Whoa, take ‘er easy there, Pilgrim — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in Review

 I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.
– Tom Doniphon, as played by John Wayne –

In Summary:
When Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) arrives to the town of Shinbone with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) for a funeral, the townsfolk become curious as to who’s funeral he’s attending and why. Though a few people seem to know the senator well, and it’s established that he spent time there earlier on his life, no one seems to know of the Stoddard’s friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Demanding that they know the truth about the senator’s visit, the local news reporters convince him to tell the tale of his arrival in Shinbone many years ago, his connection to the mysterious Tom Doniphon, and the shooting death of town outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). The bulk of this John Ford film is this old west tale. Check out the trailer below.

Why I watched this one:
For the greater majority of my life (meaning the entire portion that I remember), Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne have been larger-than-life acting gods. I suppose this has little to do with their actual skill as actors, but rather their iconic presence on-screen. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my all-time favorite movies (not just at Christmas), and Rooster Cogburn, McLintock, and In Harms Way — amongst others — seemed to always be playing at my grandfather’s house in my earlier years. That said, when a fellow movie buff recommended a film to me with both Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne in it, I jumped on the opportunity to enjoy both of these iconic actors at the same time.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design (Black and White).

My Review & Verdict — in Claps:
I have mixed emotions about this flick for several reasons. On one hand, I’m completely underwhelmed by Jimmy Stewart’s performance. The character of Ransom Stoddard reminded me of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the west. He was too preachy with his law-abiding morals, and downright annoying as a schoolteacher. On the flip-side, I thought John Wayne’s performance was excellent. He stood up to my expectations, and even showed a bit of conflicted depth when dealing with his feelings towards Vera Miles’s character, and even his feelings towards coaching Stewart’s character about the ways of the west. The true surprise for me was Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance. I’m not sure I’ve seen Marvin in anything before, and now I’m totally drawn to him. He represented pure evil in this film, and I have to say even I was a bit afraid of him by the end.

In one of my favorite clips from the film, Liberty Valance’s character trips Random Stoddard, causing Tom Doniphon’s steak to fall on the floor. This is the resulting interaction between the three characters. It’s scene’s like this that make the film entertaining and fulfilling as a western. That, and the fact that this is the film where John Wayne coins the word “pilgrim.” He apparently says it 23 times in this movie, and once in McClintock. Here’s a fun little clip someone put together of each occurence of the word in this film.

Right, so enough fooling around… pilgrim. What did I think of the flick? This is a tough call, because honestly I didn’t feel fulfilled at the end of it. The conclusion is somber, to say the least — a real downer for a western. The good guy wins, I suppose, but another good guy sort of lost… a lot. It’s not your typical western in that regard. That said, it has a sort of honesty to it that can’t be ignored. It addresses the ghosts in Senator Stoddard’s past, and how those ghosts (or legends) got him to his place in life. Who can’t relate to that? In the end, though, I have to say I was mildly disappointed in the film overall. I wanted to like it so badly, and perhaps that was my downfall.

You might clap for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but I unfortunately can only clap for the satisfaction of finally seeing John Wayne say “pilgrim” multiple times in one movie.

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They’re Never Going to Find that Girl; The Searchers, in Review


In Summary:
Set in Texas 3 years after the end of the Civil War, the Edwards family seems to lead a relatively quiet ranch life until Aaron Edwards’s long-lost brother, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), rides back into town. Though his nieces and nephews are thrilled to see their confederate rebel-rousing uncle, his sister-in-law conveys an awkward sexual tension that even the casual viewer can’t help but observe with unease. Before we can figure out what’s going on with that, though, Ethan rides off with the Texas Rangers in search of a cattle thief. Upon his return, he finds his family has been attacked by Comanche indians. His nieces are missing, and he’s determined to track them down. Thus, he embarks with his half-nephew, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter),  his niece’s boyfriend (Harry Carey Jr.), and a posse of men to find the tribe that stole away the girls. As the search party dwindles, we begin to wonder if they really ever will find the girls, and what will happen when they do.

