Fordian or Hawksian? That’s the kind of question I’d love to see ricochet around Facebook, where I’ve been asked what 80s movie I am, what Renaissance painter I am, and so on. It’s an allegiance that film buffs have been asked to declare since the auteur theory made inroads in the U.S. and the primacy of the director as the author of a movie was (somewhat) established. In other words, do you worship at the altar of John Ford, who, when asked to introduce himself at a Screen Directors Guild conference on communist infiltration in the bad old days of McCarthyism, is said to have replied, “I’m John Ford. I make Westerns”? The John Ford who, when Orson Welles was asked who the top three film directors were, responded, “John Ford, John Ford and John Ford”? Or is your god Howard Hawks, the great dabbler, whose film classics of every stripe include Scarface (1932), His Girl Friday (1940), Sergeant York (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946)? Who made just a handful of Westerns, but directed two of the best, 1948’s Red River and 1959’s Rio Bravo?

The new Paramount Centennial Collection releases of Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Hawks’ El Dorado (1967) won’t settle any arguments, but backed up by strong, anamorphically enhanced transfers and excellent supplements they do showcase the filmmakers in the best possible light. By the 60s, Ford and Hawks were grand old men of the cinema, who were finally beginning to bask in the critical adulation they had long received by cineastes abroad. Ford won four Oscars, more than any other director, but was never taken all that seriously at home—after all, he made Westerns, then considered a frivolous genre. The wins were all for non-Westerns, including The Informer (1935), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). Hawks, criminally, received just one Oscar nomination, for York, and got the gold watch of an honorary statuette in 1975. One thing they had in common in the twilight of their careers: Once the studio system that helped them flourish commercially collapsed, they had to look around for work. So they took the path of least resistance, by heading to Paramount and saddling up with John Wayne, who in the 60s had a long-term contract with the studio that yielded a string of solidly successful pictures.

Ford didn’t discover Wayne, but his cantankerous direction of the star in classics including Stagecoach (1939) and Fort Apache (1948) made him a mythic man of the West. The more easygoing Hawks refined the persona in Red River (1948), so much so that Ford exclaimed, “I didn’t know the son-of-a-bitch could act!” (Ford frequently undercut Wayne, who worked that much harder for his approval.) By the time of these autumnal films, the masters needed the pupil more than the pupil needed the masters, but Wayne obliged with typically natural-as-breathing performances, in two very different films that show how Ford and Hawks faced the dying of the light. (Ford would direct just three more, weaker features; Hawks, one.) The black-and-white Liberty Valance is flinty and pessimistic; the colorful El Dorado, casual and loose, with Wayne and fellow veteran Robert Mitchum hobbling around on crutches.

James Stewart had a small role in Wayne’s last film, The Shootist (1976), but Liberty Valance puts the two on equal footing in their first movie together. Told in flashback, it seethes with ambiguity. Stewart is Ransom “Rance” Stoddard, a U.S. senator in the late 19th century who as the film opens returns to the Western town of Shinbone, where he first made his mark, to bury an old acquaintance. The town’s newspaper editor asks what the departed, the alcoholic rancher Tom Doniphon (Wayne), meant to him. The story drops back to before Shinbone was civilized, when Stoddard, a principled but callow attorney from the East, arrived to set up practice, and immediately clashed with the fearsome gunslinger Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, in a star-making turn that earns him his place on the DVD cover). Valance works for land barons who fear what will happen to their claims if the territory that Shinbone is part of becomes a state. Doniphon, who is wary of Stoddard’s intentions but watches over him in his confrontations with Valance, is equally skeptical of progress, particularly when the woman he secretly loves, Hallie (Vera Miles), enrolls in the school the lawyer sets up to learn how to read and write. (This is the movie where Wayne calls a co-star, Stewart, “pilgrim,” giving the parodists a bit of ammo.)

The Old West won’t give up so easily, however, and Stoddard, who refuses to carry a gun, is drawn into one last showdown with the sneering Valance. What happens sets Stoddard on his way to statesman—but decades later, he has returned to the sanitized Shinbone, with Hallie as his wife, to set the record straight. “This is the West, sir,” the editor responds, as Stoddard finishes his tale. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The qualities that make Liberty Valance so compelling today—its confessional spirit, its regret—were held against it in 1962. (I wonder if critics in 2056 will lift the Tomatometer upward on, say, Wolverine.) Located far from the open spaces of Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, the film takes place on confining sets, and has little action. The stars were felt to be too old for the flashbacks, and too young for the present-day scenes, and they are…but Wayne and Stewart are timelessly terrific in their parts, bringing the full weight of their screen images to bear on these iconic roles. Liberty Valance set the tone for every passing-of-the-West story to come; HBO’s magnificent (and frustratingly incomplete) Deadwood has the movie woven into its DNA, with Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen a composite of Stoddard, Doniphon, and Valance.

