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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

“I don’t like those hard goodbyes” – Strother Martin

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Introduction by Richard T. Jameson

Strother Martin thought the folks from the Seattle Film Society wanted to meet him just because he had done some jobs of work for Sam Peckinpah and they had had Sam to tea a year or so earlier. Not that that gave him any trouble. Like any other veteran character actor he had long since got used to being the face and voice that people marked immediately without being able to attach a name. Unlike many other character actors, he had been wrong on that point for quite a few years—at the very least, since late 1967, when filmgoers first heard the line “What we have here is failure to communicate” out of the mouth of the pusselgutted chain-gang overseer in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke. Plenty of people, not just film-society types, could be relied on to look right fond whenever the name Strother Martin was dropped, and say “Oh yeah, I like him, he’s always good.”

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Strother Martin in Seattle in 1979 (photo by Tom Keogh, scanned from Movietone News 66-67)

The Martins were having dinner with two other cast members, Marjorie Bennett and Meg Wylie, who Joined us for the first part of our chat in an improvised semi-private diningroom. Bennett, especially familiar for her work in Robert Aldrich pictures (she and Martin had both appeared in one-scene roles in Kiss Me Deadly; her son from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Victor Buono, was out bulking in the lobby a few yards away), held forth in her best sinister-pixie style on everything from Rudolph Valentino to the fireweed-honey-from-the-sky ritual at Snoqualmie Falls Lodge. The rest of the company delightedly deferred to her. Then, after she had retired for the evening, Martin settled down to talk about, well, Sam Peckinpah, he thought, but we insisted we were interested in Strother Martin, too.

The Strother Martin we met was a fellow markedly different from the variously desperate, deranged, and depraved characters he had so often essayed. Mostly he spoke in soft, gracious tones, with a particularity of reference and inflection consistent with the classical tastes and sensibility he frequently evidenced. Every once in a while, though, when an anecdote required the quotation of a line from The Wild Bunch or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that familiar backwoodsy twang cut the air. (He was particularly proud of the appreciative reception a Harlem moviehouse audience had given his pronunciation of “pussy” while cussing out the hockey team in Slap Shot.) From time to time he lit a cigarette and got about two puffs out of it before Mrs. Martin quietly reached across and stubbed it out.

That was in March 1979. A year later, Strother Martin appeared at a Filmex program, “Characters,” devoted to the work of people like him; the entirety of his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid performance was screened. One hoped that Martin and those other colleagues present—Richard Loo was a few seats away—would be called up to take their bows. It didn’t happen. They signed a few autographs. Within months, both men had passed away.

The following remarks were recorded and transcribed by Tom Keogh and Lesley Link. As the tape started to roll, Martin was talking about an unlikely director….

…I would like to own the film on the life of Delius that Ken Russell did for the BBC? Did you see that? It was done on the PBS stations. Max Adrian played Delius. It’s Ken Russell’s best film, and it’s about one of my favorite subjects. It’s a great film; it’s better than Women in Love. I read once that Glenda Jackson said it was his best film. Such a wonderful biography. He’s meddled with a lot of composers and he’s made me very angry. I didn’t go to see “Tchaikovsky” [The Music Lovers] and I was terribly disappointed in the Mahler film, I just hated it. But I admire his images and his imagination.

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John Ford’s Wilderness: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The poster that launched Liberty Valance
The poster that launched Liberty Valance

[originally published in slightly different form in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1978, Volume 47 No. 4; reprinted with thanks to BFI]

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been so widely discussed, dissected and applauded that by now it must rank as one of John Ford’s least underappreciated films. Its reputation is due in no small part to the obvious feeling Ford invested in the project, making of it his final meditation on a large part of the mythic territory he invented and embellished in more than four decades of film-making. Liberty Valance is particularly interesting for the explicit way it juxtaposes a characteristic Ford frontier West (cf. My Darling Clementine) with another West that, with its contemporary technology—telephones, electric fans and smoking train engines—is recognizably modern. Significantly, just as the “past” sequences are, apart from the explicitly revisionist world of Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s parting look at the frontier, so too the “modern” sequences are, apart from a brief vignette in Donovan’s Reef, his parting glance toward contemporary America.

The standard critical approach to Liberty Valance has been to emphasize the contrasts between its two worlds and to characterize it as celebrating the mythic frontier and mourning its passing and betrayal by the corrupting forces of progress. This approach has produced a substantial body of perceptive commentary on the film, but somehow its operative word—“elegiac”—seems inadequate, implicitly neglecting as it does Ford’s ambivalence towards the past and the richness and complexity of his treatment of the post-frontier West.

Like many Ford films—most obviously those dealing with the military—Liberty Valance focuses on the struggle to subordinate the individual to achieve some greater communal good. Liberty Valance, however, not only presents such a struggle, to civilize the wilderness frontier, but explicitly shows the result, the modern town of Shinbone, and implicitly questions whether the sacrifices are justified. In that sense, the film is perfectly congruent with the notion of a Ford who became increasingly bitter and pessimistic with age, and ultimately challenged many of the moral tenets his earlier films had so eloquently affirmed. But what is not so well understood about Liberty Valance is its awareness of how the modern world is not simply a betrayal of what preceded it, but a logical extension of it; the flow of history is organic, the present an extension of the past. Ultimately, Ford professes faith in neither wilderness nor garden; he has considerable affection for the past, but no real belief in the viability of a society based on untrammeled individualism. Thus he undercuts his celebration of the mythic past with a corrosive revisionism that, far more than any lines of quotable dialogue, demonstrates his commitment to confronting and scrutinizing, rather than simply printing, the legend that is the subject of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

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