The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – starring James Stewart and John Wayne – is often considered the last great film John Ford directed, in a career that comprised around 140 films over a period of fifty years. Released in 1962, Ford would direct only four more feature-length pictures; including one more with his friend and longtime collaborator Wayne, in 1963’s Donovan’s Reef; and one more with Stewart, 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn.
The total number of films on which Ford and Wayne worked together is difficult to precisely ascertain: Wayne began his career working as an extra, and went unbilled on as many as eight Ford dramas in the late 1920s, just as Ford was making the transition to sound. Some of these films have been lost; for some, it is disputed whether Wayne actually appeared on screen at all. In 1930, with Ford’s support, Wayne obtained the lead role in director Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail. Despite a vast budget of over $2 million, and shooting in two formats – traditional 35 mm and 75 mm Grandeur film widescreen – the film failed at the box office, and Wayne spent much of the subsequent decade appearing in smaller roles and in B-movies. This persisted until 1939, and Stagecoach. Though he had directed numerous silent Westerns, Stagecoach was Ford’s first Western in sound; and Wayne’s first leading role in a Ford film.
Its success established Wayne as a leading man and as a leading star. From Stagecoach to Donovan’s Reef, Ford directed Wayne fourteen times. Only Harry Carey worked with the director more, serving twenty-five times as Ford’s lead, a fixture in that role in the first three years of Ford’s career from 1917 to 1919. Carey is perhaps best known today for playing the President of the Senate in the James Stewart-led Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, from 1939. Wayne and Carey would also work together and become close. Wayne’s pose in the closing scene of The Searchers – now considered Ford and Wayne’s definitive work, and one of the greatest films of all time; which features Carey’s son as Brad Jorgensen, killed early in the proceedings – was an homage to Carey, who often appeared with the same gesture, his left hand loosely clutching his right elbow.
The plot of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance concerns the end of the Old West, as the society of a small rural town (in this case, the undistinguished town of ‘Shinbone’) transitions towards becoming part of a federal state. This political change implicates for Ford other themes and other contests: it suggests the potential disenchantment of the individual and the end of rugged heroism; and encourages a questioning of the natures of truth and legend.
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Senator Ransom ‘Ranse’ Stoddard (Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arrive in Shinbone via steam train. They are there for the funeral of a local named Tom Doniphon, apparently unknown by much of the town. The editor of the local newspaper, the Shinbone Star, asserts his right for information, and demands of Stoddard, ‘Who was Tom Doniphon?’. It is Stoddard’s response which comprises the remainder of the film, occurring in continuous flashback, recounting events which took place several decades before. This means that for much of the film, Stewart and Wayne – 53 and 54 years old respectively at the time of shooting – portray men in their twenties.
‘A youngster, fresh out of law school; a bag full of law books and my father’s gold watch’, Stoddard journeys to Shinbone – prior to the introduction of the railroad – on stagecoach. The coach is stopped by a group of outlaws, who beat Stoddard when he attempts to prevent a woman losing the broach given to her by her now-dead husband. The leader of the group, the titular Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), ransacks Stoddard’s bags and finds only ‘Law books? Well I’ll teach you law…Western law!; at which he brutally whips him.
Stoddard is recovered by Tom Doniphon (Wayne), a rancher, and taken to the local eating establishment, the home of Hallie and her Swedish parents, Peter and Nora Ericson. As Stoddard revives, weak and in a daze, he feels he has something he must do: he wants to arrest Valance and his men. Doniphon – calling Stoddard ‘Pilgrim’, an epithet which has become popularly associated with Wayne – is dismissive, telling Stoddard, ‘I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here, a man settles his own problems’. Stoddard equates Doniphon’s philosophy with the lawlessness which allows Valance to thrive; he argues vehemently, proclaiming ‘The law is the only…the only…’, but collapses to his bed before completing his sentence.
