Category Archives: Western

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Into the lawless west came Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), fresh from law school, and armed only with law books. His stagecoach however was assailed by masked bandits and he left for dead.  His money may have be stolen but fortune was on his side as Tom Donophin (John Wayne) found him and brought him to the small town of Shinbone. So begins the flashback that forms the main narrative of John Ford‘s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, 123 mins).

The flashback is triggered by Stoddard, now a senator, returning with wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to attend the funeral of his good samaritan. Asked by the local paper to tell his story — a famous politician seeing off a practical unknown is quite the scoop — he agrees, citing characters from his past as justification. His story is the stuff of legend, centring as it does on his continued encounters with the belligerent Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the widely feared leader of the aforementioned bandits.

The film is not a simple story of law versus lawless, but is in fact a look at the changing condition of the west, as its wildness is tamed. Donophin and Valance, both cut from the same cloth, represent the old west, where justice and pistols are one and the same; while Stoddard with his books is seen as ushering in a new learned era. He teaches the illiterate of Shinbone to read and write and preaches democracy, all to a classroom comprising women, blacks, and immigrants. It’s classic civil rights stuff and given its shooting in the early 1960s, seems entirely relevant and its contemporary impact would likely have been harder hitting than it would be today.

Despite its moral compass, a love story also runs through, with the affections of both Donophin and Stoddard focused on Hallie. Together before the lawyer’s arrival, Hallie and Donophin grow apart as she sways toward the newcomer. There’s a sense that Donophin, as a cypher for the old west, knows his time is nigh and begrudgingly allows the women he loves to drift away. And while she willingly goes, and enjoys the success that comes, it’s clear from the beginning that she always loved the other. Just another element that gives The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance depth.

One thing that does seem particularly silly is the age of both Wayne and Stewart. At the time of filming they would have been in their fifties, playing men some thirty years their junior. While it’s easier to accept Wayne’s traditional cowboy, Stewart is unbelievable as a fresh-faced graduate. However, it’s easy to set age concerns aside and enjoy his performance as his helpless unarmed attorney evolves into a man whose later success hangs on the legendary reputation he acquires in his final encounter with Liberty Valance. The burden of that legend weighs hard, and as the flashback continues, we learn the facts that, once aired, allow Stoddard some respite.

Away from the main cast’s tale, the town of Shinbone is people with a wide range of memorable characters, notably Edmond O’Brien‘s Dutton Peabody (alcoholic editor of the Shinbone Star) and Andy Devine‘s Marshall Appleyard, whose cowardice allows Valance’s hellraising to go unchecked and brings some comic relief to an otherwise serious film. Lee Van Cleef‘s Reese, one of two sidekicks to Valance, is a touch underused, although he and his compatriot’s limited role serves to enhance their boss’s malevolence. Valance himself is a bit one-note, although his unlikeability allows us not to mourn him too much when the inevitable happens.

When Stoddard’s flashback ends and the truth is out we are left to question the nature of the western myth, asking whether heroes are made or made-up. The railroad’s advent modernises industry; enlightenment changes society. Shinbone — and, by extension, the world — will never be the same again. And with these advances the old cowboy tales — and cowboys like Tom Donophin — are relegated to the past. Stoddard’s is one such tale; his legend will live on, the facts disregarded. But given the truth at the heart of his fame, the romance of the west never felt so bittersweet.

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Straight To Hell (1987)

Straight To Hell (1987)

Given the chance to make ¡Three Amigos!, (1986) Alex Cox declined and instead made Straight To Hell (1987, 87 mins.), a rowdy send-up of spaghetti westerns, its cast peppered with musicians. Panned on release it has since achieved something of a cult status, filed under the so bad it’s good category. And while it really is bad, it is hard to approach it as a serious work, so is probably best taken in the spirit it was intended. Therefore it does have a certain entertaining charm but that still doesn’t make it good.

The story behind the film is arguably better than the one filmed. Following a successful gig in London in support of the Sandinistas, Cox intended to film a concert tour of Nicaragua featuring the bands involved. With funding not forthcoming and the artists already signed up for a month, it was easier to raise far more cash for a movie. So they went to Spain, filmed it, and the result of four weeks’ work produced Straight To Hell.

The brief timescale shows. While it’s evident that the cast are having a good laugh making it, the film suffers throughout. The plot rumbles along on a logic all its own and much of the cast can barely act, hamming it up at every opportunity. While it’s spoofing spaghetti westerns and gives nods to familiar tropes (towns with rival gangs; the undertaker having to clean up the stranger’s mess) it’s not really funny. Instead there’s the sense that it’s full of in-jokes between the ensemble, audience be damned. However, it does do something different by way of a genre mash-up, bringing organised crime into the western format.

After a botched job and a hurried robbery three hitmen (Sy Richardson, Dick Rude, and Joe Strummer), with a whining Courtney Love in tow, head to Mexico to lay low and escape their boss’s wrath. They bury the cash and hole up in a small desert town. When they eventually crawl out of a local bar, their story becomes as meandering as their drunken swagger. The coffee-swigging McMahon family (played by various members of The Pogues) are the resident gang and shoot out after shoot out ensues as other strangers come to town. Ultimately, everyone wants to get their hands on the buried cash.

At one point Dennis Hopper shows up, hands over a huge gun to the fugitives, and vanishes into the desert dust. It’s a seemingly random act, but it’s one of many moments that can be pinned to a wider plot, if obliquely. Sure, the viewer can infer from one scene to another at times what’s going on, but the treatment feels unfair due to a lack of information. Whether scenes were edited out or Cox and Rude weren’t too fussed at the lacunae in their script, Straight To Hell plays as if we are only privy to occasional glimpses of something more complete.

For all it’s stupidity, it’s hard not see that Straight To Hell can also have been an influential film. A young Quentin Tarantino must surely have taken one look at Strummer and Richardson here and jotted down notes that would later see homage in Pulp Fiction. While the film is a raucous espresso-fuelled mess, it can still be enjoyed on its own terms, whatever they may actually be.

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