Why I watched this one:
I wanted to watch a John Wayne film that I hadn’t seen. This was my main motivation. I also wanted to watch a John Ford film. I thought I’d seen one. As it turns out, this was my first. This also made two people’s lists of westerns that I should watch.


In doing a little research, I’ve found it was named AFI’s #1 western of all time. You can view the complete list here: http://suite101.com/article/afi-names-top-ten-western-films-of-all-time-a62021

It also made AFI’s top 100 films of all time, landing in spot #96. It wasn’t nominated for any Academy Awards.

My Review & Verdict — in Claps:
I struggled with this one. Even a day after watching this film I’m really not sure how to review it. The peculiarity of the movie is, though it was made in the mid-fifties, it portrays America (Texas specifically) a  few years after the Civil War. In essence, then, it’s a period piece meant to represent a particular time in our history. There’s no denying that the film is horribly racist towards Native Americans, which is extremely difficult to bear throughout. No doubt, there are huge inaccuracies between the way the film portrays life in the late 1860’s and the reality of that time. No doubt, I’ll discuss this further in my later critical examination of westerns.

Racism aside, then, let me point out a few of the things I loved about this movie. The scenery, for one, is amazing. John Ford’s big sweeping open spaces are simply breathtaking. The use of color, contrast, and lighting is also exquisite. I just ate up the dusk scene right before the family was attacked by the Comanche tribe. The orange light used to represent a doom-filled-dusk was Douglas Sirk-esque in it’s over dramatic tone; I savored it. I also have to give props to John Wayne. I grew up watching John Wayne movies with my Grandpa, so I have a personal attachment to him. I see him as this super-sized hero amongst men, who always does what’s right (in the end) — A gruff gunslinger with a heart somewhere down in there. It’s hard to see him otherwise. Somehow, he pulled it off though, because in this film, he portrays a man strongly conflicted by his love of family and his hatred towards Native Americans. Though, in the end he does do the right thing (sort of), his coldness, his bloodthirsty quest for revenge, and his somewhat mixed motives for finding his niece, make him just as much the bad guy as the tribe leader, Scar, that he seeks.

If I throw all analysis aside, though, I have to say I was moved by this film. You can’t help but become invested in Martin Pawley’s character, nor in that of poor Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) who waits for him back in Texas. Thus, because of it’s cinematic excellence, the fact that it is a period piece meant to represent a far-different time in our history, and my attachment to Martin’s character, I have to clap for it. I do this with much trepidation, though. It dances along the same line as Gone with the Wind in that regard. Though the film itself is well done, what it represents is horrifying.

What Does Spaghetti Have to do with a Western? – Fistful of Dollars, in review

“When I was young, I believed in three things: Marxism, the redemptive power of cinema, and dynamite. Now I just believe in dynamite.”
Sergio Leone, Conversations Avec Sergio Leone

In Summary
A Fistful of Dollars is not the first, but one of the most well-known of the Spaghetti Westerns. Fistful is the first in director Sergio Leone’s western trilogy featuring Clint Eastwood, culminating in one of the best known westerns, The Good the Bad and the Ugly.

In the film, a poncho-wearing stranger (Eastwood) rolls into town, wasting no time slinging his gun around at the unsuspecting, though probably deserving strangers.  He finds out that the town is run by rival families, the Baxters and the Rojos, who apparently spend most of their time shooting at one another. In a bold move, he wiggles his way into both families trust (if you can call it that). His apparent goal might be no more than playing both sides, earning a pile of cash, shooting a few men, then riding back out of town. Decide that for yourself. As the trailer to the flm so boldly announces, “A Fistful of Dollars is the first motion picture of its kind. It won’t be the last!”

