Aging senator James Stewart and wife Vera Miles arrive in the prosperous town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of an anonymous farmer. The local newsmen want to know why. Stewart tells the story. Cue the flashback, where he arrives in a much more anarchic Shinbone as a naïve lawyer. Held up and beaten by the brutal outlaw Liberty Valance (a psychotic Lee Marvin), he is determined by bring law and justice to the town, but must come to terms with the fact that he cannot do so without the gun of John Wayne (the aforementioned farmer).
For all intents and purposes, this 1962 film was director John Ford’s last western. It is an elegiac, melancholy piece (and one that makes Catlow, reviewed here a few days ago, look even more out of step with time). Like Unforgiven, it is a film whose casting is not only perfect, it is necessary. The collisions between the Wayne and Stewart characters are also the collisions between the symbols of American Myth the two icons represent. Vera Miles, as the woman torn between the two men, comes to represent the country itself, which must, for its own sake, choose the civilization and rule of law embodied by Stewart, even as it grieves over abandoning the larger-than-life figure of Wayne. He is the Old West, a figure from a more anarchic time, perhaps the light to Marvin’s darkness, but in many ways not that different. He must vanish to make way for the future, but the future cannot come into being without his help and sacrifice.
This is a film of enormous depth and great emotion. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
The print is in superb condition. Nary a blemish, not a scratch, zero grain. The image is sharp enough to draw blood, and the black-and-white contrasts are to die for. There is no precise indication of the aspect ratio, which usually means a slight cheat: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen instead of the original 1.85:1. There is some edge enhancement visible, but nowhere near enough to really detract from the overall beauty of the presentation.
The original mono is joined by a 5.1 mix. The latter errs on the side of restraint: the surround aspects are minimal, but that also means there are no missteps (such as wraparound dialogue) either. The music benefits most from the mix, though its 40+ years of age is apparent is a certain thin quality to the sound.
Commentary Track: Peter Bogdanovich reminds us that he is a film scholar as much as he is a director with his excellent analysis of the film, supplemented by audio clips of his interviews with Stewart and Ford about the movie.
Selected Scene Commentary: Dan Ford (grandson of the director) introduces archival interviews with Ford, Stewart and Marvin. The marriage of picture and sound is very well done – these men appear to have risen from the grave to provide a new commentary.
The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth: (50:53) An in-depth look at the film, keeping the focus on John Ford. Very interesting stuff.
Galleries: Lobby Cards, Production, John Ford, Publicity.
This isn’t just a classic western. It’s a reminder of just what cinema is capable of. A superb entry in Paramount’s Centennial Collection.