Paramount continues to release several of their best classic films in their recent Centennial Collection. Some of their previous releases include, “Sunset Boulevard”, “Roman Holiday”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “To Catch a Thief” and “The Odd Couple”. Now they’ve released “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “El Dorado”. Both films star icon, John Wayne as unforgettable characters in stories that hold up to this day as memorable contributions to the history of film.
Whenever you think of westerns you can’t help but think of two John’s—John Wayne and John Ford. John Ford was legendary for his work directing many classic westerns that remain highlights in film history. “Stagecoach”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande” are only a few great examples of Ford’s work and each included John Wayne as the lead. Unlike several of Ford’s epic films that surveyed the scope of the Western frontiers, “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance” was filmed in Hollywood on a back lot due to Ford’s health. Still, the picture remains epic in story and character. In part, the confines of the limited views only further captures the mood of this melancholy western tale.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” opens with the arrival of Senator Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles). They’ve come to bury their friend, Tom Doniphon and want nothing to do with the newspaper reporters that keep prodding them for a story. Finally, Ranse gives in and decides to clear the air by telling the story of why he came back to bury an old friend no one seems to have heard of. He says the West was different when he arrived. The story goes from the present to the past where we meet young Ranse who’s going west to “seek fame, fortune, adventure”. Unfortunately for Ranse, he runs into trouble when Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang ambush his stagecoach and leave him beaten in the middle of nowhere.
It isn’t until about 18 minutes into the film that you see John Wayne. He rides in on his horse in his trademark Western hat, along with his trusty friend, Pompey (Woody Strode). Together they haul Ranse to Hallie so she can look after him. So, just who is this man who found Ransom? It’s Tom Doniphon. “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance” isn’t your average Western. It has so many layers that keep you interested throughout the two hour running time. The story of Ranse wanting to bring law to the west and wanting to help the people learn to read and write is almost bittersweet, especially once you watch the final scene of the film. Of course, this isn’t just Ranse’s story, it’s the story of Tom who has highs and lows in the film and is truly one of the more fascinating characters I’ve seen from a western film. Whether you’re watching Ransom try and bring his new ideals and his hopes for law to the West, or you’re wondering whether Ransom or Tom will win the heart of Hallie, or perhaps you’re on the edge of your seat wondering just who will shoot Liberty Valance and how - “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is certainly engaging.
It’s hard to pinpoint what’s most appealing about the film. Certainly the performances are iconic from John Wayne to James Stewart; you really don’t get any better than that. Oh sure, John Wayne isn’t the world’s greatest actor, but there’s something about him that you can’t help but root for and enjoy. Lee Marvin is impeccable as the villain with quick bursts of rage, menacing looks and perfect delivery. The writing is wonderful with memorable lines throughout, as well as a finely crafted story that far exceeds expectation. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The ninth film in the Centennial Collection from Paramount is “El Dorado”. Another John Wayne classic, this film is directed by Howard Hawks who was known for making several films from several genres. “El Dorado” wasn’t Hawks’ first western paired with John Wayne, it was his third. Following success with Wayne in “Red River”, “Rio Bravo” and “Hatari!”, he signed on to direct The Duke once more in this classic western. The film follows gunman, Cole Thornton (John Wayne) who was hired by a wealthy rancher, Bart Jason (Ed Asner, “Mary Tyler Moore”) to assist in the takeover of the MacDonald ranch that has more water supply. Once Cole learns the details behind Jason’s reason for hiring him from the sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) who also happens to be his friend, Cole backs out of the deal with Jason.
While “El Dorado” certainly has the makings of your average Western, it manages to surprise with humorous characters and captivating performances. Who can’t help but sit up and listen when John Wayne talks? But what’s more interesting is how well Mitchum plays off of Wayne. Together along with the loyal deputy Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt) and young, lousy shot sidekick Mississippi (James Caan) they battle Jason and his new hired gunman in hopes of saving the MacDonald’s family ranch. Things go awry on several occasions, only adding some depth to the film. Misfires, fragile characters and holdups steer this picture to it’s enjoyable ending.
Although there are some concerns (pacing), the characters do carry this film throughout a good deal of the running time. Not only are Wayne and Mitchum great as the leads, the character of Josephine “Joey” MacDonald (Michele Carey) the feisty, determined woman who shoots Cole makes a wonderful addition to the usual western roundup. The story feels a bit long at two hours, but the performances should keep fans interested throughout.
