The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) *****

A mighty cast headed by John Wayne (True Grit, 1969), James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) and Vera Miles (Pyscho, 1960) with support from Edmond O’Brien (Seven Days in May, 1964), Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966), Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) and Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1967) do justice to John Ford’s tightly-structured hymn to liberty and equality and reflection on the end of the Wild West. So tight is the picture that despite a love triangle there are no love scenes and no verbal protestations of love.

The thematic depth is astonishing: civilization’s erosion of lawlessness, big business vs. ordinary people, political chicanery, and a democracy where “people are the boss.” Throw in a villain with a penchant for whipping and a lack of the standard brawls that often marred the director’s work and you have a western that snaps at the heels of Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948) and The Searchers (1956).

The story is told in flashback after Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and wife Hallie (Vera Miles) turn up unexpectedly in the town of Shinbone for the funeral of a nobody Tom Donovan (John Wayne), so poor the undertaker has filched his boots and gunbelt to pay for the pay for the barest of bare coffins. Intrigued by his arrival, newspapermen descend and Stoddard explains why he has returned.

The backstory unfolds. Arriving on stagecoach, novice lawyer Ransom is attacked, beaten and whipped by outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He is found by horse-trader Donovan (John Wayne) and taken to a local boarding house-cum-restaurant where Hallie (Vera Miles) tends his wounds. With a young man’s full quotient of principle, Stoddard is astonished to discover that local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) has ducked out of responsibility for apprehending Valance on the dubious grounds that it is outside his jurisdiction and that Valance has so mean a reputation he has the town scared witless. When Valance turns up he humiliates Stoddard and only Donovan stands up to him, rescuing an ungrateful Ransom, who detests violence and any threat of it.

Stoddard soon turns principle into action, setting up his shingle in the local newspaper office run by Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) and on learning that Hallie is illiterate establishing  a school for all ages. In the background is politics, but the push for statehood is inhibited by big ranchers who employ Valance to intimidate. Despite his aversion to violence and insistence that due legal process will eliminate the law of the gun, Stoddard practices shooting. When Donovan gives him a lesson and, to point out his unsuitability to confront such a mean character as Valance, covers him in paint, Stoddard floors him with a punch.  

That principle I mentioned has something in common with Rio Bravo (1959) – Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon (1952) – in that Stoddard, determined to fight his own battles, refuses to ask for help when targeted by Valance. The inevitable showdown is extraordinary, not least because it takes place at night and Ford, a la Rashomon (1951) tells it twice from different points of view.   

Precisely because it retains focus throughout with no extraneous scenes as was occasionally John Ford’s wont, the direction is superb. As in The Searchers, to suggest emotional state-of-mind, the director uses imagery relating to doors. This time the humor is not so broad and limited primarily to one incident. Both main male characters suffer reversals, in the case of Stoddard it is physical but in the instance of Donovan it is emotional. Either way, action is character. In the romantic stakes, they are equals, dancing around their true feelings.

Upfront there is one storyline, the upholding of law and order whether against an individual such as Valance or against the attempts of big business to thwart democracy. But underneath is a subtly-told romance. Donovan and Stoddard are allies but in terms of Hallie they are rivals. Neither have an ounce of sense when it comes to women. Neither actually protests their love for Hallie. Although Donovan brings her cactus roses and is, unknown to her, building an extension to his house to accommodate what he hopes is his future bride, his idea of romance is to mutter, in patronizing manner, the old saw of “you look pretty when you’re angry.”  He would have been wiser to have taken note of her spunk, because she can be more than direct if need be.

Stoddard isn’t much better. Despite her growing feelings towards him being obvious to the audience, he assumes she prefers Donovan. Action drives the love element, the need to save or destroy.

All three principals are superb. This may seem a typical Wayne performance, a dominant figure, comfortable with a gun and his abilities, but awkward in matters of the heart. But he shows as great depth as in The Searchers and the despair etched on his face at the possibility of losing Hallie eats into his soul. Stewart combines the man-of-the-people he essayed for Frank Capra with some of the toughness he showed in the Anthony Mann series of westerns. Vera Miles tempers genuine anger with tenderness and practicality. Unlike many Ford heroines she is not a trophy wife, but a worker, mostly seen running a kitchen. Lee Marvin cuts a sadistic figure, with an arrogance that sets him above the law, his tongue as sharp as his whip.

As well as Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Edmond O’Brien and Lee Van Cleef, you will spot various members of the John Ford stock company including Andy Devine (Two Rode Together, 1961) as the cowardly gluttonous marshal, John Carradine (Stagecoach), John Qualen (The Searchers) as the restaurant owner and Jeanette Nolan (Two Rode Together) as his wife.

