Thursday, November 19, 2015

THAT'S Who Shot Liberty Valance!

Sometimes, a great movie is so good there is danger of forgetting that it was based on a great novel or short story.

This isn’t always the case. Alan Lemay’s The Searchers or Charles Portis’ True Grit, for instance, are well-known enough by themselves to be remembered alongside the movies they inspired.

But I’ll bet a lot of movie fans—and even a lot of fans of prose Westerns—don’t know or remember that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is based on a 1949 short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson.

Johnson combined a sparse writing style with wonderful characterizations. She was able to give us an effective snapshot of a character and a setting in just a few words, setting up the ensuing story without wasting any words. To a large degree, her Westerns remind me of the best hard-boiled detective stories.

It’s interesting to compare Johnson’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” to the movie version. In the film, Jimmy Stewart is a tenderfoot coming west—a man who is convinced that the law (and NOT the gun) is what is needed to bring civilization to the West. But he meets and gets the snot beaten out of him by Liberty Valance, a brutal thug who pretty much everyone in the territory fears.  Even after this, though, Ranse (Stewart’s character) is determined to follow the law and not turn to violence. When he does finally take up a gun, it is only after a long and heartfelt moral struggle.

Interwoven with this is his growing relationship with Hallie (Vera Miles) and his antagonistic “friendship” with Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). All of this plays a part in Ranse’s final confrontation with Liberty.

Director John Ford uses these personal stories to make cogent points about civilization, the use of violence within a civilized society, and tensions between fact and legend.

In the original story, though, Ranse isn’t quite as admirable. He’s coming West after a family argument; his encounter with Liberty makes him want to kill the thug; and his behavior is all carefully calculated to lure Liberty into the town so that Ranse can confront him. This version of Ranse has no qualms about using a gun, though he has no real expectation of winning a fight.

Hallie is still there, as is Bert (the character renamed Tom in the film). The interpersonal relationships between these three is pretty much the same, leading up to a similar ending. Liberty himself is much less visible in the story than in the movie—he no longer represents the savage, uncivilized Wild West, but is simply one man’s personal demon.

So the short story is much more about just the characters and only touches lightly on other themes. It is, therefore, a much smaller story. But NOT smaller in a bad way. It is an engaging and suspenseful tale that surprises you by making you care for an unlikeable protagonist.

That John Ford took the story and built it into something else is fine—since he ended up making a truly classic Western. But this is a case where it’s important not to forget that the short story came first and is a classic in on its own terms.

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