The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is either the best or third-best western John Ford ever made, depending on whether you prefer gorgeous Technicolor vistas (it has none) or moral ambiguity (it has loads). James Stewart plays a dreamy city-boy lawyer gone west into the pre-civilized frontier town Shinbone. John Wayne plays the local John Wayne who tries to teach James Stewart how to be John Wayne. Lee Marvin plays Liberty Valance, the outlaw overlord ruling town with an iron fist. (He gets shot.)
Explaining the greatness of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would require four-dimensional graphs and several spoiler alerts; suffice it to say that it’s the western movie that aggressively and patiently deconstructs all the legends of the west. Stewart and Wayne together makes for one of the single best examples of stuntcasting archetypes. Both in their 50s when they made it, the stars make no sense as young men and complete sense as avatars of the dueling order-and-chaos instincts of American history. For both of them, it was the final mountaintop in a career full of them. They kept working for another decade and a half — Wayne finally landed his Oscar for True Grit — and even swan-song’d together in Wayne’s final film The Shootist, a movie which might as well have “JOHN WAYNE’S LAST MOVIE” stamped over frame — but Valance is their final masterpiece.
So: Paramount is developing a remake of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, says Variety. This strikes me as the best possible version of a bad idea. Liberty Valance is a classic, but it feels malleable. The central story arc is a moral fable. Who will defeat the bad man? Will it be the avatar of civilized justice, or the symbol of gun-slinging violence? Variety claims that the project may be set in a non-western setting — 1980s Pennsylvania steel industry, anyone? — and it feels like you could extract the basic Liberty Valance triangle (Evil vs. Two Opposing Kinds Of Good) and embed it in some radical new context.
Where should it be set? I’m inclined to say that the smart play is to aim for a Mexico-US crossover setting — currently a so-hot-right-now setting for exploring the bleak moral borderlands of justice and peace. Hell, with a little nip-tucking, you could just cast the central trio for Sicario. Emily Blunt as the rule-of-law pencil pusher? Benicio Del Toro as the frontier wildman? Jesus, Josh Brolin was born to take all the roles Lee Marvin is too dead to play.
But that’s too easy. Let’s leave the questions of “Where” and “When” to the filmmakers — Liberty Valance’s architecture could work in space or ancient Rome — and answer a much tougher question: Who?
Liberty Valance: The most and least important of the central roles. Most, because whoever plays Valance needs to be a believable nemesis for two different flavors of movie stars; least, because the other guys get all the good lines. This strikes me as a great opportunity for a scenery-chewing showcase performance by an actor looking to shake up their rep. Maybe, say, an actor who’s best known for playing charming but obnoxious good guys — but who clearly, badly wants to play more interesting roles.
Chris Hemsworth has recently tried shaking up the monotony of playing Thor and Grunge Thor by doing self-aware goofs on his image. But how about really shaking things up, Fonda-in-Once Upon A Time in the West style? Playing a full-villain bad guy would let Hemsworth show off all the genuinely dangerous charm he radiated in the underrated Rush (and in the first half hour of Thor 1, before the plot started.)
Tom Doniphon: Never mind, this is the most and least important of the central roles. The most, because you’d be trying to play toward or against the Platonic Ideal of John Wayne; the least, because you’re ultimately playing second fiddle to the Stewart character. What’s called for here is a golden-god performer who can play a charming egotistical ruin. Bonus points if they have western experience.
Good news: Among his many other fine attributes, Michael Fassbender is a western fanboy. Fassbender actually already played a variation of the Doniphon character in this year’s Slow West, a movie you should watch now. Fassbender was also a very fun western bad guy in the otherwise not-fun-at-all Jonah Hex. The Fassbender-Hemsworth pairing would only sizzle further when we add in the last link in this chain…
Ranse Stoddard: Valance caught Stewart in the phase of his career when he radiated sadness and hope, bemused cynicism and all-American optimism. Here’s a character who is fundamentally passive, even bureaucratic — a character who needs to make the audience love the process of democracy more than the bang-bang of guns — but also someone who undergoes a Rocky-montage into badassery. Every victory for our new Ranse needs to feel like a defeat.
Hey, you know who’s having a great year? Rachel McAdams. Calling her “the best thing about True Detective season 2 and Aloha” sounds like two flavors of backhanded compliment, but the long-ago Notebook star is hitting a new gear even with thin material. Still obviously young and gorgeous, McAdams is also layering her onscreen persona with rueful skepticism and a genuine toughness that we haven’t seen much since she stabbed Cillian Murphy’s throat with a pen in Red Eye. Now is the moment to cast her as the vision of the encroachment of American civilization.
Also, the remake should definitely be set in space.