No western romance trope is more cheesy or more famous than the old Damsel on the Railroad Tracks trope. Which is why when I recently wrote a scene that ended with my heroine stuck on a railroad bridge with a train heading for her, I just had to giggle. I promise the scene is ripe with tension and believability. There is no mustachioed villain cackling in the background. And she’s not actually tied to the tracks. She doesn’t even scream for help. Though our hero is still called upon to rush in to make a daring rescue.
So how did this trope get started and how has it endured so long in tongue-and-cheek fashion?
Most people credit the damsel on the tracks to the melodramas of silent movies. However, the first time it appeared with significant impact was on stage in an 1867 play called Under the Gaslight by Augustin Daly. By 1868, the trope reportedly could be found in five different London plays all running at the same time, and remained a theatre staple for decades. But here’s the kicker. In the original story, it is a man who has been tied to the railroad tracks and a woman who rescues him!
This trope became so popular in the theatre, that even though there are no original silent movies that use this plot in a serious fashion, several used it for comedic effect. The most notable of these spoofs was a Keystone Komedy called Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life from 1913. Note the top hat and impressive mustache on the villain. Those become staples of the trope.
Some of you will probably remember watching the classic cartoon The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, either when it aired in the 1960’s or in reruns in the 1970’s like I did. This was a silly spoof that used over-the-top villains to hilarious effect. One of the main characters on the show was the dim-witted yet heroic Mountie named Dudley Do-Right. His nemesis Snidely Whiplash wore a top hat, sported a curvy mustache, and had a tendency to tie damsels to railroad tracks. Hence the trope was preserved for a new generation.
In 1969, Ray Stevens released a song called Along Came Jones which reached #27 on the billboard charts. My husband and I are big oldies fans, so we love this silly song and have even shared it with our kids – successfully perpetuating the trope into the future.
Do you remember any of these songs or shows?
Besides the top hat and mustache, what are other villain elements that have become cliche over time?
Speaking of damsels and railroads, my Harvey House Brides novella collection, Serving Up Love, is on sale this month for only $1.99.
Grab a copy while you can!
As a child, Saturdays were my favorite day of the week. I remember getting up early and rushing through chores just so I could spend the afternoons watching Westerns. I had an unstable childhood, so I found comfort in the predictability of those old shoot em ups. When a cowboy rode into town, you just knew he would set things straight before riding into the sunset.
I also knew that when the camera zoomed onto the hero’s spurs as he walked into a saloon, he was sending a clear message; No one had better mess with him.
I became fixated on spurs and for good reason. As a foster child, I was constantly being bounced from family to family. This meant I was forever having to change locations. But the hardest part for me was having to walk into a new school, which I did more times than I can remember. This never failed to make me feel like an outsider. Because I was shy, thin as a rail, wore glasses and had red hair, I endured much teasing. No one called it bullying back then, but in modern terms that’s what it was.
After going through an especially hard first day at a new school, I remember thinking enough was enough. Would Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard or Bob Steele stand around while the town picked on them? They would not! Only ten at the time, I decided what I needed was spurs, just like my favorite western heroes wore. The next time I walked into a new school, my spurs would send a clear message that no one better mess with me.
Convinced I had an answer to my problem, I asked for spurs the following Christmas, but never got them. It didn’t matter. The next time I walked into a new school, I pretended I was wearing spurs just like I’d seen one of my cowboy heroes do the previous Saturday. They only jingled in my head but, you know what? It worked. Somehow the jingle-jangle sound that only I could hear helped drown out the teasing and that made me smile. And that smile helped me do something I’d not been able to do at other schools: make new friends. It was a lesson I never forgot.
In that spirit, I wish you all a jingle-jangle holiday season filled with lots of smiles, good friends and loving families. May all your spurs, imagined or real, be shiny ones and bring good things your way.
For a chance to win this “don’t mess with this house” doormat, tell us what movie or TV show made an impression on you as a child?
Thanks so much for having me here today. I’m really excited to be a part of Petticoats & Pistols.
I was taking a tiny break from writing recently and checking out Facebook (not procrastinating at all!). A trailer for a new Netflix movie caught my eye and I wanted to share because it was so intriguing.
