Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Who's got your back?

While re-watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance recently for the first time in years, I was reminded about how thoroughly satisfying Woody Strode's Pompey character is. In a movie full of heavyweights (John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Lee Van Cleef), Pompey stands out among a host of other delightful small characters (Andy Devine, Strother Martin, Edmond O'Brien). I don't know if we've ever seen another Pompey on film, essentially a combination of Alfred and Robin to The Duke's Batman. He not only tends to Tom Doniphon's ranch, but lets him know when he's had enough to drink, escorts him around town, and of course serves as his trigger man should the situation ask for it.

The best example of Pompey's worth is during the tense restaurant confrontation with Liberty Valance (Marvin), who continues to bully and beat Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) to no end. Doniphon wants to put an end to this, but Valance is quick to show that he's accompanied by two of his henchmen. To this Doniphon glances to the kitchen entrance, where we see Pompey aiming his rifle at Valance, confident that he's in the best position to end any fight. How good does Pompey have to be to make this work: he probably staked out a strategic position after Valance's gang entered, and knew to be ready when things got heated. Pompey repeats this smart action later at the town election, when he's poised at the saloon entrance with his rifle, and again Doniphan must remind Valance that he holds the cards. But my favorite Pompey moment is in the movie's most famous scene, when we see just who the title refers to. Seeing Stoddard is in over his head against a drunk and angry Valance, Doniphan gestures to an out-of-frame Pompey, who tosses him the rifle that will send Stoddard all the way to Washington. Pompey clearly knows that discretion is the better part of valor.

You can't really call Pompey a sidekick, since he has almost no lines and is rarely around except when needed, and he's also not a bodyguard since he's obviously not always at Doniphan's side. But Pompey is also more than a ranch hand, since his intervention at the saloon shows he's invested in Doniphon's well-being. Doniphon appears to be quite aware of Pompey's worth, as he tells Stoddard that guns are the only law in this area of the wild west, and with bandits like Valance roaming around it pays to have a shooter watching your back. What makes this duo even more memorable is that both men played college football in Los Angeles -- Wayne played tackle for USC in the late 1920s, while Strode was a running back for UCLA in the late 1930s. When The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was being filmed, the UCLA-USC rivalry was solidifying its place among the nation's biggest -- can you imagine the trash talk that probably went on between scenes?

If I was in need of an ask-no-questions protector, I can think of only two other options that would be in Pompey's league:

The Three Storms (Big Trouble in Little China)

There's three of them, they're pretty much immortal (watch out for falling chandeliers), and also prone to dramatic entrances. It's everything I'm looking for, except all three are pretty lacking in personality -- the closest to conversation you'll get from them is exaggerated grunts and mid-air yells (which, granted, is welcome occasionally). While I would definitely feel safe with the three around, they would also draw a lot of attention to me.

Gort (The Day the Earth Stood Still)

The ultimate in low-maintenance protection. In exchange for not doing any crazy shit like ... war, Gort is fine just standing around for days at a time. Not the most mobile fella, so it helps if you have a spaceship. But damn, when you're surrounded by a military brigade there's not a better option out there: guns? Melted. Tanks? Gone. Undoubtedly efficient, Gort would still be a distraction to people who aren't cool with the whole 10-foot tall robot capable destroying anything.


Anonymous said...

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Adam Ross said...