Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

This western is a touchstone for many critics. They either decry or applaud its nostalgic mode, its cynicism, its maudlin tone or the claustrophobic feel. I guess it supports whatever you bring to it. I like it a lot but there are some details that bug me. Woody Strode's character is simultaneously patronized and adored by the other characters and it is aggravating. I am not sure if this is intentional or not; maybe it's just a reflection of Ford's attitudes. In the schoolroom scene, I want him to be a better student. The other problem is insurmountable: the men, except Lee Marvin, are too old by a dang sight. It's a lot like watching the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek V.
I like to shoehorn every story into the Beowulf mold, so here goes: Tenderfoot lawyer (Hrothgar) cannot defend his progressive ideology against the destructive energies of the beast Liberty Valance (Grendel) and is saved only by compromising his ideals to the heroic idiom of Tom Donophan (Beowulf). By bringing the rule of law to bear against the violent status quo, both beast and hero are transformed from viable, if painful, ways of life into legend and myth. The new ways are not left unchanged by the encounter: Grendel's madness and Beowulf's unbending principles vie beneath the veneer of civilization.

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