The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance can be thought of as a turning point film. It depicts the waning years of the wild west, when gun toting outlaws were being driven out by the wayside in favour of a more civilized way of life. It’s a political movie and a very progressive one at that, particularly in its stance on guns and how they can be used to settle moral disputes. The topic of guns and gun control constantly comes up in the United States today every time a mass shooting happens, in fact as I’m writing this, the killings in both El Paso and Dayton remind us that this is an open wound issue that will not close. When we look at The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance we see a parallel drawn between the unruly days of the old west, where men were defined by carrying a six shooter in their holster, to today where those primitive guns have been replaced by automatic weapons. Yet the film is a bit more optimistic in depicting where America was going as a country in those innocent days, and could imagine a world after the blood has been spilled where people no longer had to carry guns. It’s a lament for the past, but it shines a light on the people who did the dirty work in order for a brighter future to happen.
The film opens in the small town of Shinbone, where U.S. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) arrives by railroad with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to attend the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The body is inside a plain old pine box, and the only other mourner in the room is Pompey, (Woody Strode) an old black man who was Tom’s helper and friend. When Ransom sees the body, he’s irate to notice Tom doesn’t have his boots on his foot, or a gun belt on his waist. The former town sheriff Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), tells Stoddard, Tom hadn’t carried a gun for years.
The local newspaper editor meanwhile is baffled as to why a distiguished Senator such as Stoddard would come to Shinbone in order to bury a relative nobody like Tom Doniphon in the first place. In a flashback which takes up the majority of the film, Ransom tells of when he first came to Shinbone as a young lawyer and recounts how he and Tom crossed paths. On his way into town, Ransom’s stagecoach is ambushed by a group of relentless outlaws lead by one Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a lowdown nasty killer, who moves through his crimes with a touch of sadism. Ransom is left brutally beaten and whipped, but he is brought into town by Tom who finds him. There, he is nursed back to health by Hallie and two Swedish immigrants named Nora and Peter Ericson who run the local diner.
Ransom is determined to put Liberty Valance in jail by using what he knows about the local law to do so. Tom on the other hand believes the only way you can handle an outlaw like Valance is with a gun. Ransom rejects this idea and decides to go forward with his plan of opening up a law office. He hangs up his shingle out in front of the local newspaper run by drunken yet passionate editor Mr. Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), and even begins teaching Hallie and a few other townsfolk how to read and write.
There is also a political subplot going on at the same time, which involves the townspeople’s fight for Statehood. We learn that much of the west is run by ruthless and corrupt cattle barons who control the territory by enforcing their power with the help of hired guns such as Liberty Valance to keep the townspeople in line and fearful. This in effect is a direct attack on democracy, and Ransom tries to introduce the idea of Statehood to Shinbone in order to fight for the rights of the people. Valance takes issue with Ransom who dares to stand up to him even without a gun and challenges him to either leave town or to meet him out on the streets in a shoot out. This leaves us with the film’s main conundrum, which conflicts with Ransom’s principles of not using a gun. However he relents to Tom’s ideal that violence seems to be the only way to handle Valance once and for all.
In the midst of all this, there is a love triangle arising between Ransom, Tom, and Hallie. Tom has always believed Hallie to be his “girl”, and plans to ask her to marry him as soon as he’s finished building a new living space to his farm for the both of them to live. Ransom however has opened Hallie up to new possibilities such as reading and writing for the first time, and thinking of a world outside of Shinbone. It’s another demonstration of this clash of ideals between the two protagonists, as Ransom represents a promise of new possibilities and a better world, while Tom holds on to tradition, and a certain male masculinity which is fading out.
How the film resolves the issues with Hallie, as well as Liberty Valance isn’t so cut and dry, and it’s to the film’s credit that it offers no easy answers. However what is clear, is director John Ford was trying to say something about the formation of the current political climate of America, and he evokes the idea of the gun as two dividing ideals. In the end, it’s Tom who does shoot Liberty Valance, but he makes it so to look like Ransom is the one who does the deed. We find out he did it for Hallie, in order for her to have a bright future with Ransom, as he tells him, “You taught her how to read and write, now give her something to read and write about”. Ransom is then elected as a political delegate for statehood, keeping with him the story that he shot Liberty Valance, a myth that helps his stature grow.
