REVISITING THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE by Cheryl Pierson

    LV movie poster

Favorite western movies? I’ve got a few. But if I had to choose, I think it would have to be The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

This Hollywood classic, starring John Wayne as Tom Doniphon, Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance, Vera Miles as Hallie Ericson, and Jimmy Stewart as Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard has just about everything a western cinema fan could hope for: action, romance, right-over-might…and an unforgettable theme song.

Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story was made into a movie in 1962. It’s one of my oldest “movie” memories, as I was five years old when it made the rounds to the movie theaters and drive-ins.

Here’s the description of the movie according to Wickipedia:

Elderly U.S. Senator Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard and his wife Hallie arrive by train in the small western town of Shinbone, to attend the funeral of an apparent nobody, a local rancher named Tom Doniphon. Prior to the funeral, Hallie goes off with a friend to visit a burned-down house with obvious significance to her. As they pay their respects to the dead man at the undertaker’s establishment, the senator is interrupted with a request for a newspaper interview. Stoddard grants the request.

As the interview with the local reporter begins, the film flashes back several decades as Stoddard reflects on his first arrival at Shinbone by stagecoach to establish a law practice.Liberty Valance Lee Marvin

A gang of outlaws, led by gunfighter Liberty Valance, hold up the stagecoach. Stoddard is brutally beaten, left for dead and later rescued by Doniphon. Stoddard is nursed back to health by restaurant owner Peter Ericson (John Qualen), his wife Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and daughter Hallie. It later emerges that Hallie is Doniphon’s love interest.

Shinbone’s townsfolk are regularly menaced by Valance and his gang. Cowardly local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is ill prepared and unwilling to enforce the law. Doniphon is the only local courageous enough to challenge Valance’s lawless behavior. On one occasion, Doniphon even intervenes on Stoddard’s behalf, when Valance publicly humiliates the inept Easterner. Valance trips Stoddard who is waiting tables at Peter’s restaurant. Stoddard spills Doniphon’s order causing Doniphon to intervene. Valance stands down and leaves. Doniphon tells Stoddard he needs to either leave the territory or buy a gun. Stoddard says he will do neither.

"No...I said you, Liberty...You pick it up!"

“No…I said you, Liberty…You pick it up!”

Stoddard is an advocate for justice under the law, not man. He earns the respect and affection of Hallie when he offers to teach her to read after he discovers, to her embarrassment, she’s had no formal education. Stoddard’s influence on Hallie and the town is further evidenced when he begins a school for the townspeople with Hallie’s help. But, secretly, Stoddard borrows a gun and practices shooting.

Doniphon shows Stoddard his plans for expanding his house in anticipation of marrying Hallie, and reminds him that Hallie is his girl. Doniphon gives Stoddard a shooting lesson but humiliates him by shooting a can of paint which spills on Stoddard’s suit. Doniphon warns that Valance will be just as devious, but Stoddard hits him in the jaw and leaves.

In Shinbone, the local newspaper editor-publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) writes a story about local ranch owners’ opposition to the territory’s potential statehood. Valance convinces the ranchers that if they will hire him, he can get elected as a delegate to represent the cattlemen’s interest. Shinbone’s residents meet to elect two delegates to send to the statehood convention at the territorial capital. Valance attempts to bully the townspeople into electing him as a delegate. Eventually, Stoddard and Peabody are chosen. Valance assaults and badly beats Peabody after Peabody publishes two unflattering articles about Valance and his gang. The villains destroy Peabody’s office. Valance also calls Stoddard out for a duel later in the evening after Valance loses his bid for delegate. Valance leaves saying “Don’t make us come and get you!” Doniphon tells Stoddard he should leave town and even offers to have his farmhand, Pompey, escort him. But when Stoddard sees that Peabody has been nearly beaten to death, he calls out Valance. Stoddard then retrieves a carefully wrapped gun from under his bed and heads toward the saloon where Valance is. Valance hears he has been called out and justifies going out in self-defense. His wins his last poker hand before the duel with Aces and Eights.

"Pompey..."

“Pompey…”

In the showdown, Valance toys with Stoddard by firing a bullet near his head and then wounding him in the arm, which causes Stoddard to drop his gun. Valance allows Stoddard to bend down and retrieve the gun. Valance then aims to kill Stoddard promising to put the next bullet “right between the eyes,” when Stoddard fires and miraculously kills Valance with one shot to the surprise of everyone, including himself. Hallie responds with tearful affection. Doniphon congratulates Stoddard on his success, and notices how Hallie lovingly cares for Stoddard’s wounds.

