Once upon a time in the land of Hollywood (back in the ’50s and ’60s), Westerns were the superhero movies of their day. They featured larger-than-life heroes overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds and fighting evil villains who wreaked havoc on the innocent townsfolk. The filmgoing public ravenously consumed these movies, kids cosplayed as their favorite Western heroes, and movie studios relied on them as consistent money makers. A select few of these even became classics by breaking the clichéd rules of the genre and confronting viewers with uncomfortable moral quandaries.
One of these classics is John Ford‘s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and a young Lee Marvin. The film finds Stewart playing wide-eyed lawyer Ranse Stoddard, who rises to prominence as a U.S. Senator after he finds his cojones, and with some mysterious help from Wayne’s veteran gunslinger Tom Doniphon, rids the town of Marvin’s Liberty Valance. When a reporter finds out the truth about what happened to Valance, he must decide whether to print the truth or let the legend live on. Stewart and Wayne are great in the movie, but it’s Marvin who steals this one with his electric, evil charm. It’s considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made and now it’s getting a remake… of sorts.
Deadline is reporting that Paramount Pictures has tapped Chap Taylor (Changing Lanes) to write a script based on Ford’s original film. Produced by Matt Jackson, the Liberty Valance remake will be set in New York City in 1991 during one of the most tumultuous times in the city’s history. It’ll be tied to the crack cocaine scourge that ravaged NYC and saw the murder rate skyrocket to unprecedented levels. The Ranse Stoddard in this version will be a young, college-educated black police officer who volunteers to be stationed in Harlem, hoping to make a difference. He’s paired with a veteran Irish-American cop who, I imagine, is a version of John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon. This might be a subtle reference to Wayne, who memorably played an Irish-American in Ford’s The Quiet Man.
Taylor, who worked as bouncer and bartender in Greenwich Village while attending NYU Film School during the early ’90s, told Deadline that his own experiences inspired him to write the script.
“It was the height of the crack war and when organized crime was breaking down and its control over the heroin trade left everyone fighting for their corner. The choice was to crack enough skulls that they stopped, or to engage in community policing to make things safer for the people who lived there, who wanted to be known to the police as more than potential suspects. There were well-meaning cops, but it was also the era of the Dirty Thirty scandal at a Harlem precinct house, which made it like the Wild West with some outlaw cops and street violence and corruption.”
As the writer of Changing Lanes and a consulting producer on NBC’s The Blacklist, Taylor is no stranger to moral dilemmas. Lanes had Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson escalating a simple traffic accident to insane levels that constantly forced you to question whose side you were on. Adjusting the hero in Liberty Valance from a young lawyer to a young policeman trying to help his community certainly presents some interesting, topical avenues to explore. Will he have to make a questionable moral choice that echoes Stewart’s decision in the original? Will he rise to prominence on the back of a lie so that he can do more work for the greater good? Or will that lie end up unraveling all the “good” he’s done?
As a massive fan of classic Westerns, I loathe to see them remade beat for beat. So, if you’re going to remake one, you’d better have something new and unique to say that builds upon the central message of the original. Setting this new version in a combustible situation that pits a police force pushed to its limits against the the crack cocaine epidemic certainly gives the remake that opportunity. We’ll see what Taylor creates here and if he can ask new questions of the audience in our currently fluid moral society. I’m also eager to see who Paramount taps to direct the Liberty Valance remake, but that’s another story for another day.