8 June 2002 | henfish
More Marvelous Mythology Played Out In The Old West
Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) arrives in the unlikely named town of Shinbone having had his arse 'wupped' by local bad-guy, Liberty Valance (Marvin); but does he seek a bloody revenge on his wicked nemesis? NO. He seeks justice by the book. You see, he's an attorney at law, and he desires to see civilised leanings spring up all over 'south of the Picket Wire'. Laughable really. The only law in the wild-west is the law of the gun. That's what's kept tough rancher, Tom Doniphan (Wayne) alive. And it's the only thing that will work for Stoddard... or is it?!?
Ford doesn't pretend that he's got anything new here. God no! What he's clearly interested in is the marriage (and divorce!) of the primal and the cerebral. He set's the whole thing in the wild-west (a genric canvas second to none) and relies on character and emotion to lead us way beyond the obvious plot. And what he delivers is a sublime debate on the inter-dependency of force and reason. For there are those not prepared to listen to reason and those disenfranchised by the reliance on force; and Ransom Stoddard eventually acknowledges this, embraces the essence of both codes and thereby supercedes Doniphan as the real 'hero' of the new renaissance of the American West.
This is an excellent piece of metaphorical mythology. The monochrome teases us of a 'black and white' world within which the 'reality' of life is oft contained within the shadows. Ford's direction of comedy and drama has never been bettered by himself (not even in the somewhat ponderous 'My Darling Clementine') and the dialogue risks allowing wisdom in Doniphon's horse-poke to be matched by an often acerbic, no-nonsense Stoddard. The characters (and the actors within them) are uniformly excellent. Stewart never puts a foot wrong and this is the high-water mark of Wayne's dramatic capability. The scene in which he realises his love is unrequited and subsequently drinks himself into oblivion reveals a depth few could have thought him capable of. Special mention must also go to Edmond O'Brien's avoidance of (surely tempting) caricaturing the newspaper editor and instead creating a most believable bridge of humanity between the values of the wild west and the civilised east. Lee Marvin's sullen rendition of the bad guy Valance is also outstanding. And it is to Ford's credit that you are always left uncertain as to whether Valance or Doniphan was the tougher cowboy.
The idea of a developing world allowing us to metaphorise our own understanding of and relationship with existence is as old as Zeus (and the God's that preceded him); and in the developing new world of the American west, nobody examined that potential better or more profoundly than John Ford. And this film is one of the crowning moments of that examination.