Sensing that he has lost Hallie’s affections, Doniphon gets drunk in the saloon and drives out Valance’s gang, who have been calling for Stoddard to be lynched for Valance’s “murder.” The barman tries to tell Doniphon’s farmhand Pompey (Woody Strode) that he cannot be served (due to his race), to which Doniphon angrily shouts: “Who says he can’t? Pour yourself a drink, Pompey.” Pompey instead drags Doniphon home, where the latter sets fire to an uncompleted bedroom he was adding to his house in anticipation of marrying Hallie. The resulting fire destroys the entire house.

Stoddard is hailed as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and based on this achievement, is nominated as the local representative to the statehood convention. Stoddard is reluctant to serve based upon his notoriety for killing a man in a gunfight.

At this point, in a flashback within the original flashback, Doniphon tells Stoddard that it was he (Doniphon), hidden across the street, who shot and killed Valance in cold blood, and not Stoddard in self-defense. Stoddard finds Doniphon and asks him why he shot Valance. He did it for Hallie, he says, because he understood that “she’s your girl now”. Doniphon encourages Stoddard to accept the nomination: “You taught her to read and write, now give her something to read and write about!”

Stoddard returns to the convention and is chosen as representative. He marries Hallie and eventually becomes the governor of the new state. He then becomes a two term U.S. senator, then the American ambassador to Great Britain, a U.S. senator again, and at the time of Doniphon’s funeral is the favorite for his party’s nomination as vice president.

The film returns to the present day and the interview ends. The newspaper man, understanding now the truth about the killing of Valance, burns his notes stating: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

"Hallie... who put the cactus rose on Tom's coffin?"

“Hallie… who put the cactus rose on Tom’s coffin?”

Stoddard and Hallie board the train for Washington, melancholy about the lie that led to their prosperous life. With the area becoming more and more civilized, Stoddard decides, to Hallie’s delight, to retire from politics and return to the territory to set up a law practice. When Stoddard thanks the train conductor for the train ride and the many courtesies extended to him by the railroad, the conductor says, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!” Upon hearing the comment, Stoddard and his wife stare off thoughtfully into the distance.

As a side note, one of the many reasons this film holds a special place in my heart is because I remember it as being the first time I made the connection between a scene onscreen representing a flashback. Remember the “flashback within a flashback” that the Wikipedia article mentions? The smoke from John Wayne’s cigarette moves and flows to take over the screen as he tells Jimmy Stewart, “You didn’t kill Liberty Valance. Think back, Pilgrim…” That smoke took us back to the truth of what had happened, and my five-year-old brain was shocked—and enamored, even then, with the idea that time passage, or remembrances could be shown through the haze of cigarette smoke. It was the moment of truth for Ransom Stoddard. John Ford was a genius for so many reasons.

Liberty Valance JW and JS cigaretteFor me, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance embodies the core of the west—good and evil, and how sometimes “the point of a gun was the only law”—and it all depended on the man who held the weapon.

Liberty represented the purest evil. Ranse was determined to fight him with the law he treasured—the desire to do things the legal way blinding him to the fact that Liberty didn’t respect that. In the beginning, his naivete is almost painful to watch, providing Liberty some rich entertainment. Though Tom finds it amusing, his growing respect for Ranse’s perseverance is portrayed to perfection by that familiar downward glance of John Wayne’s. Accompanied by the half-smile and his slow advice-giving drawl, the character of Tom Doniphon is drawn so that by the point at which he sees the handwriting on the wall and burns down the house he built for Hallie, the viewer’s sympathy shifts, briefly, to the circumstances Tom finds himself in.

But Ranse is determined to vanquish Valance one way or the other—with a lawbook or a gun—whatever it takes. In the final showdown, the lines of resignation are etched in Tom Doniphon’s face, and we know he is honor-bound to do the thing he’ll regret forever: save Ranse Stoddard’s life and lose Hallie to him.

I love the twist. Ranse truly believes he’s killed Valance. Again, to do the honorable thing, Tom tells him the truth about what really happened.

What do you think? If you were Ranse, would you want to know you really were not the man who shot Liberty Valance? Or would you want to be kept in the dark?  If you were Tom, would you have ever told him? It’s a great movie!

GENE PITNEY SINGS THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

Now you can sing along! (I promise, this song will stay with you all day long…)

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

When Liberty Valance rode to town the womenfolk would hide, they’d hide
When Liberty Valance walked around the men would step aside
’cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin’ straight and fast—he was mighty good.

 From out of the East a stranger came, a law book in his hand, a man
The kind of a man the West would need to tame a troubled land
’cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin’ straight and fast—he was mighty good.

Many a man would face his gun and many a man would fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

The love of a girl can make a man stay on when he should go, stay on
Just tryin’ to build a peaceful life where love is free to grow
But the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When the final showdown came at last, a law book was no good.

