Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
John Ford and John Wayne together created much of the mythology of the Old West we carry in our minds. Beginning with "Stagecoach" (1939), continuing from 1948 through 1950 with the Cavalry Trilogy ("Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and "Rio Grande"), and finally to 1962 and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," together in 10 features they largely formed the templates of the Hollywood Western. Of these "Liberty Valance" was the most pensive and thoughtful.
The film takes place at that turning point in the West when the rule of force gave way to the rule of law, and when literacy began to gain a foothold. It asks the question: Does a man need to carry a gun in order to disagree or state an opinion? It takes place in the town of Shinbone, in an unnamed territory that is moving toward a vote on statehood. Farmers want statehood. Cattlemen do not. In a few characters and a gripping story, Ford dramatizes the debate about guns that still continues in many Western states. That he does this by mixing in history, humorous supporting characters and a poignant romance is typical; his films were complete and self-contained in a way that approaches perfection. Without ever seeming to hurry, he doesn't include a single gratuitous shot.
Three men stand at the center of the story: Stoddard, Doniphon, and Valance. As the film opens, U. S. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) arrives in Shinbone by the new railroad with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to attend the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The corpse is being held in a plain pine box, and when he views it Stoddard is angered to see the boots have been stolen. An old black cowboy named Pompey (Woody Strode) takes Hallie on a buckboard ride into the countryside where they regard the burned-out remains of Doniphon's cottage. It's clear they loved him.
In a long flashback involving most of the film, Ford recalls the events leading up to that day. Years ago Shinbone was held in a grip of terror by the sadistic Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin in a performance evoking savage cruelty). He had many murders on his conscience, and much enjoyed using a leather bullwhip. Tom Doniphon is a local farmer, who observes, "Liberty Valance's the toughest man south of the Picketwire--next to me." Valance and his two sidekicks hold up a stagecoach on the way to town, and when one of the passengers, Ransom, stands up to him Liberty nearly whips him to death.