The boldest part of the picture, however, comes at the end, when the director dismantles the myth built up around Stoddard and which the politician has used to create a career that spanned two terms as a Senator, three terms as a Governor and been the American Ambassador to Britain. So be warned, if you ain’t seen the picture, this is spoiler alert. In some respects, Ford was way ahead of his time. The twist at the end where the good guy is revealed as the villain of the piece is more of a contemporary trope. There were plenty of pictures where the villain appeared to have gotten away with it only to be caught out at the very last minute. This is not that kind of movie. Stoddard gets away with it for the simple reason that he fits the heroic mold.

“Print the legend” is very much the standard American attitude to myth. Dig deeper and what you find is hypocrisy. Man-of-the-people Stoddard’s life is based on bare-faced fraud. He took the glory for an action he did not commit. Of course this was in the days before newspapers found that bringing down politicians sold more papers than building them up and these days I doubt if such a scoop would be ignored.

Nor for all his upstanding image does Stoddart show the slightest sign of remorse – until now when he must know his confession will never see the light of day. (Maybe, if he had gone to the New York Times but not the Shinbone paper). He built his entire career on this violent action, the antithesis of his supposed stance on process of law.  He takes all the plaudits and fails to acknowledge Donovan, except when it’s too late, and Donovan has died a pauper, his rootless life perhaps engendered as a result of losing Hallie. Hallie’s character, too, is besmirched. She chose Stoddart precisely because he was a man of principle who risked his life to tackle – and apparently kill – Donovan. Those two elements are indistinguishable. Had she know Stoddart had failed and was only saved by the action of Donovan it is questionable whether she would have chosen the lawyer.

There are a couple of other quibbles, not so much about the picture itself, but about other quibblers, commonly known as critics.  Alfred Hitchcock famously came under fire for the use of back projection, not just in Marnie (1964) but other later films. That spotlight never appeared to be turned on the at-the-time more famous John Ford. The train sequence at the end of the film uses back projection and the ambush at the beginning is so obviously a set.

Don’t let these put you off, however, this is one very fine western indeed and fully justifies its growing critical status.

CATCH IT ON THE BIG SCREEN: By the way, if you live in Italy you can catch this on the big screen in Bologna where it is showing at Il Cinema Ritrovato – Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna on July 20-27, 2021.

Book into Film – Elleston Trevor’s “The Flight of the Phoenix”

British novelist Elleston’s Trevor’s The Flight of the Phoenix (published in 1964) was a lean 80,000 words, a far cry from the blockbuster airport reads like Exodus by Leon Uris and James Michener’s Hawaii. But its length made it an ideal subject for a film, the shorter novel tending to stick close to the main story. The author’s speciality was authentic detail, an early career as a racing driver and flight engineer inspiring in him a love for all things mechanical. He knew what made things work and gaps in his knowledge were filled by assiduous research. He was an assiduous man, with 36 books since 1943 under ten pseudonyms, one being Adam Hall whose bestselling spy tale The Berlin Memorandum would be filmed as The Quiller Memorandum (1966). He had tackled aviation before, most prominently in Squadron Airborne (1955). But it’s worth comparing how this book was translated to the screen compared to The Berlin Memorandum, which, as discussed in a previous review, owed much of its screen personality to intervention by playwright Harold Pinter.

The film follows the book’s structure with only a couple of deviations. The main one was changing the nationality of the aircraft designer from British to German. Originally named Stringer he was a testy young individual prone to taking offence and going off in big sulks. There was a German in the Trevor version, Kepel, a young man who is injured in the crash. But there was no handy doctor on board and fewer different nationalities. To build up James Stewart as the heroic pilot and as a consequence to add meat to his clash with German designer Hardy Kruger, in the film he bravely goes out into the desert to find one of the passengers, but that does not occur in the book. Other changes were minor – in the book the passengers are occasionally able to supplement their drinking rations by scraping night frost off  the plane and at a later point in the book they drain the blood from a dead camel in order to dilute their drinking water. While there is an encounter with Arab nomads in both book and film, the movie’s approach to this incident is much more straightforward, ignoring some of the detail supplied in the book.  

