Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 9, 2009)
Two screen legends united for the first time in 1962ís The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Set in the 19th century, Senator Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) returns to the frontier town of Shinbone along with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles). Both Senator and Mrs. Stoddard used to live in Shinbone, and they come back for the funeral of their old friend Tom Doniphon (Wayne).
When the local newspapermen demand to know what makes Doniphonís funeral worthy of a senatorís attention, Stoddard launches into a flashback story and we learn how he came to the town as a young lawyer. Local outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) robs the coach on which Stoddard rides, and when the neophyte barrister protests, Valance nearly beats Stoddard to death.
This incident sets Stoddard on an unusual quest for revenge. He doesnít want to kill Valance; he wants to jail his assailant. Stoddard pursues this goal and also becomes close to Doniphon, the man who helps him the most as he tries to halt the menace known as Liberty Valance.
Although both Stewart and Wayne never worked together prior to this flick, itís interesting to note that Shot was one of two 1962 films in which both appeared. The actors also showed up in How the West Was Won, though they never acted together in that one; Westís story spanned many decades, so the paths of the Wayne and Stewart characters never crossed.
Not only does Shot actively mix Stewart and Wayne, but also it proves more satisfying than the lush but dramatically flat West. The only minor negative I find here comes from the age of a few actors. While the film never specifies the ages of its characters, it seems likely that Stoddard and Hallie are supposed to be in their twenties. Both the 32-year-old Miles and (especially) the 53-year-old Stewart just seem awfully old for the roles; that factor requires a bit more suspension of disbelief than one would like. (Then 54-year-old Wayne was also too old for his part, but since we donít see him as an older man and the movie doesnít make much of his status, the issue seems less noticeable.)
Nonetheless, Iím willing to make that kind of leap for a quality western like Shot. Regardless of age, the presence of so many talented actors helps make this a strong effort. I especially like the chemistry between Wayne and Stewart. Both men seem to come from different schools of acting, as the swaggering authority of Wayne and the stammering sputter of Stewart donít feel like much of a match.
However, the two combine well. Actually, I donít know if Wayne was ever better. Never the most three-dimensional performer, Wayne seems exceedingly relaxed and comfortable here. Thereís a certain easy charm to his performance that makes him feel more believable than usual, and his lack of pomp creates a good connection with Stewart.
Unlike Wayne, we donít automatically connect Stewart with westerns; he made quite a few, but the actorís name doesnít evoke the genre in the same way Wayneís does. His Stoddard creates a contrast with Wayneís Doniphon, as Stewart provides the broader performance of the two. That doesnít mean he makes Stoddard a cartoon, though; Stewart tones down the role when necessary, and he gives the part a good sense of everyman humanity.
In the way it neatly combines drama, comedy, action and pathos, Shot reminds me of an earlier John Ford flick: 1939ís classic Stagecoach. That flick was more in the vein of escapist western fare, though, while Shot comes with a deeper message. I donít mean that as criticism of Stagecoach, of course; it might be the greatest western ever made.
But it doesnít present much of a social message, while Shot clearly comes with an underlying theme. However, it can be a little tricky to pin down what message the film really wants to convey, especially when we view Shot as part of its era. With the civil rights era in full swing, one could easily see Stoddard as a Martin Luther King character at first Ė until he gets so fed up with Valanceís outlaw weighs that he goes the Malcolm X route.
Therein lies the mixed message. On one hand, Shot follows a progressive path as the educated Stoddard does so much to embolden and empower the benighted citizens of Shinbone. However, for all his education and liberal ways, the most important change Ė Valanceís death Ė only occurs when Stoddard abandons his quest to jail the outlaw and he takes up arms.
Given earlier Ford/Wayne efforts, the goals of Shot become even more intriguing to explore. 1956ís The Searchers came with a somewhat similar message that explored the futility of violence while it also detailed how necessary violence can sometimes be. Both follow their themes in very different ways, but they dig into similar topics.
Of the two, I must say I prefer Shot. For all its plaudits, Searchers has yet to really move me. On the other hand, I think Shot provides a more engaging exploration of its subject. It also turns into a darned entertaining western melodrama.
Trivia footnote: most impersonations of Wayne feature his use of the word ďpilgrimĒ. I believe Shot is the flick that originated that signature term for Wayne.