Have you heard of ‘The Highwaymen’? It releases at the end of this month and stars Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson – which might be enough of a recommendation right there. They play two former Texas Rangers who are hired to track down the infamous duo, Bonnie and Clyde.
I’m familiar with Bonnie and Clyde but admit that some of that comes from the old Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway movie, which somewhat romanticized their violent crime spree. What I found so fascinating about the new movie is the contrast between the ‘newfangled’ innovations in law enforcement – it was the early 1930s and the FBI was now a part of things along with air surveillance and more modern technological advances. But the governor of Texas calls on the ‘cowboys’ to bring in the bad guys when everything else fails.
There’s something really special about the lore of the western lawman. To me, that history is what makes western romance so captivating – even when it’s contemporary. There’s the spirit of self-reliance coupled with a huge sense of community – those two things make a perfect backdrop for characters finding their way to love.
Which is why I’ve been honored to be part of the Fortunes of Texas continuity for the past several years. Writing is such solitary work most of the time so it’s fun—and sometimes challenging—to bounce ideas around with other authors and make sure character development and plotlines work together. Because all of us see the outline for each of the six books, I really enjoy reading the books when they release to see how each author has made the story their own.
In 2019 readers meet ‘The Lost Fortunes’ – and the miniseries kicked off with my hero, Gavin Fortunado, in A Deal Made in Texas. He is tired of his family’s matchmaking ways and embarks on a pretend engagement with longtime friend Christine Briscoe. But their feelings become real all too quickly and it was so fun to write the two of them struggling not to fall in love when they’re perfect for each other.
I’ll be giving away 2 print copies of A Deal Made in Texas (US only). To win, tell me your favorite western movie or TV show.
I have a feeling ‘The Highwaymen’ might end up on my list of faves.
Here’s a little more about A Deal Made in Texas:
It’s like a page ripped from her diary when Christine Briscoe finds herself dancing with Gavin Fortunado at his sister’s wedding. It’s like a scene from her dreams when the flirtatious attorney asks her to be his—pretend—girlfriend. But there is nothing make-believe about the sparks between the quiet office manager and the sexy Fortune scion. Considering Gavin’s reputation, she might be heading for heartbreak. Or maybe, just maybe, straight down the aisle!
A dear friend, Jennifer Jacobson sent me a link to an article on a wonderful artist, Felice House. It’s her amazing work you see in this post. Her paintings and Evan Porter’s write up got me thinking more than usual about heroes and heroines.
We all love a strong, confident hero. The phrase alpha male comes to mind. When I started writing, I attended countless workshops on how to create a strong hero. But writing this, I paused and thought for a moment. How many workshops had I taken on how to create a self-assured, strong heroine? I’ve attended a few, though not nearly as many as ones on heroes. That thought led me to realize whether I’m reading a book or writing one, for me, the stronger the hero’s personality, the stronger the heroine must be. She can’t be a wimpy Missy Miss who crumbles under a strong wind or the hero’s stinging retort.
I want a heroine who doesn’t need a man in her life because she’s fine just the way she is, thank you very much. But should she find one, she believes he’s lucky to have her in his life. She has skills she’s proud of and helps the hero as much, often more, than he helps her. She’s not sitting back moping about the obstacles fate has thrown in her path. No, sir. Instead, she tugs on her big girl panties and develops a strategy to overcome her problems. And if the hero is one of those obstacles? He’d better watch out.
Felice House’s painting reminded me of that type of heroine. When House moved from Massachusetts to Texas, like many of us, she fell in love with “western” culture: the clothes, cowboy boots, music, the whole thing. However, when she watched classic western movies starring actors such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and James Dean, she found women’s portrayal as helpless damsels in distress disturbing. House described the situation as “the empowered and the powerless.” Already familiar with creating work that fought stereotypical women’s images, House set out to re-envision these cowboy heroes with women.
As you can see from House’s paintings, she and her models succeeded in portraying woman every bit as formidable, compelling and fierce as the original actors. To add emphasis, House made the paintings 1.25 times larger than life to ensure these western women towered over people. These paintings portray images of strong, capable women who can handle anything life sends their way.
