One of the finest Westerns ever made, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance joins Paramount’s prestigious Paramount Presents line with a beautiful remastered 1080p Blu-ray - and a frustrating 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc - the Dolby Vision pass is beautiful but an irritatingly inconsistent image flounders this presentation. The audio is the same as the 2015 disc and the new bonus features are nice. This set is worth getting for the standard Blu-ray disc, but Paramount needs to take another crack at the 4K disc. Worth A Look
The train has just come into Shinbone carrying Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) so they can pay their last respects to Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Famous for helping win statehood for the territory and ending the life of the murderer Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), Senator Stoddard is big news and the local paper wants to know why he’s in town to mourn the loss of this man. But that’s a story that’s long overdue and not an easy one to tell.
With films like The Searchers, Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and Fort Apache, it can be argued that John Ford did more to idealize and romanticize the Old West than any other filmmaker. He helped craft the characters of legend with these films through frequent collaborations with star John Wayne. With 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford takes a red-hot poker and pops the myth he helped create. What follows is more of a character drama than a rip-roaring adventure. Bullets fly but not in climatic shootouts with rampaging Camanches or bandits.
After runs with films like The Naked Spur, The Far Country, and Two Rode Together, James Stewart was hardly a newcomer to the Western genre. He may not be the first one you think of compared to his costar John Wayne, but he held his own when it came time. Here he plays the pacifist that’s pushed to his limit. A believer that law and order can trump raw violence, words and reason hold a higher value than bullets. But all men have a breaking point and his comes when he sees the only option left is to pick up a gun - even when he has next to zero chance of outdrawing and outshooting a man like Liberty Valance.
Then there’s John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon and Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance. The two men tread a moral tightrope with Doniphon believing there’s a time and a place where a bullet can serve justice. On the other end, Liberty Valance doesn’t believe in right or wrong only his way or you get a bullet in his back. Wayne plays Doniphon with his steely-eyed readiness he’s brought to so many versions of this character, but this is the first time we really get to see his character consider his way might not be right. Marvin was always great as a villain and his Liberty Valance is unchecked chaos. A bully to the end, he’ll pick on anyone he sizes up beneath him. Caught in the middle of all of this is Vira Miles’ Hallie. She’s not there to be a simple love interest subplot, she’s often the one trying to reckon whether Stoddard or Doniphon is right about how to deal with a man like Liberty Valance.
Where Ford so masterfully manages James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck’s screenplay is by letting these great actors fully embody these conflicted characters. He lets them have the room to play each little nuance that makes it easy for the audience to empathize with either Stoddard or Doniphon - or both at the same time. They’re both right and they’re both wrong. I’ve heard it put that this film was Ford trying to reconcile American intervention in foreign conflicts. The United State’s direct involvement in Vietnam was heating up when this film was in production so I figure it’s possible - although I’ve never seen or heard an interview with him that says that explicitly. Instead, I figure this is Ford showcasing how violence doesn’t solve everything and should be a last resort, but at the same time, when that last resort comes you should be prepared.
It’s genuinely impossible for me to choose a favorite John Ford western. For starters, there are just too many good ones, but among films like The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, and Rio Grande - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is damn near the top of the heap for me. This is one of those films that sticks with me each time I watch it. Everyone in the cast is perfect for their respective roles and the script crackles with every line of dialog.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
The 31st entry in the Paramount Presents line, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance marks the first 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a two-disc 4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital set. The 4K presentation is pressed on a BD-66 disc with the 1080p and bonus features coming in on a BD-50 disc. The discs are housed in the line’s standard clear two-disc case with a book-style slipcover that opens to reveal the frankly better and more interesting original poster art. Both discs load to the same static image main menu with a simple navigation menu at the bottom.
Note: All images are pulled from the remastered 1080p Blu-ray. I haven’t been able to rip the 4K disc yet.
Well, pilgrims, hold on to your buggy, it’s gonna be a bumpy one…
I guess before I dive into this, I should say that normally when I review a new release of a movie that’s already been around the block, I start with the newer disc and work backwards. For some reason I figured “what the hell” and started by looking at the fugly 2015 disc that was riddled with horrible DNR and edge enhancement and then worked my way up from there. And I was impressed and excited as I moved from that 2015 disc to the new remastered Blu-ray, and then I popped in the 4K disc expecting something genuinely glorious and sadly, even shockingly, this just didn’t cut it for one of my favorite films. Better than the 2015 disc it may be, it has its issues.