Alone and afraid she prayed that he’d return that fateful night, aww that night
When nothin’ she said could keep her man from goin’ out to fight
 From the moment a girl gets to be full-grown the very first thing she learns
When two men go out to face each other only one retur-r-r-ns

Everyone heard two shots ring out, a shot made Liberty fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

Cheryl Pierson

A native Oklahoman, I’ve been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: https://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson

I live in Oklahoma City with my husband of 37 years. I love to hear from readers and other authors–you can contact me here: fabkat_edit@yahoo.com

Follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cheryl.pierson.92

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20 Comments

  1. Here is a short video (less than 5 min.) from New York Times critic A.O. Scott which includes the key revelatory scene from the movie and the critic’s thoughts — for anyone interested.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbiMfSSbiJY

    I too really liked John Ford films and the situations he set up where there weren’t always clear black and white truths or lines in human activity. Deep, thoughtful ambiguities, maybe? In this one, the hero who actually saves the town and gives up his love in the process is a murderer who knows it’s better for the town to think the other man had saved it by fair means. Unsettling to say the least.

    1. I found another clip that has Tom telling Ranse at the film’s end.

      1. Sorry. I only intended to have the link here. Not sure how this happened.

    2. Eliza, thanks so much for posting this! I tried and tried to embed a couple of clips into the post, but couldn’t get it to “do”–had the same issues with BlogSpot, too–finally just gave up.

      Like you, I loved John Ford’s films. I loved this movie SO much better than the short story. In the short story, Ranse comes across as kind of a whiney sniveling vindictive sort of person, which I didn’t see at all in the movie. How can our leading men or heroes BE that sort of person? It just doesn’t seem right.

      I love the ambiguity in the film. Like you say, very unsettling, but Tom takes it in stride, no matter what happens. It’s the rest of us that “wonder” about it, isn’t it? Makes you think!

  2. One of my favorite westerns was the 1980’s The Quick and The Dead with Sam Elliott, that movie was awesome.

    1. Tonya, anything with Sam Elliott is awesome, right? LOL I liked that movie, too. Thanks so much for stopping by today! I always love to talk about western movies.

  3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of my favorite John Wayne movies.

    1. He had so many great ones, didn’t he, Estella? But this one is my favorite by far. My daughter and I used to watch this when she was younger. She got to a point where she didn’t want to see it anymore. I asked her why, and she just said, “Mom, it’s so sad.” It was strange to see her go from being a little girl, entertained by a western movie, to a young pre-teen who was now understanding the emotion of the film.

  4. I remember having this song on one of my old record albums of cowboy songs.

    1. I had it on a 45 record, Catslady. Mom would get tired of me playing one song over and over, and she’d yell from the kitchen, “Cheryl, play something else for a while!” LOL

  5. What a movie!

    1. So true, Melanie. They do not make them anymore like this one, and like so many of the movies of bygone days.

  6. Interesting thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Kim! I’m glad you liked it! Thanks for stopping by today!

  7. I can’t believe how many movies I haven’t seen, this being one of them. I will have to check around and find a way to watch it. The old westerns were for the most part morality plays. Good was good, bad was evil, and the gray area was sometimes occupied for a period of time.
    A bit of jealousy was a factor in Tom’s telling him, I am sure. Ranse has gotten the fame and the girl while Tom is left with nothing. Then again, he may have wanted to relieve Ranse of the responsibility for killing another man. I would hope it was for the latter reason, and hope I could be a s selfless as Tom. (I just watched the clip Eliza posted. It seems Tom was both selfless and jealous.) I definitely need to watch the whole movie.

    1. Just my thought but I think Tom was just being Tom–pragmatic, in the world as it is more than anything else. Tom did relieve Ranse of his anxiety but he also voiced how he wished he hadn’t, but that Hallie was the reason.

      What’s also notable is that Hallie left flowers on Tom’s coffin and was glad to go back to Shinbone where she felt at home. So, in a way Tom did “win” I think. In any event, he _is_ the hero of the piece. But that’s what I meant about nothing being clear cut in Ford’s movies, where life is complicated and messy. Same thing in my favorite Ford movie The Searchers.

      1. Eliza, I think so, too. He wasn’t being anything but himself. Just saw the writing on the wall, wished it was otherwise, but knew that Hallie was in love with Ranse. She LOVED Tom, but she was IN LOVE with Ranse. He knew that, and he really wanted her to be happy above all else, I believe, in my heart of hearts.

        So true about Ford’s movies–so glad for all the wonderful movies he gave us. There are a lot of them!

    2. Hi Patricia! Yes, oh, yes, you MUST see this one! I promise, it’s one you will never forget…and so many classic scenes in it. It’s one you need to just sit down in front of the tv with, with no distractions and big ol’ bowl of popcorn. LOL

  8. The Big Country would be my favorite western that epitomizes what the west was all about. It has everything. I first saw it in college in a film class.

    1. Oh, yes, Naomi!! That was a wonderful, wonderful movie. So many good westerns out there and how thankful I am that we have the means to preserve those old movies and bring them out to enjoy time and again!

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