a Gatling gun. They are the heroes because giving up their lives though for no discernible cause. (Underneath it all, the audience is supposed to know that these none-too-bright outlaws suddenly gain the insight that they have outlived their time, like Joel McCrea’s and Randolph Scott’s characters in Ride the High Country.) And Robert Ryan, still alive, is the loser, not willing to return to uphold the law on the terms he was forced to, and forced to be an outlaw with Wild Bunch hanger-on, old coot Edmond O’Brien, and doomed to constantly ride on the run.

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