It also has one of the great Western theme songs, which were part of the genre back then. It’s not in the film, due to a publishing kerfuffle, but Gene Pitney, fresh from the Oscar-nominated theme for 1961’s Town Without Pity, took the Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune to No. 4 on the charts:

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Liberty Valance is the kind of film you revisit with favorite scenes in mind, like the steakhouse rumble between the three men. El Dorado is the kind of film you revisit remembering very little. Hawks contended that movies only needed four or five good scenes to work, with the rest just entertaining filler. That dictum seems to have stuck in today’s moviemaking, only that the “good scenes” are CGI battles and the filler isn’t nearly as tasty as what screenwriter Leigh Brackett (a woman entirely at ease in man’s world) cooked up for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and, for George Lucas, to the gratitude of fanboys everywhere, The Empire Strikes Back (1980). El Dorado is an unapologetic reupholstering of the enormously entertaining Rio Bravo (few movies are as much fun), with Hawks and Brackett plunking the Duke down in the middle of a range war and surrounding him with amusing company, including an Appaloosa he rides backwards in one scene.

The strong women who are characteristic of Hawks’ films are less memorable here than, say, sexy Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo. But we do get Mitchum, hip and nonchalant as always, as a soused sheriff (this was his only co-starring feature with Wayne, after their cameos in the D-Day epic The Longest Day in 1962); Ed Asner, a few years away from Lou Grant, as the heavy; and a scar-faced Christopher George as a nemesis with scruples, the kind of professional Hawks respects. A wet-behind-the-ears James Caan plays Wayne’s sidekick, a knife-throwing cowboy who’s hopeless with a gun. He had been in Hawks’ disastrous car racing picture Red Line 7000 (1965) but is more comfortable here. It’s interesting to watch him establish a certain rhythm in attitude and line readings that would bring him his 70s stardom as he soaks up whatever he could from the two leads, who have no trouble playing (and playing with) their ages.

I’m glad that Paramount farms out some of its classic titles, like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), to Criterion, and I scooped up a bunch of odds and ends, like The Pied Piper (with Donovan, from 1972), Phase IV (1974), and Mandingo (1975), that it distributed through Legend Films last summer. Otherwise the studio is a notorious recycler, putting out new and not-so-improved versions of the same old hits every other year or so. I can’t complain about these double-dips, though, which are the eighth and ninth in its Centennial Collection. Can we look forward to 91 more by the end of the year? (Oh, and for MGM/Fox to revisit Red River, which sorely needs it?)

The relationship between Wayne and Ford was well-documented in a PBS “American Masters” episode that was part of an excellent boxset, released in 2006, of their Warner Bros. movies. Liberty Valance has several nice extras to complement that effort, including interviews Ford’s grandson, Dan, did with the director, Stewart, and Marvin that make up a scene-specific commentary. (The actors are a lot more erudite about their craft than you might imagine from their film personas, as was Wayne, who played chess between takes.)

Director Peter Bogdanovich, who interviewed the filmmakers extensively in the 60s, shares stories in a full commentary. He has a (tolerable) quirk of imitating the voices of his subjects but has info to spare, about the members of Ford’s stock company who appear (Lee Van Cleef, later the “ugly” in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the great Strother Martin play Marvin’s henchmen), Ford’s up-and-down reputation (based on the traditionalism of his Westerns left-leaning critics mistook the director, a liberal Democrat who won an Oscar for The Grapes of Wrath, for a conservative like Wayne, who didn’t care what anyone believed so long as they got the job done), and how to read the “print the legend” climax. There’s also a 50-minute documentary, “The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth,” that repeats some of the commentaries’ stories (and can be watched in its place if you can’t get to them right away), the trailer, and several photo galleries on a second disc.

The two-disc El Dorado also has a Bogdanovich commentary, but he runs out of steam pretty quickly, so you can switch over to a second track featuring critic Richard Schickel, Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy, and Asner. (I reckon Schickel for a Hawksian; Bogdanovich, a Fordian when he made the austere Last Picture Show, a Hawksian for the screwball What’s Up, Doc?, and a bit of both for Paper Moon.) The second disc also has the retrospective (and again repetitious) documentary “Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey to El Dorado,” a period featurette about noted Western artist Olaf Wieghorst, whose paintings grace the opening credits (he plays a gunsmith in the film), and a reminiscence about Wayne from 91-year-old Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, who, as it happens, was a consultant on Deadwood.

The last photo gallery on El Dorado has what you’ve wanted to see when you’ve worked your way chronologically through the sets: Pictures of Ford, Hawks, and Wayne together, practically a Mount Rushmore of Western cinema. Fordian or Hawksian? I think most film buffs start out with the livelier Hawks and work their way into appreciating the sterner stuff that Fords like Liberty Valance are made of. Wherever you stand, you’ll want both these discs, which bear the imprints of legends.

Buy The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and El Dorado (Paramount) at Amazon. And for more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.

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About the Author

Bob Cashill

Bob, the Film Editor of Popdose, is an Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine. He's also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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