House’s paintings have inspired a 2019 goal for me—create heroines half as awe-inspiring, assertive, and frankly, badass as the women in Felice House’s paintings. If I can do that, I’ll be more than happy.
Now it’s your turn. Leave a comment about what you think makes a compelling heroine to be entered to win a copy of To Catch A Texas Cowboy. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.
To read Evan Porter’s article click here. All images of Felice House’s work are used with permission. To view more of her paintings click here.
Language is such an interesting subject and I’m always intrigued by the older terms and words. Our forefathers sure had a more colorful way of speaking. In fact, the vivid words drew pictures a lot better than today’s jargon. Since I write historicals I love finding one or two to throw in. Too many can make for difficult reading though. See how many you know. Some may be familiar.
Tub-thump – a forceful or violent way of speaking such as a politician
Carking – causing distress or worry such as: the carking of the homeless
Purse-proud – a showy or arrogant manner
Thunderstone – flint arrowheads or axes turned up by a plow and thought to have fallen from the sky
Slang-whanger – a political rant or a noisy talker (I know a lot of these!)
Sixes and Sevens – a condition of confusion or disarray
Mercurial – sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind
Omnishambles – a situation full of a string of blunders or miscalculations
Blue Skins – Presbyterians
Black leg – a gambler
Stanchion – a strong or durable support or barrier
Snipper-Snapper – an insignificant but pretentious person; a trifler
Booklore – book learning
Cactus-bloomers – longhorn cattle
Corpse and Cartridge Occasion – gun battle
Not born in the woods to be scared by an owl – not easily frightened
Do you have any to add to these? I’m giving away a 2019 calendar to two people.
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Now that we’ve had some fun, I want to tell you about a Christmas movie that John Wayne starred in. How many have seen or heard of “The 3 Godfathers?” It came out in 1948 and was about three bank robbers running from a marshal when they stumble across a woman alone in a covered wagon giving birth. Before she dies, she makes them promise to take care of her baby and get him to the town of New Jerusalem. It’s a story of redemption. I watched it when I was young and remember some funny scenes as they try to take care of this infant. So if you’re wanting a different Christmas movie, you might try to find it. The trailer is on YouTube and the movie is on Amazon.
Few things have made such a huge impact on our lives than the movie industry. I don’t know about you but I love sitting in a dark theater and watching magic unfold on the screen. I’m drawn into the story and love watching how the actors chose to portray each scene. Some are excellent and I lose myself to the magic to the point where I’m up there in the story with them. It’s a beautiful thing and deeply personal.
Roundhay Garden Scene was the first recorded short silent film in 1888 by a Frenchman named Louis Le Prince. It’s definitely the oldest surviving one. Amazing!
Thomas Edison started capturing motion on film around that same time. Everything was very short, approx. a minute or two.
The first film with a sustained plot was a 12 minute one titled The Great Train Robbery. Suddenly America had a new form of entertainment. They called those early films flickers and I’ll bet you can guess why.
They were all silent as no one had figured out yet how to record sound. The theaters hired men and women to play the piano while the movie showed. Slow songs, fast songs, medium songs designed for the biggest impact.
They built huge movie palaces with ornate lobbies, crystal chandeliers, and luxurious carpet. Instead of hiring one pianist, they had orchestras and they hooked the American public.
I recently watched an eight part documentary that Robert Redford made called The American West and it was so interesting. I found it on Amazon Prime. Redford started at the end of the Civil War and showed each step in the progression of the settlement of the west. President Grant actually opened up the west and offered cheap land as a last ditch effort to keep another Civil War from starting and hold the country together.
I didn’t know that.
At the end of the documentary, was a clip of Wyatt Earp on a film set in Hollywood. He was 80 years old and a young John Wayne (21) was working as a prop boy. John Wayne was enamored by the man he idolized and hanging out with Earp forever changed John Wayne. He imitated Earp’s manner of walking and talking and he adopted the Code of the West that Earp lived by.
Wyatt Earp must’ve been drawn to movie making. I’d love to have known what he thought. He was often found on movie sets and that’s where John Ford, the director met him. Ford got Earp to draw on paper exactly how the gunfight at the OK corral happened and he used the sketch to film the gunfight scene in My Darling Clementine.