Stoddard recuperates and settles in to life in Shinbone, continuing to stay with Hallie and the Ericsons. He works washing dishes and waiting tables in their eatery, and establishes a daily school to teach the locals, including Hallie, how to read and write. Valance continues to menace the town. Doniphon and Hallie have a simmering relationship: the Ericsons initially consider a marriage proposal only a matter of time, but whether it is restraint, a languid style, a certain complacency, or whether he is simply waiting for the right moment, Doniphon proves slow to act. Meanwhile, Stoddard and Hallie grow increasingly close. When Stoddard visits Doniphon’s ranch, Doniphon allows himself to be explicit: he tells Stoddard ‘Hallie is my girl. I’m building that brand new room and porch for her for when we get married’. ‘Well Tom,’ Stoddard responds, ‘I guess everybody pretty much takes that for granted’. Yet Doniphon is never so expressive with Hallie, and fears her developing feelings for the young lawyer.
Stoddard befriends Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), the founder and sole writer of the Shinbone Star. A growing population means that Shinbone is required to send two delegates to a territorial convention for statehood. While the townspeople are initially wary, Peabody and Stoddard succeed in explaining the benefits statehood would bring the town. An article Peabody writes for the Star highlights the attempts of cattle barons to keep the area an open range; Peabody argues that this is borne of vicious self-interest, and would endanger smaller homesteads; Stoddard is admiring of the piece. He speaks before the town votes for their two delegates, and proclaims that ‘Statehood means the protection of our farms and our fences, and it means schools for our children, and it means progress for the future!’. The townspeople agree. Liberty Valance – whose group of men has grown, backed by the cattle barons who seek to prevent a fair vote – arrives and attempts intimidation, but Stoddard and Peabody are voted as the town’s two delegates.
Soon after, in revenge, Valance and his men assault Peabody. Stoddard silently determines to act. He takes a gun and waits for Valance in the street. When Valance emerges from the town’s bar, the two stalk each other, with Valance shooting Stoddard’s right arm and forcing him to retrieve his gun. Somehow – despite a lack of technique embarrassingly demonstrated earlier by Doniphon – and despite faltering with his weapon, Stoddard triumphs, with Valance shot dead. Witnessing how Hallie tends for Stoddard’s wound, Doniphon first drives Valance’s remaining men from town, then drunkenly heads to his ranch, where he sets fire to the new room he had been building, ultimately engulfing his entire home.
At the convention for statehood, the gathered delegates must vote for one man to represent the region at Congress in Washington. Peabody boldly nominates Stoddard. The objections to his candidacy centre on his shooting of Valance: should a Congressman be one who takes the law into his own hands; ought the delegates send Stoddard ‘with bloodstained hands to walk the hallowed halls of government’? These protestations cause Stoddard to leave the delegation in distress and uncertainty. He is halted by Doniphon, who reveals that it was he – hidden in an alleyway across the street – who shot and killed Valance. Doniphon states that he did it ‘in cold blood’ because he knew it would make Hallie happy, and tells Stoddard ‘Hallie is your girl now’. As he departs, he demands of Stoddard, ‘Go on back in there and take that nomination. You taught her how to read and write – now give her something to read and right about’.
Thus Stoddard concludes his recollection and we return to the present day. ‘You know the rest of it’, he tells the young Star journalists: he went to Washington and statehood was achieved; he became the state’s first Governor, serving for three terms; served two terms in the Senate; as ambassador to the United Kingdom; returned for one more term in the Senate; and now stands on the threshold of becoming Vice President. Yet the Star‘s editor throws everything Stoddard has just dictated into the furnace: he does not want its revelation. ‘This is the West, Sir’, he says, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’.
A train sounds in the distance. Stoddard and Hallie take their leave. On the train back to Washington, Stoddard suggests leaving political life – after passing an irrigation bill – and returning to live in Shinbone. Hallie responds enthusiastically: ‘If you knew how often I’d dreamed of it. My roots are here…I guess my heart is here. Yes, let’s come back. Look at it: it was once a wilderness; now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?’. Stoddard’s thoughtfulness is briefly interrupted by the train driver, who promises to expedite the Senator’s journey. ‘Think nothing of it. Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!’.