Of course, a novel allows for the inclusion of far greater detail. And while that provides the skeleton for story development, Trevor gives greater insight into the characters than can be achieved on screen. The author allows each character an internal monologue, through which device we discover their motivations, history and fears. This approach combines the present with the past, presenting a more rounded cast of characters. While the inherent tension of the situation drives the story along, the author switches between characters to keep the reader fully engaged. The cowardly sergeant (played by Ronald Fraser in the film) is the biggest beneficiary, portrayed as a more sympathetic person than in the film. The book is a stand-alone enjoyment, Trevor’s writing skills, his grasp of character, creation of tension and his  engineering knowledge (bear in mind he invented the idea of building another plane out of the wrecked one) make the novel every bit as enthralling as the film.  

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) ****

Take twelve condemned men, drop them in the desert hundreds of miles from safety with only enough water to last two weeks, and nothing to eat but dates, and make them work together to effect salvation from their predicament. Not exactly the premise for The Dirty Dozen (1967) but not far off. Flight of the Phoenix appears a dummy run for director Robert Aldrich’s more ambitious war picture, not least because in terms of structure it is only eight minutes shorter. There are no women in the picture (except those appearing in a mirage) and the men, of all different types, must come together or die in the savage heat.

You might argue that the audience for this kind of picture no longer exists. In the 1960s there was a big market for the Nevil Shute/Hammond Innes/Elleston Trevor type of novel which contained a lot of practical detail at a time when heavy industry – mining, shipbuilding, oil, car manufacture – was a massive employer and the ordinary man had an easy understanding of – and was often fascinated by – the principles of engineering. Bear in mind that this was the era of space rockets and there was excitement about man’s planned flight to the moon.

During a sandstorm a small twin-engined plane carrying passengers from an oil field crash lands in the Sahara. James Stewart as the pilot was a casting trick. In a previous aerial adventure No Highway (1951), Stewart was the ordinary joe challenging authority. Here he is the authority figure challenged and part of the film’s guile is the way he has to concede that authority to the one person on board everyone hates, arrogant German aircraft designer  Hardy Kruger. The global job lot of passengers includes: two soldiers, martinet officer Peter Finch and his mutinous sergeant Ronald Fraser; Richard Attenborough as an alcoholic navigator; oil worker Ernest Borgnine on the brink of insanity; Scotsman Ian Bannen reprising the sarcastic troublemaker of previous desert drama Station Six Sahara (1963); Frenchman Christian Marquand as a doctor; veteran Dan Duryea as the company accountant; Italian Gabriele Tinti; George Kennedy and Alex Montoya; plus a monkey of no fixed abode. The monkey, incidentally, is cleverly utilised. He’s not a sentimental or cute device, there to soften a hard guy or for comic relief, but Aldrich often cuts to his squeals or his face when there is imminent danger.

Two passengers are already dead, one is seriously injured. They have been blown so far off-course they will be impossible to locate. There is only enough water for ten or eleven days. It is a given in such circumstances that tempers will explode and hidden secrets surface. Were they guaranteed rescue those two pegs would be enough to hang a movie on.  Since there is no such guarantee, this becomes a picture about survival. The obvious manoeuvre comes into play on the fifth day. Finch determines to walk to safety, over 100 miles in deadly heat. But it’s not a trek picture either, the engineers present know the risks. Mountains will cause false compass readings and those going will walk around in circles.

What? I can get that magnetism in the mountains can affect a compass but where does the walking round in circles enter the equation? Because, explains Attenborough patiently, a person does not automatically walk in a straight line if there is no actual road. If right-handed then you’ll walk in a left-hand direction because the right leg is more developed than the other and takes a longer stride and there’s nothing you can do about it. This doesn’t matter if you are walking along an actual path but in the desert with no road markings it’s lethal. And this is the beginning of a bag of what would otherwise be deemed trivia except that such facts are a matter of life and death. This is a movie about reality in a way that no other realistic or authentic picture has or will be. Physics is the dominant force, not imagination.

Finch’s sergeant fakes an injury to avoid going. The mad Borgnine, originally prevented from leaving, sneaks away in the night. James Stewart, in courageous mode, goes after him. While he is away, Kruger carries out a character assassination. And continues on his return – “the only thing outstanding about you is your stupidity.” By now though, Attenborough has warmed to Kruger’s insane idea of building a single-engined plane out of the wreck of the twin-engined one. And that becomes the crux of the story. Can they build this weird contraption? Will they manage it before they die of thirst? Will rising tensions prevent completion? Are they fit enough after days in the boiling heat to manage the herculean tasks involved?

Aldrich keeps psychological tension at fever pitch, helped along by the pessimistic Stewart and the wildly pessimistic Bannen, needling everyone in sight, who delivers lines like “how I stopped smoking in three days.” Stewart and Attenborough have to come to terms with the parts they played in the plane crashing, Fraser with his cowardice. Issues arise over leadership and water theft.