Wyatt died in 1929 in Los Angeles and cowboy actors Tom Mix and William S. Hart were pallbearers.
Can you imagine a world without cinema? I can’t. I’m sure glad they invented sound though.
Tell me—do you like to go to the movies? If so, what is it that draws you? Maybe it’s the popcorn. Or what is one of your favorite movies? I’m giving away a copy of either To Catch a Texas Star or Gunsmoke and Lace to two people who comment. In addition to title, winner chooses either print or ebook. I’ll draw the winners on Sunday.
My western mystery, The Reckoning, was recently released by The Wild Rose Press. It’s set in 1868 and follows Ike McAlister, a Union soldier who returns from the Civil War to his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas to find that his parents have been killed by Quantrill’s raiders. He sets out on a single-minded hunt to find the murderers; a search that takes him to the high plains of Colorado. My sequel, The Renewal, set in South Park, Colorado, 1872, was released in March 2108, also by The Wild Rose Press.
Let’s talk westerns for a minute. We’ve all heard that the traditional American western is dead—which prompts the question, ‘If that’s so, why write westerns?’ Well, it’s true the golden age of westerns was some time back. Since then, there’s been a bit of a dry spell until recently when several big box office westerns based on great new novels have been released.
Are they’re coming back? It sure seems like it. Why would they be mounting a return? Probably because westerns and the Old West embody timeless values—a place and time where right triumphs over wrong. Not always, certainly, but in our stories it does. The American West in the nineteenth century was a black and white society with clear-cut rules—there were things you were supposed to do as well as things you weren’t. And if you did wrong, there were consequences, oftentimes immediate.
Code of the West
There was a code of the West, even observed among the bad guys. Simple rules for simpler times. Unwritten, but adhered to nonetheless. The Code drew its strength from the underlying character of westerners, both men and women alike. Life back then was hard, but it was also simple. Things that needed to get done got done. Whining wasn’t tolerated. Complainers were ignored. You weren’t a victim. You played the hand you were dealt.
If you’re getting the idea I like that kind of culture, you’re right.
The world we live in today sometimes baffles me. Everything seems to be different shades of gray. Honor and fidelity seem to be out of fashion. People are entitled. The media are advocates, not observers.
While the Code of the West was unwritten and existed in various forms, there were certain common elements everyone—from the hard-working sodbuster, to the law-abiding citizen, to the hardened criminal—typically abided by. Granted, there were exceptions, but generally that held true.
In 2004, Jim Owens synthesized the Code into ten guiding principles in his book, Cowboy Ethics- What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West.
Live each day with courage.
Take pride in your work.
Always finish what you start.
Do what has to be done.
Be tough, but fair.
Keep your promises.
Ride for the brand.
Talk less and say more.
Some things aren’t for sale.
Know where to draw the line.
Let’s look at three of these.
How about number seven—Ride for the Brand. It means be loyal to the people in your life—from family and friends, to those you work for. Support the people you’re involved with.
Take a look at number four—Do what has to be done. Life is oftentimes messy. Our days are filled with ups and downs, and we make choices all the time. This is about choosing to get done what has to be done, then getting on with life.
Next, there’s number nine—Some things aren’t for sale. The Code gave westerners a guide to live by that they broke at their own peril. Are there still things today that aren’t for sale? What are they for you? They might be different for each of us, but at the end of the day I’d wager we all still have values that are non-negotiable. After all, values don’t really change—only times, circumstances, and people do.
The good news is the values the Code embodied haven’t vanished from today’s America, but more often than not it seems they have been marginalized. Popular culture tends to look down on old-time values, or should I say the timeless values of nineteenth century America. We’re an instant gratification society that focuses on the here and now, and disregards the lessons of the past. Imagine a world where you sat with your family for dinner at night, even going so far as to talk with each other. Imagine a world where a man’s word, and a woman’s, was their bond. Where handshakes took the place of fifty-page contracts and lawyers.
Arthur Chapman captured these principles in a poem he penned in 1917.