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Sergio Leone called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance his favourite Ford film, remarking ‘it was the only film where he learned something about pessimism’. Locating the sources and specificities of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance‘s pessimism goes a long way towards interpreting the film. Certainly, pessimism can be traced in everything from Liberty Valance’s tyranny over the emerging town; to the careless attitude the press are shown to hold towards fact; to Tom Doniphon’s lonely demise; to the laments which Stoddard and Hallie bear regarding aspects of their own lives. Many critical evaluations of the movie extend these particular concerns into a pessimism that encompasses the whole film; arguing that it serves ultimately as a reflection on the loss of the Old West, Doniphon’s heroism forgotten and foregone, Stoddard the mistaken hero, whose career is based on a lie.
Perhaps this is how Ford and Wayne would have seen the film; perhaps this is the reading Ford endeavoured to provide. Ford’s earlier Westerns typically romanticise the world of the genre, with broad vistas, bold villains and brave heroes. Wayne had teamed with Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo as a response to High Noon: in High Noon, Gary Cooper’s marshal has to fight a group of murderous outlaws alone, neglected by a fearful townspeople, only aided by his wife, who ultimately shoots one of the outlaws from behind – a plot which Wayne viewed as an allegory of blacklisting and described as ‘the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life’. In some sense Liberty Valance speaks also to High Noon, possessing in Tom Doniphon another neglected hero. Here, however, that neglect owes to time and to the hero’s own selfless withholding of the truth.
Both within the film and in the apparatus to it, Ford made attempts to affirm Doniphon’s heroism. The film is peculiar in that Stewart was given top billing in its promotional materials, whereas Wayne has top billing in the film itself. This reflects the nature of the film as well as the equal stature of its two stars. Ford admitted to wanting Wayne to be the lead; in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, he stated that he tried to stress Hallie’s lasting attachment to Doniphon throughout the film in order to assert that character above Stewart’s Ranse Stoddard. At significant moments, the film’s score – otherwise composed by Cyril J. Mockridge – utilises a piece entitled ‘Ann Rutledge Theme’, originally composed by Alfred Newman for Ford’s 1939 film, Young Mr. Lincoln. The composition was evidently kept in mind by Ford for twenty-three years, used in Liberty Valance to express the lost love that characterises Hallie and Doniphon’s relationship.
Hallie’s fondness for Doniphon, and her sense of regret at how things ended between them, is emphasised especially in the film’s framing scenes, set in the present day. When she and Stoddard first arrive back in Shinbone, Stoddard is whisked off by the eager men of the Shinbone Star for an interview; while Hallie – with Link Appleyard, the town’s former marshal – visits Doniphon’s old ranch, never fully restored after the fire. On the way, she points out that ‘the cactus rose is in blossom’. Later, in the body of the film, we see Doniphon present Hallie with a cactus rose as a present; she shows it to Stoddard, proudly acclaiming it ‘the prettiest thing you ever did see’; Stoddard admits its prettiness, but asks, ‘Hallie, did you ever see a real rose?’. Back in the present at the close of the film, Hallie has left a cactus rose atop Doniphon’s coffin – a fact which causes Stoddard some furrow-browed reflection.
It is interesting in this respect to briefly consider the relationships certain directors have shared with their leading men. Ford is attributed as saying, early in Wayne’s career, that Wayne would become the biggest film star ever owing to the public’s sense of him as an everyman. After Harry Carey, Wayne became Ford’s hero; a position that suggests some emotional investment on the part of the director, which may intertwine man and actor, and which might prove difficult to break. Alfred Hitchcock famously called Cary Grant ‘the only actor I ever loved’, and used Grant for his heroic leading parts, whereas Stewart – in Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo – played the physically inferior, more psychologically troubled roles.
The emphasis given to Hallie’s remaining feelings for Doniphon brings into question her relationship with Stoddard. The development of this relationship is complex. Hallie is frequently Stoddard’s carer, for instance when he arrives in Shinbone after being beaten by Valance, and following the gunfight in which his right arm is injured. On the other hand, intellectually Stoddard is superior to his future wife, and it is arguable that he condescends to her at points: in his surprise at her inability to read and write, and again when he asks her if she has seen a ‘real’ rose. Yet the two do forge a close attachment; Hallie’s choosing Stoddard over Doniphon appears quite definite; and we do not sense that the decades the pair have spent married have been at all unhappy or beset by remorse.