Almost on a shot by shot basis, there’s been an aplication of DNR mixed with the addition of goupy unresolved fake film grain then back to naturally cinematic film grain. The opening credits look glorious, but then that train pulls into the station at Shinbone and it looks like a waxed-out overly processed video shot. When the aged-up Andy Divine is standing waiting for the train, the grain structure can flick between being naturally cinematic to completely absent to being the gloopy mess of fake grain - all from one cut to the next. In general, outdoor shots fair the worst for the entirety of the film - but virtually any time there is an optical dissolve to the next scene it looks like grain has been scrubbed from the shot and then added back in. Indoor scenes generally don’t have any trouble and can look glorious with a healthy natural grain structure and an overall appealing cinematic appearance. As follows, details can be sharp and crystal clear and beautiful - or they can be smudgy and unresolved. In the plus column I’ll state that the Dolby Vision HDR pass is quite impressive allowing for deep inky blacks as so many scenes feel like this is a Film Noir Western with an often beautiful grayscale. So that part at least looks great and could be celebrated.
The rub of this release is that the included remastered 1080p Blu-ray is far more consistent and better viewing experience. The thing that sucks with looking at multiple Paramount discs is that the disc never boots back up to where you left off so disc flipping is a pain in the rump - and I did a lot of it on this one. This 1080p presentation from start to finish gives an overall more pleasing experience even delivering cleaner details with a more natural grain structure. It misses out the notable benefits of Dolby Vision, but it doesn’t have to contend with the frustrating smoothing and what genuinely looks like a fake grain application. The scene I kept looking at is when Stoddard gets a shooting lesson from Doniphon - it’s Chapter 8 on all three discs. The 2015 disc generally is crap so I won't say more there. The 4K disc has that unnatural gloopy smeary quality I detailed where the 1080p disc doesn’t exhibit that trait at all. The tell I look for in instances like this is how complex textures like the coat Stewart wears or the flank of the horse maintain detail as the camera zooms or pans. The 4K disc struggles to keep those fine details without looking smeary whereas the 1080p disc never fails.
Now to put my brain at ease that I wasn’t just seeing things, I flipped on my Oppo's info panel to get a look at bitrates, and sure enough, for every problem spot I double-checked, the 1080p disc easily outpaces the 4K disc. When the train pulls into Stoddard, the 4K discs leaves the impressive 70-ish mbps range of the credits and craters into the low 20s. The 1080p disc? Stays at a healthy 30mbps even peaking into the mid-upper 40s! Obviously that number fluctuates but it stays relatively consistent without the dramatic flips from one scene to the next.
There are some moments when this 4K disc is truely beautiful making this release all the more frustrating - you can literally see the full potential this disc could have offered. I will say it’s still better than the 2015 disc, but it’s its own headache. Looking at the digital 4K Dolby Vision stream on iTunes, the same anomalies are apparent there as well, so to my eyes, it’s not unique to just this disc. I could tinfoil hat speculate what happened here all day long - and I have theories - but none of them come to any logical sense as to why, so I won’t go there. Again there are moments of genuine glory for this 4K disc where it just looks magnificent and I could probably have spent more time highlighting those moments, but there are so many distracting problem spots that puncture my enthusiasm for it that it makes this review all the more frustrating to lay out.
2022 Remastered Blu-ray - 4.5/5
2022 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray - A generous 3/5 because there are good things about it, it’s just far from perfect.
This release of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance carries over the same Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix from the 2015 Blu-ray - and I’m not upset with that. In fact, this audio mix was about the only good thing on that disc aside from being able to enjoy the film. Dialog is clean and clear without issue. Sound effects may not roll around the full soundscape but there’s a pleasing atmospheric quality to the track I can’t deny. Scoring by Cyril Mockridge is robust and sounds great. Also available is the restored Dolby Digital Mono track which is impressive in its own right. So depending on your setup and sensibilities, you’re good either way.
Unlike the 2015 disc, this round includes a decent assortment of bonus features to pick through. The Bogdanovich commentary is interesting for his interviews with Stewart and Ford, but he’s oddly a lacking presence a lot of the time without a lot of substance. There are also some scene-specific segments with Dan Ford offering his thoughts with recordings of John Ford, Lee Marvin, and James Stewart - and those are pretty cool listens So play it for those soundbites. Leonard Maltin pitches in for the usually short Filmmaker Focus segment. The Size of Legends, the Soul of Myth is a slick multi-part look at the genre. All bonus features are found on the 1080p Blu-ray
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the finest pieces of filmmaking in John Ford’s long and storied career. It may not have earned him the acclaim of some of his other works, but I think it’s an often overlooked or underappreciated gem. It brilliantly deconstructs the genre Ford helped romanticize with impressive turns from James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, and another memorable villain from Lee Marvin. Paramount adds this film to the Paramount Presents line marking the first 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray for what should be a premier label but has had some notable stumbles. Sadly this 4K disc is a stumble. Indeed an improvement over the 2015 Blu-ray, it comes packed with its own set of troubles all made worse by the fact that the included remastered 1080p Blu-ray looks fantastic and simply doesn’t display those same troublesome issues. At the end of the day, I’m left to call this Worth A Look and really only recommended for the remastered Blu-ray disc.