The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance includes one of the more memorable quotes from an old Western film: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Author Dorothy Johnson didn't pen the line, but the Montana native's short story inspired the movie starring John Wayne and James Stewart. It was one of three short stories by the former University of Montana journalism professor to be turned into a feature film—the others were A Man Called Horse and The Hanging Tree—and by far the most popular. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance regularly ranks among critics' lists as one the best Westerns ever. It earned one Academy Award nomination in 1963.
Missoula Outdoor Cinema concludes its season Saturday, Sept. 3, with a screening of the classic. In honor of that showing, we take a look at a few other old-school offerings from the genre that also stand the test of time.
One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
The story behind the camera almost trumps the one on screen with this wicked tale of revenge. Marlon Brando earned the director's credit for One-Eyed Jacks after he fired the not-yet-legendary Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange) from the project. Brando's first cut of the film, in which he also stars, reportedly ran more than five hours and included a different and much darker ending. Kubrick wasn't the only big name to be removed from Brando's baby—Sam Peckinpah (more on him in a second) helped write the original script, and Rod Serling ("The Twilight Zone") later rewrote another version. Calder Willingham, who would go on to do the screenplay for The Graduate, was also fired from the writing team.
Never mind all the distractions. The final theatrical cut—a still-long 141 minutes—simmers as a psychological standoff between Rio (Brando) and his double-crossing former partner, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden). The way Rio eventually settles the score opens a wound wider than anything done by a Colt .45.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Peckinpah went on to become one of the foremost writers and directors of Westerns, first making Ride the High Country, and later the underrated The Ballad of Cable Hogue and the iconic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. None of those, however, kicks you in the teeth quite like this merciless film, which has been remembered as both a parable for the Vietnam War and a eulogy for the entire Western genre.
A ragtag group of has-been outlaws—including William Holden and Ernest Borgnine—make a last stand against the Mexican army as the traditional American West disappears around them. The blood-stained shoot-outs stand out, even now, but it's the quiet camaraderie and sense of history that make the most lasting impressions.
Colorado Territory (1949)
Director Raoul Walsh pulled an interesting double-dip by remaking his own 1940 gangster flick, High Sierra, as a Western. While the original starred big names like Humphrey Bogart, Colorado Territory features a rugged Joel McCrea in the leading role and a beautifully written script. One example: when McCrea's outlaw character tells his new love that he's trying to go straight after one last job. "You can bust out of jail, maybe, or mud holes like I was in, but you can't bust out of what you are," she tells him.
One note: Walsh's Western isn't available on DVD, but you can find it every so often on Turner Classic Movies.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Other Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood collaborations get the attention, but the duo's original Western about The Man With No Name deserves just as much acclaim. Scored by Ennio Morricone, shot in Italy, and finished on a much tighter budget than its sequels, the film blisters with the anticipation of brutal violence. It's not as polished—or perhaps as overdone—as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West, and that's a good thing.
The Shooting (1967)
A young Jack Nicholson teams up with Warren Oates as bounty hunters who end up being the hunted. Another psychological Western, this one does for bleak desert country what the psychedelic '70s Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller did for snowstorms. The story could be considered too minimal for many, but Nicholson's performance makes it worth the risk.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
At a certain point, Western fans could give a flying spur about cerebral twists. Action and attitude steer this genre's wagon, and that makes John Sturges's adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai a pitch-perfect Western. The movie's tagline tells viewers everything they need to know: "They were seven ... they fought like seven hundred!" They, in this case, include Yule Brenner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson, and their mission is to protect a poor Mexican village from bandits. It's McQueen who delivers one of the best lines—"We deal in lead, friend"—as a last warning before the bullets start to fly.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance screens at the Headstart Playfield, Sat., Sept. 3, at 8:21 PM. Free.