Perhaps, seeing Doniphon’s coffin, and then on the train journey home, Hallie is simply in grief, and understandably feeling some guilt for Doniphon’s isolated later years. Likewise, if Stoddard appears disconcerted at her enduring feelings for Doniphon, perhaps this is only natural, philosophical and fleeting. To attribute truth and permanence to the emotions we see here is to give them a symbolism and a finality which other parts of the film cannot bear. If Ford did, in a few notable ways, engineer a certain preeminence for Wayne and Doniphon, his film is by no means unequivocal in proclaiming Doniphon’s person and his values over Stoddard’s.
The climax of the film arrives with the convention for statehood and Stoddard’s nomination for Congress; which is entwined with the twist which reveals Doniphon, not Stoddard, as Liberty Valance’s killer. The crux of some interpretations of the film is that this revelation upholds Doniphon and undermines Stoddard’s future successes, showing that they have a dishonest foundation. This interpretation is seemingly confirmed by the film’s ironic closing line, ‘Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!’. However, what we are shown during the convention challenges such a straightforward reading. Stoddard has earned the respect and friendship of his nominator, Dutton Peabody, and the people of Shinbone not through force, but owing to his personal warmth, his generous intellect, and a sense of morality which prioritises law and the equality of all. The belief that he shot and killed Valance – far from establishing his credentials – serves as the sole barrier to his nomination; allowing those opposing him to cast him as heedless and blood-stained.
Stoddard realises himself that Valance may continue to define him: he says to Doniphon, ‘Isn’t it enough to kill a man without…without trying to build a life on it?’. This deeply-felt remark is more ambiguous than it may first appear: it can be read implicating Valance’s death as a springboard, or as something which makes a successful career more difficult or even irrelevant. Regardless, what we see in the convention and elsewhere renders it plausible that Stoddard’s career could have thrived without his reputation for shooting Valance.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was based on a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, published in her 1953 collection Indian Country. There, Doniphon and Stoddard share a closer relationship, Doniphon proactively mentoring the younger and less experienced man. The screenplay – adapted for Ford by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck – has the effect of placing the two men in contrast; but it also makes the character of Doniphon more ambiguous, and less sympathetic. Ford shot in black and white, a decision which has been both criticised and praised; it is debated whether his choice was enforced by a limited budget, or whether he deliberately forewent wide landscapes and colour for an atmospheric black and white, rich in shadow, and well suited to the film’s close study of character. Others have posited that the black and white photography served to mask the makeup used to make Stewart and Wayne appear young men. Still others suggest that the film’s casting has its own thematic function: that Stewart’s age is evident in the body of the film despite makeup, but this reflects the fact that he is recollecting for us, looking back on his youth as a much older man, with the story we see unfolding marked by his age, an inevitably subjective account.
Despite the lack of scenery, the film is still evocative of a past time, but it cannot be reduced to an easy allegory asserting the wilderness over civilisation, or even the individual over society. That statehood and the rule of law genuinely represent progress – in a positive, unsatirical sense of the term – is not significantly argued against. To view Doniphon as a forsaken hero, Stoddard as an impostor, is to limit the film’s scope; it would be for us to accept the legends of the West, and to some degree of Wayne and Ford, rather than facing the film’s particular set of facts. It would, in a word, render us guilty of printing a narrow legend.
Nor is it sufficient to argue that the movie’s conflicts lack meaning because they lack resolution, or that they are the products of a sometimes confused film. Great works of art require our openness as viewers: their flaws and conflicts are, after Joyce, the portals of discovery and ought to be accepted and investigated rather than dismissed. It remains to appreciate The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance through its complexities: its demonstrating of the irreconcilability of different truths; the inevitability of chance; and the nuanced, small but decisive ways in which societies and personal relations run their course.