A few things of note about A Fistful of Dollars, are that Clint Eastwood was not Leone’s original choice to play “the stranger,” and that it was in all likelihood a re-made version of the Kurosawa Samurai film, Yojimbo. Though Leone apparently denied the similarities between the two films for some time, a lawsuit eventually said differently, and a percentage of the profits from the film were given to Kurosawa. Incidentally, on the former point, Clint Eastwood’s role in A Fistful of Dollars is what took him from a part on the television show Rawhide to worldwide fame. Who knew that Leone’s last choice for a star would become one of the greatest actors and directors around.


Why I Watched This One

The first time I saw this movie I was a teenager, and I was accustomed to the John Wayne style westerns I’d been exposed to most of my life. I had the grand idea to watch the entire “The Man with No Name” series. I only got through A Fistful of Dollars. Seemingly cold-hearted killings, a machine gun, and a lead character who by the end of the film you still don’t really know anything about; this was not what I’d expected from a western.  As a teen, that didn’t make any sense to me.

My next exposure to the spaghetti western came while reading my film history book in college. That’s when I found out that the Eastwood series along with several other westerns of the time period were actually directed and produced in Italy, falling into the sub-genre of “Spaghetti Westerns.” The name ‘spaghetti western’ originated when in the mid-60’s several Italian (and even German and Spanish) filmmakers began making westerns. The term was originally an insult, given by foreign critics, because they believed these westerns must be inferior to the better known American westerns. Most of the films were low budget, but many were still innovative, artistic, and well-made.  Although some Italians still prefer to call the films western all’italiana (westerns Italian style), the term “Spaghetti Western,” is no longer seen as an insult.

While I found this whole spaghetti western idea interesting, it still didn’t prompt me to re-watch the films. Now, a decade or so later, I believe my taste in movies has become a bit more… refined. It was finally time to give this series another, no pun intended, shot.

My Review & Verdict – in Claps
Yes, it is violent. Yes, Clint Eastwood’s character is a bit mysterious. Was he trying to do good, or just entertaining himself by interfering with the petty squabbles of a small town? It’s really hard to say. I saw a few more sparks of character this second time around, though, that lead me to believe he was trying to do the right thing in his own peculiar way. Eastwood has some great one-liners, and that coffin-maker is hilarious, but what strikes me most about this film is the use of silence. What really distinguishes a great film, from a good film, from an okay film is some mechanism that pushes the story forward in an unusually fitting way. Here, it was Leone’s use of those silent, dramatic moments where Eastwood is just staring someone down. The silence is almost awkward it goes on so long. You’re waiting for something to happen, then when it does…BAM! It’s so worth it. Other cinematic choices, such as the extreme close-ups on the eyes of various characters, and the unforgettable music, make this a great movie. You may clap loudly for A Fistful of Dollars, just don’t laugh at the mule. Seriously, you really don’t want to laugh at the mule.

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In Want of the Western — What are your Faves? … And GO!

I’m looking for westerns.

It’s a new year, and with that comes a new game plan… Right so, you’re correct in saying it’s been a new year for the past 5 months. Memo received.

In any case, starting this month I’m going to structure the blog a bit differently. Each month (or so), I’ll pick a GRAND THEME for the movies I’ll watch that month. I’ll do a short review for each film, then at the END of the month (or the start of the next one), I’ll do some cool (perhaps only to me) diatribe about the genre, the filmmaker, the actor/actress, etc. and so forth. It’s going to be great, fabulous, maybe even magnificent!

Right now, I’m looking for your recommendations of the BEST western films ever made, or at least the best ones you’ve seen. I’m kicking off the month with A Fistful of Dollars, because a friend lent it to me months ago, and it’s been waiting impatiently to be watched ever since. After that, the movies are up in the air. I want to watch another John Wayne flick, because it’s been far too long since I’ve seen one of those, but which one is still up for debate.

Hit me with your ideas here, or on my movie recommendation tab. I’m looking forward to what you come up with.