All I knew about this movie was the theme song, as memorably covered on a Henry Kaiser album. So I am well aware that the man who shot Liberty Valance (he shot… Liberty Valance), he was the bravest of them all. But who is this man? As the movie opens, a big-time politician (slow-talking Jimmy Stewart in old-age makeup) arrives in a one-horse town to grieve a dead cowboy (John Wayne, spared the makeup), and once the flashbacks begin one wonders if Wayne is too obvious a candidate to shoot Liberty Valance, and perhaps it’ll be Stewart. Then it pulls out a twist ending – Stewart thought he shot Liberty but missed, while Wayne shot Liberty dead from another angle and let Stewart take the credit. Stewart’s a pacifist law-and-order kind of guy, on his way to the capital to tame the wild west through government, the downfall of Wayne’s way of life, and Stewart takes Wayne’s girl Vera Miles with him.
We just rewatched The Lady Eve, and it occurred to me that Liberty Valance is like a Preston Sturges movie in a couple of ways. All the character names are colorful (Ransom, Liberty, Pompey, Link Appleyard, Dutton Peabody, Major Cassius Starbuckle), and so are all the actors playing them. No boring, blank-faced white guys injected for plot purposes, instead everyone adds to the movie’s personality. Vera Miles comes closest to being a default movie character, without much life of her own, but then the emotional finale unexpectedly belongs to her, as she wonders if she married the wrong man. Stewart and Wayne are allowed to act very much themselves, Stewart with his stuttering vowel elongation, Wayne acting cool and calling him pilgrim. Then you’ve got Lee Marvin as Valance, Andy “Friar Tuck” Devine as the coward sheriff, John Carradine as a pompous politician – even the great Lee Van Cleef as a henchman. It’s all more tortured and serious than Rio Bravo, but similarly a great movie to hang out with.