To state something obvious, unless you die, you get old, and may live long enough to outlive your usefulness. Hemmingway had a solution. When he felt he couldn’t write, fight, or fuck like he used to, he decided he’d rather be dead. Both John Ford and Howard Hawks worked their way out of the film business. Their careers were long and storied, and both worked for over four decades, making great films at all points during their long and varied journies. But they also ran out of steam. Both made great autumnal works – without a doubt – but both the films celebrated here in Paramount’s Centennial collection also show some fatigue.
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance may be more the important of the two. John Wayne stars as Tom Doniphon in the first time he ever called anyone “pilgrim.”
That nickname goes to Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), who acts as the narrator of the tale, as the film beings with Tom’s death. Rance and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) have come to bury him, and meet with the surviving members of the town. When Rance first came to town he was robbed and assaulted by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and though Rance wants to do something about it, the law and the town don’t want no trouble, and shuffle it off as a territorial issue. The area is on the verge of getting civilized, and if you know Ford, you know what that means. But Rance – pushed to his breaking point – finally takes up a gun to challenge Vallance, and when he succeeds it sets him up to marry Hallie (who everyone thought was Tom’s girl), and leads to a promising senatorial career. But that’s not exactly the way it happened.
Not as subtle or as bold as Ford at his best, I still feel like this film packs more than a wallop. The problem with the movie is that Ford’s eye was besieged by his studio setting, and the film rarely breathes like his earlier pictures – or, for that matter, The Searchers. You feel like they’re using leftover sets from Bonanza. It also has moments of some ham, though not from Lee Marvin, who is fittingly psychotic as the titular character. But, in spite of the limitations of the screen, the story is very much of the Ford mold, and what it says about how towns are born, and the recession of the “wild” west is still touching. And the ending, if you don’t see it coming down main street, is just about perfect.
Paramount’s two disc set presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and in both 5.1 Dolby Digital surround, and original English mono. The transfer is cleaner than Paramount’s original bare bones release. The first disc also comes with a commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, with comments from Ford and Stewart mixed in. There’s also a selected scenes commentary with Dan Ford (John’s Grandson) with archival comments from Ford, Stewart and Marvin. On disc two there’s a making-of/appraisal (50 min.) and the theatrical trailer, along with four still galleries. I found the making of to be fairly typical of a movie starring a bunch of dead people: glowing.
Somewhat less successful as a classic, but way more entertaining is Howard Hawks’ El Dorado. After the success of Rio Bravo (and the failure of his follow-ups), Hawks basically took the rough outline of Bravo and redressed it into a slightly new story. Wayne is back as Cole Thorton, a gunslinger who gets in the middle of a turf war when he’s hired by Bart Jason (Ed Asner) to hunt the MacDonald’s. Thorton refuses the job, but accidentally kills a MacDonald who fell asleep at his guard-post, after he takes a wild shot. Such leads Josephine MacDonald (Michelle Carey) to put a bullet in the back of Cole. J.P. Harrah is the sheriff of El Dorado, and when the film cuts to him a little bit later, he’s also the town’s drunk, and he’s right in the middle of the turf war. Along the way Cole picks up Mississippi (aka Alan Bourdillion Traherne, as played by James Caan) who’s brilliant with a knife, but terrible with a gun (so they get him a one handed shotgun). Cole gets involved with protecting the MacDonalds again when he sees that Jason hired Nels McCloud (Christopher George), an impressive gunslinger who like Cole values skill. And so Cole and Mississippi take the side of J.P., who needs help sobering up.
If you’ve seen both, or just Bravo, you can see the similarities. Cole and Hannah mix up the characters Wayne and Dean Martin played in Bravo, with Mitchum the drunk, but also the sheriff. Though Dean Martin’s performance is superior, and easily the finest work of Martin’s career, it’s fun to see Mitchum playing in the Hawks universe, and he bounces well off Wayne. You’ve also got Arthur Hunnicutt in for Walter Brennan, which is a step down, but you do get James Caan in for Ricky Nelson, and arguably that’s a step up. Caan can play with Wayne a bit more, though that means there’s no musical number. There’s some different set pieces, and there’s not that much romance (more bromance ha ha), but it’s also a clean, well told story that is engaging all the way through. For the Hawks fan, it’s fun to see the film weave its way through the Rio Bravo tropes, and how it plays with them and tweaks them. It’s also a film about getting old and worn down, which is emphasized by Wayne’s paralysis as a result of having a bullet stuck near his spine. It doesn’t kill him (Hawks was never a big believer in killing of his leads for effect), but it definitely puts both Mitchum and Wayne in the context of Autumnal stars.
It’s a genre piece, but it works. Paramount presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and in both 5.1 Dolby digital and original mono. There’s two commentaries with the film, one by Peter Bogdanovich, the other by critic Richard Schickel, Hawks Biographer Todd McCarthy, and actor Ed Asner. A two disc set, the second features a documentary on the making of (41 min.) and a conversation with Paramount executive A.C. Lyles about John Wayne. There’s also a vintage featurette about artist Olaf Weighorst, the trailer, and two still galleries.