The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962 USA 123 mins)

Prod Co: John Ford Productions/Paramount Prod: Willis Goldbeck, John Ford [uncredited] Dir: John Ford Scr: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, from a story by Dorothy M. Johnson Phot: William H. Clothier Ed: Otho Lovering Art Dir: Eddie Imazu, Hal Pereira Mus: Cyril J. Mockridge

Cast: John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Ken Murray, John Carradine, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen, Woody Strode

Ah, Liberty Valance and his myrmidons!

– Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Whip held ready, Marvin looms over Jimmy Stewart’s Apollonian good intentions, barking ‘Stand and deliver!’ The embodiment of evil is echoed in every leather-clad Marvin swagger, questioning the who, what, when, where, and why that makes a Hero.

– Brynn White (1)

Playboy: Do you think that homosexuality is becoming more prevalent as traditional male-female roles continue to blur?

Marvin: I certainly see it very heavily on the stage and in film. In fact I deal in it most heavily. But it’s so heavily disguised that only the ultimate of dissectors would know what I was doing…. We’re all on the periphery of homosexual relationships whether it’s shooting the bull with the guys or whatever. If two guys are working on an idea, that could be deemed a homosexual relationship. They’re both having a common thought. Who knows where the sexual twist starts, and when it ends? My God, a guy might get a kick out of watching another guy open a can of beer.

– 1969 Playboy Magazine interview (2)

As an example of the self-critical “meta-Western” John Ford’s autumnally reflective The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance provides a classic case study, in that the film virtually “reads itself”. A number of the thematic binary oppositions central to the genre, which Ford re-vitalised back in 1939 with Stagecoach, are set up, played out, and even analysed, on-site, as it were, by and within the narrative. Everything from the Individual-versus-Community and Guns-versus-Lawbooks antinomies over to the role of the press and the equivocal nature of heroism and myth-making is openly addressed through knowingly foregrounded character and situation. This whole quasi-Brechtian process is, itself, capped off in the ambiguous closing moments when the former-illiterate-townswoman-turned-US-Senator’s wife Hallie (Vera Miles) observes: “Look at it! It was once a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud!”

What the film doesn’t choose to talk up so lucidly is a sort of subsidiary “side-text” around other more tantalisingly elusive questions. Once we’ve ticked off the neatly contrived, nicely considered “super-textual” antimonies which glue the film together, we might ask, for instance: Why does John Wayne’s Tom seem to spend more time with black “manservant” Pompey than with Hallie? Or: What do Lee Marvin’s Liberty and his henchmen actually “get up to” out there on the open range? Or: How come Andy Devine’s Marshall registers as such a universally tolerated sissy?

Is there “another” under-written code to the West, one which contemporaneous auteurs such as Howard Hawks (in Red River [1948] and The Big Sky [1952]) and Budd Boetticher (in The Tall T [1957] and Comanche Station [1960]) are more comfortable about signalling? Within these more fluidly subtle diegetic spaces, Alpha-boys Monty and John size up each other’s shooters, chisel-chinned Kirk gets distractedly Dewey-eyed, and Rigid Randy empathetically connects with real-bad guys he could almost settle down with…

But, rather than gallop in and (mis-)read some kind of “homosexual” subtext simmering beneath Ford’s plenary chamber work, could the claim be made for a heavily loaded “homo-social” world that coexists alongside the plot’s more normatively aspiring surfaces? Just how in such a self-reading movie are we meant to read Valance’s sidekicks? Reese, the reticent, gimlet eyed rough-trader underplayed so suavely by future Spaghetti-Westerner, Lee Van Cleef, coupled with Strother Martin’s hideously giggling Floyd, forever doting on his main man Liberty, together form a dang-dastardly pair of rogue ruffians full-worthy of newspaper editor Peabody’s mock-Homeric epithet. Myrmidons: dutiful camp-followers to Achilles, the warrior who goes epically “ape-shit” over the slaying of his youthful companion Patroclus.

And who generates this violent loyalty? Who inspires the deferential fear of gentle citizenry? Who counterbalances the nominal protagonists (portrayed with a sort of wearied grace by generic elders James Stewart and John Wayne) with his own vitally vehement, magnificently malevolent force-field? Who, wielding a much-utilised whip, lopes in on scenes, and lashes out with snide sneer and gravel growl, yanking chairs from under innocent bystanders, and generally throwing his nasty weight around?

Lee Marvin, that’s who, in arguably his last turn as a supporting “heavy”, and on the very brink of becoming a distinctive “major player” in the Hollywood pantheon. Here, as phallically ferocious, viler-than-vile villain Liberty Valance is the crowning culmination of every hood this military-trained actor had etched into the annals of 1950s action cinema. The compellingly creepy thug who chucks boiling coffee into Gloria Grahame’s duplicitous face in Fritz Lang’s 1953 uber-noir The Big Heat. The flamboyantly hell-raising bikie, Chino, revving up the routine melodramatics of László Benedek’s The Wild One (1954), and practically stealing the film’s title from Brando’s lead, at whom he publicly declaims “I love ya, Johnny” not once but three times. And in Boetticher’s masterful 1956 Western Seven Men From Now, the cat-cunning Bill Masters, an erstwhile prisoner (“Twice!”) of Rigid Randy who circles then confronts the latter nominal hero with every last ounce of his amoral gall and acid guile.

As living eponymous evidence of the risky “value” or “cost” of uncivilised, unregulated freedom in Ford’s weighted allegory this lean, mean, hyper-male machinator struts, smoulders and snarls like a more sinuously muscled version of a Tom of Finland fantasy pin-up: Homo Marvinus (rhymes with penis). Going way beyond the brooding Bogey persona (often cited as his celluloid precursor) this is the post-Romantic, proto-existential-man incarnate, an utterly pragmatic nihilist, made almost glamorous through his savagely avowed absence of conscience or soul. Like Shakespeare’s Caliban, this marvellous monster can barely be contained within Ford’s schematics, and it takes a ruthlessly dirty move by Liberty’s Doppelganger Tom to remove him from our fascinated gaze…


  1. Brynn White, “Ballad of a Soldier”, Film Comment vol. 43, no. 3, May/June 2007, p. 52.
  2. Richard Warren Lewis. “Playboy Interview: Lee Marvin”, Playboy Magazine, January 1969, p. 68.

About The Author

Peter Kemp is a writer, broadcaster and lecturer in cinema studies in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University.

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