There are many ways one could read this conclusion, but I felt in a way that the film is trying to say that America, for better or for worse needs the idea of the gun in its stories, specifically about their heroes. There is something inherently mythic about the masculine cowboy taming the west. However, the film is also showing the aftermath of that west, with the people who are now civilized, and no longer have to tolerate murderous thugs like Liberty Valance. This is why when Ransom is finished recounting his story, we don’t see anyone carrying a gun anymore, because the last battle had been fought and won in the wild west.
The ideas of this film reminded me of a line from another classic John Ford western The Searchers. In it, an old matriarch Mrs. Jorgensen (played by Olive Carey who was wife to famous silent western star Harry Carey) says referring to America “Some day, this country’s gonna be a fine place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come”. Ford is saying the freedom of living in a peaceful land comes at a price, and there is always someone who dies in order to obtain that freedom.
John Ford was a complicated director to say the least. By all accounts he was a violent alcoholic who liked to belittle his cast, most of all Wayne who appeared in 12 of his films. He bullied and berated Wayne to get the performance he wanted, but he made him a star in the process. Ford had his own image of the west which for the most part was romantic and sentimental. Films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Wagon Master depict a west that probably never existed, yet it shaped the idealized version of what we envision when we think of the western.
Yet Ford was a realist, and could also be a bit of a cynic. Although he aligned himself with the Republican party, you might say his political beliefs were a bit contrarian on occasion. He spoke out against McCarthyism in the 1950s, yet he supported Richard Nixon and the Vietnam war in the late 60s. He made films like Sergeant Rutledge starring Woody Strode which fought against racism, yet he was notoriously played a KKK member in Birth of a Nation. Many have described him as a contradiction in terms, yet I wouldn’t be bold enough to make any assumptions on what his beliefs may be today if he were still alive.
I do believe Ford liked to make statements without calling too much attention to them and now more than ever The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance feels more like a progressive film. Along with the debate about gun control, he uses characters such as the Swedish diner owner Peter Ericson, who becomes a registered voter to touch on immigration. With the mostly silent but loyal Pompey who suffers from some casual prejudice to there is a subtle nod to the community’s racism. It isn’t a coincidence that in an early scene Pompey is called upon by Ransom in a school, to recite The Declaration of Independence where it says that all men are created equal. It’s a quote which probably means more to Pompey than anyone else in the room.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may be John Ford’s most realistic depiction of how the west was really won. The heroes were usually the ones not written about, but rather they were the ones forgotten and left in the shadows. When we watch Wayne as Tom in the film, he is usually framed in silhouette walking along alley ways and sometimes with his face completely hidden. When Ford films Tom shooting Valance, it’s as if a shadow had just travelled in like a nameless avenging angel, and walks out with little lingering. Tom is left a broken man, he knows Hallie has no future with him and he torches his home he was building for them in flames. He exits the film in a very brief and unsentimental way leaving the opposite way of Ransom who is left with a crowd of people cheering for him into a prosperous future.
The film works as both a lament for Tom and a hopeful outlook for the future. The most famous line in the film comes from the newspaper editor after hearing Ransom’s story of what really happened: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. This could be read as a cynical line showing that people could not accept their hero was a failure at reaching a certain masculinity (Ransom after all is usually shown emasculated throughout the film by either Tom or Valance). Yet by tying the hero to a violent act Ford is illustrating a point about America’s obsession with violence. Westerns show better than any other genre that America was born in blood and death and they will forever be linked to it. Like Tom Doniphon, violence is the little secret everyone likes to keep hidden when they tell the stories of their heroes, yet it’s the thing we are always drawn to.
However The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance subverts our expectations by showing in the end that violence is no longer necessary. Ransom still goes on to be a successful Senator, and the town of Shinbone prospers bringing in a railroad with schools and education. The problem with today is people seem to forget the freedom that was afforded to us by all of that blood shed. America has instead returned to the violence that the older generation tried to distinguish. In a way a character like Tom Doniphon is a martyr who has died for our sins so that we may have a better life, something to read and write about, that was the idea.
It’s disheartening to see on the news that we never seem to learn from history. Films have the power to show us that history, and even though it may come from violence, that doesn’t mean it needs to be repeated. The character of Liberty Valance represents a sort of repression and tyranny which had to be eliminated in order for the country to grow. Yet it’s the same sort of repression and tyranny which continues to call for the need for guns as if we never progressed beyond that. I have to wonder what those people who Ford laments for in this film, the real ones who are embodied by Tom Doniphon and who’s bones are in the ground after fighting for their country would say if they saw their country torn to shreds by the powerful and corrupt and people killing each other as if they are in a war zone. What would they say? What did they die for? Was it all in vain? I hope not.