Best. Movie. Ever.
There’s only one way to make a Ford picture, and that’s Ford’s way. When he made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, they wanted to make it in color, and the old man said, “It won’t be right if it’s done in color.” –Cinematographer William Clothier
European critics dethroned Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as the all-time greatest movie, this summer, in favor of Vertigo, a second-tier effort by another cinematic genius, Alfred Hitchcock.
Taking for granted that Old Europe’s nomination of the James Stewart movie is a cheesy provocation rather than a serious proposal, what motion picture better deserves the crown?
Let’s replace one James Stewart movie with a far better one.
I am a lifelong fan of global cinema. I am also an international-award-winning screenwriter. I can play the cineaste. I can stand there with a drink in one hand and a graceful gesture in the other and tell some dude from LA: “I think we all agree the first couple hours of Les Enfants du Paradis are better than Seven Samurai.” So, believe me, my choice today is made in all seriousness and not simply to strike a pose.
John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Greatest Motion Picture Ever Made.
Ford’s 1962 pocket epic is family entertainment raised to the dramatic pitch of historical wisdom — one of the strongest, most completely realized, thoroughly interesting, effortlessly re-watchable, warmest, and genuinely smart movies ever made. Above all — and here is where Citizen Kane falls down — TMWSLV can be enjoyed by anybody of any age.
Orson Welles created Citizen Kane out of a popular resentment of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s ability to manipulate public opinion instead of simply report the news. Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Hearst, too, “bestrides this narrow world like a colossus.”
The movie’s set-up is simplicity itself. A faceless journalist doggedly interviews survivors, trying to explain Kane’s cryptic dying word — “Rosebud.” The reporter fails and, in the last scene, gives up. By an unforgettable coup de theatre, only we the audience, in the final seconds of the movie, solve the mystery.
Reducing the wellspring of Kane’s epic life to a symbol as poignant but slight as the boyhood loss of a beloved snow sled sounded plausible to Forties movie-goers already steeped in popular Freudian psychology. Rosebud, the prop itself, efficiently diminishes this history-shaping multimillionaire publisher into, simply, a wounded child. Kane’s seemingly admirable energy of accomplishment becomes instead a kind of endless ferocious lifelong tantrum. Not so much to be admired, in other words.
Like Citizen Kane, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance exposes through flashback the secret truth about a famous public figure. Welles’ movie sets out to debunk Kane personally; his relationships with friends and lovers will prove Kane is not really great because he is not even good. Ford’s tale, however, is the inside story of how confronting evil makes a legendary frontier statesman out of a pacifist young Eastern attorney, so it is not Ransom Stoddard himself but the legend which propelled him to early prominence which needs to be exposed.
Stewart’s Ranse actually is a great man, an agent of change who helps a little town “south of the picket-wire” aspire to a more civilized life, even as John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon brandishes his six-gun and warns Stoddard things must sooner or later come down to a shootout between the lawyer and Lee Marvin’s lawless, sadistic Liberty Valance.
Welles’ theme — absolute power corrupts absolutely — is true but trite. His film spends a little too much deep-focused footage shooting fish in a barrel from fancy camera angles. Ford’s subject — the part played in our traditions by American legends — is larger and more profound because more inclusive.
Citizen Kane is about Kane, and all the other urbanites are interesting for the way he treats them, but not so much in and of themselves. Kane’s darkly-hinted fascism has therefore infected his movie, since the characters become only the means, ruthlessly exploited by Welles, to highlight the Big Leader’s power over their lives.
Ford’s straight-forward movie presents, not fascism, but freedom. Every character in the town of Shinbone has a moral and emotional weight, a fitting-in-ness together, which is for Ford’s westerns the dramatic equivalent of the meaning of democracy. So the artistic greatness of his film is inspired by and expressive of the greatness of American democracy.
I’m aware choosing a John Ford western makes me sound either a little precious, or a lot influenced by patriotism. And, of course, nowadays aesthetic considerations are always trumped by politics. So, this year, the choice of greatest 20th century movie largely rests on how your Party feels about 21st century America.
Should its greatest movie criticize and undercut American myths and values, or rationalize and celebrate them?
Both of these exceptional movies end with a newspaper editor not getting the story. No readers will hear what Rosebud means; and the most famous line from Ford’s show is uttered at the end by an editor who is shaking his head, crumpling up, and throwing away his notes. The truth about the man who shot Liberty Valance will not be told to the public after all.
When challenged by Stewart’s character, who has finally confessed his oldest secret, the editor answers forthrightly, “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Best. Movie. Ever.