I won’t spoil it for you by mentioning the incident that threatens to demolish the entire project. But the finale is truly thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff and the skeletal monstrosity being constructed looks hardly capable of carrying the monkey let alone a full complement of passengers. Aldrich is a master of the group shot with unerring composition and often movement within the frame or just a simple bit of business by an actor, for example George Kennedy at one point tapping his hand against his leg, ensuring that the film does not solely focus on a couple of characters. Sometimes all Aldrich needs to make his points are reaction shots.

Aldrich called on Lukas Heller for the screenplay, having worked with him on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Aldrich’s son William and son-in-law Peter Bravos had bit parts, killed off during the crash.

Flight of the Phoenix virtually invented the self-help rescue genre that relied on ingenious mechanical ideas – rather than more simplistic notions – such as later absorbed in movies like Apollo 13 (1995) and The Martian  (2015). Aldrich’s mastery of group dynamics would stand in him in good stead for The Dirty Dozen. A terrific movie and well worth seeing.

See also also the companion piece – Book into Filmwhich is posted tomorrow.

Pressbook: Sing, Jimmy, Sing – Shenandoah (1965)

Pressbooks (also known as Campaign Manuals) were notorious for coming up with all sorts of insane and inane devices in an attempt to entice the moviegoer. The extremely handsome 20-page A3 pressbook for Andrew V. McLaglen’s Civil War western Shenandoah (1965) was no different in that respect – “racetrack in your area – hold a Shenandoah handicap.”  Or how about this classic: “In Shenandoah the war stops for a cow that wanders between the fighting…a local dairy might be interested: Everything Stops While The Public Drinks Our Milk etc.”

Luckily, the marketeers had some better ideas, mostly based on the traditional folk song of the title which has a hymnal quality. So star James Stewart was roped in to cut a record, released on the Decca label, with special lyrics of that famous song.  For a start the idea of Stewart singing was a clever stunt in itself, but the main aim was not to garner some newspaper coverage but to attract the attention of radio stations and use the record’s cover as a means of encouraging music stores to set up window displays.

And never mind Stewart’s contribution to the canon of singers of the song, the marketing team identified more than 30 other versions of the song by the likes of Harry Belafonte (four versions), Jimmie Rodgers (three) and Guy Lombardo and instrumentals by British jazzman Acker Bilk of “Strangers on the Shore” fame and guitarist Duane Eddy. Decca was putting further promotional push behind an album entitled “The Blue and the Grey, Songs of the American Civil War.”

Theater managers were urged to suggest to radio stations they group some of these tunes together “for an interesting period of broadcast listening, perhaps in a musical segment of Civil War songs or a radio contest to identify the vocalist.”

In addition, the marketing team sought coverage in the television pages of newspapers since many of the supporting cast were small screen regulars – Doug McClure star of The Virginian, Glenn Corbett star of Route 66 and James McMullen a regular on Ben Casey – and newcomer Katharine Ross had been featured in a few shows. “You should take advantage of this away-from-the-amusement-section opportunity to pick up extra publicity space directed to the TV page reader!”  

Of course, the main purpose of a Pressbook was to provide the theater owner with the actual advertisements for the movie. He or she would cut these out and drop them off at the local newspaper which would use them to make up the ads that ran in the newspaper. These came in a variety of sizes from small single column black-and-white efforts to larger five-column full-color ads.

And they also came with an avalanche of taglines (note the varying use of capital letters) and images. The key tagline was “Two Mighty Armies Trampled Its Valley…A Fighting Family Challenged Them Both.”

Or you might have come across these alternatives –“Like giants they stood in the path of two might armies…and with their fighting spirit challenged them both” or “James Stewart, A Giant Of A Man Who Fought For Shenandoah” and “When History Called for Men and Women Larger than Life…Charlie Anderson and his proud family answered the challenge – with courage mightier than guns – and with love that no cannot could ever shatter.”

And there were more: “They reached for their rifles in the name of love…not hate…to challenge two mighty armies” down to the simpler “Shakes The Screen Like Cannon Thunder” and “Where A Mighty Adventure Was Born.”  You might be led to believe from this fusillade of taglines that the marketing department could not make up its minds about which tagline was best and just chucked them all at the theater manager, leaving them to choose.

But that was not the case. The reason behind the disparate taglines was precisely to provide choice, to allow the theater manager to decide how best to market the picture to suit the audience he or she knew best.