VIDEO: "El Dorado" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance" are both presented by Paramount in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Both looked surprisingly good for their age, with sharpness and detail that - while not overly impressive - is still quite pleasing. A few scenes here-and-there looked somewhat soft, but most appeared quite crisp. Some mild edge enhancement in a few scenes on each title was a detriment to the presentation, but didn't become too much of a distraction. The elements looked quite good, with only a few scattered specks and marks.
SOUND: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is presented in mono and Dolby Digital 5.1, while "El Dorado" is presented in mono only. The mono soundtracks for both titles sounded just fine, with no distortion and reasonably clear dialogue. The 5.1 soundtrack for "Liberty Valance" used the surrounds briefly on a few occasions for some light reinforcement, but the audio was largely spread across the front speakers.
SPECIAL FEATURES for “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
“Selected Scene Commentary” - the commentary is not for the whole film, but focuses on several key scenes from the movie. Director John Ford’s grandson, Dan Ford presents several archival recordings from interviews he held with John Ford, James Stewart and Lee Marvin. The recordings are also marvelous because they give us a look at what it must have been like to work, first hand, on this classic film. They feel more like fond memories rather than random comments to fill time. This is definitely worth a look for fans.
Commentary with Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich along with his archival recordings of Ford and Stewart. Bogdanovich is interesting and offers a good deal of information and insight regarding the making of the film, as well as the content. There are some moments of silence, but the commentary is well worth the listen. The addition of the archival recordings adds greatly to the commentary. After all, who better to comment on the making of the film than those who experienced it first hand? Definitely worth a listen.
“The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth” is a seven chapter special feature you can choose to watch one at a time or all together. Fans won’t be able to walk away from this feeling short changed. The feature focuses on several things including the fall of the studio contract and what that meant during the 60’s for writers, directors and actors, as well as the different approach the film took. The lure of the western is discussed here, focus is placed on the life and career of John Ford, and the draw of John Wayne is commented on as well. With a good deal of archival footage, photos and especially interesting audio recordings there is so much here that you feel you’re actually learning about the process of making the film and the characters (written and actual) that were at the helm.
Also included on the Centennial Collection DVD of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is the original theatrical trailer and galleries.
SPECIAL FEATURES for “El Dorado”
Commentary with Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich is interesting especially when he discusses behind the scenes information and comments he picked up when talking with people involved with the film. There are moments when Bogdanovich doesn’t comment at all, but thankfully when he does comment, he provides information that fans will enjoy.
Commentary with Critic and Film Historian Richard Schickel and featuring actor Ed Asner and Author Todd McCarthy. This commentary is more informative than the first with constant comments and insight that not only offers information about the film’s content and production, but also about those involved in making it. Fans should really enjoy this commentary.
“Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey to El Dorado” is a seven chapter special feature you can choose to watch one at a time or all together. A very nice feature with archive footage, photos and sound recordings. Interviews and chapters address the work of Howard Hawk and his success in every genre, the similarity between “El Dorado” and Hawks other westerns, and more. An interview with James Caan about his and John Wayne’s onset antics is one of the best things about this feature and certainly worth a look.
“The Artist and the American West (1967)- Vintage Featurette” Fans of classic American West paintings will definitely want to take a look at this 1967 production. With footage of Howard Hawks and John Wayne talking with artist, Olaf Wieghorst on his ranch this is a very nice look at an artist who made his livelihood painting scenes of the west. A great addition to this feature is showing the part Wieghorst plays in “El Dorado”, the film that used his paintings for the opening credits.
“Behind the Gates: A. C. Lyles Remembers John Wayne” a short look at what made John Wayne so memorable. With footage from several of Wayne’s films, this is a nice look back with Lyles sharing his memories of the iconic actor.
Original Theatrical Trailer and Galleries are also available on this DVD.
Final Thoughts: “El Dorado” has moments where it feels like it’s slipping from the classic western to something more reminiscent of the modern western. It’s unfortunate because there are certainly some sad undertones here that might have played out better in an overall classic feel. Misfires, fragile characters and holdups steer this picture to it’s enjoyable ending. The story feels a bit long at two hours, but the performances should keep fans interested throughout.
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a well told tale of the West. The performances from John Wayne and James Stewart are engaging and the writing offers memorable lines throughout. Fans of Wayne, Stewart and the Western genre should definitely give this a look.