“Out Where The West Begins”
Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,
Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,
And a man makes friends without half trying—
That’s where the West begins.
So, yes, occasionally I yearn for those simpler times amid the hustle and bustle of our world. We’re inundated today with various media from morning to night. Sometimes Ike’s and Lorraine’s world-my main characters-looks pretty appealing. Especially right now.
At the end of the day, westerns remind us of our solid roots and what we were and could become again. That’s why the American western will never die.
To buy a copy of Mike’s latest release The Renewal, click here.
Mike is giving away the winner’s choice of either a print or digital copy of his novel, The Renewal. To be entered in the drawing leave a comment about one of the ten Code of West principles listed above.
There are some figures in history who, while they were real people, have achieved legendary status. And sometimes that legendary status has a kernel of truth behind it but has grown well beyond the reality of the person. One such figure from the Old West is Doc Holliday.
John Henry Holliday was born in Georgia in 1851 and by age 20 had earned a degree in dentistry, thus the famous “Doc” moniker. Unfortunately for him, he soon thereafter was diagnosed with tuberculosis due to the fact he’d helped care for his mother when she had the disease. Hoping the drier climate of the American Southwest would help alleviate some of his symptoms, he moved there and became a gambler. During a stay in Texas, he saved Wyatt Earp’s life and a legendary friendship was born–a friendship that would lead to the O.K. Corral and the events that made both men famous.
Despite Holliday’s reputation as an accomplished gunslinger, researchers have since determined that it’s likely he only killed one or two men during his short life of 36 years. But that hasn’t stopped the myth of the man from being repeated and embellished since his lifetime. He’s been immortalized in numerous pieces of fiction, in song and in a seemingly endless array of movies and TV programs. Famous names such as Cesar Romero, Kirk Douglas, Willie Nelson, Dennis Quaid and Val Kilmer have portrayed Holliday, and just this past week news broke that Jeremy Renner will be the latest in that list to play the man, this time in a biopic based on Mary Doria Russell’s books.
Holliday has even made appearances in sci-fi/fantasy stories such as a 1966 episode of Doctor Who, a 1968 episode of Star Trek and my personal favorite, the current SyFy show Wynonna Earp, in which actor Tim Rozon plays Holliday to perfection. In this reimagining of the Earp/Holliday story, based on the comic book series of the same name, Wynonna Earp is the great-great-granddaughter of Wyatt. On her 27th birthday, Wynonna officially becomes the “Earp heir” and inherits the ability to return revenants, or the reincarnated outlaws that Wyatt killed, back to hell using Peacemaker, the revolver with a 16-inch barrel that once belonged to her famous ancestor. In this telling, Holliday has been cursed with immortality, thus his lack of aging between the time he ran with Wyatt Earp and now when he’s helping Wyatt’s great-great-granddaughter with her duties.
Are you a fan of Earp/Holliday tales? If you’re a Doc fan, what has been your favorite incarnation?
Shops and businesses on the streets away from the center of town were laid out willy-nilly; some with entries facing alleyways. Boarding houses and private homes were seemingly dropped at random, as if tossed like dice from a gambler’s hand. –from my WIP, Stop the Wedding (book #1 Shotgun Brides)
I’m working on a new 3-book series that takes place in the fictional town of Haywire, Texas. Before I could begin writing, it was necessary to map out my town. Fans of western movies might think that’s a bit strange. When a town is only one street wide and a block long, what’s to map out? Well, for one thing, western movie sets are generally much smaller than a real town ever was, and less spread out.
The town in my book was built prior to the Civil War. That’s important to know, because towns founded before the war generally sprang-up along wandering cow paths. If you ever got lost in parts of Boston, as I once did, you’d know how confusing such towns can be.
Fortunately, after the war, town founders hired surveyors to plat grids oriented to railroad specifications. This practice came too late to help the poor residents of Haywire—or my hero who gets lost while chasing a bad guy through town.
Since business taxes in the Old West were calculated on width, shops and saloons were built long and narrow. What was generally called Outhouse Alley ran behind the buildings, parallel to the main thoroughfare.
Some buildings did double-duty. Schools often shared space with the Oddfellows or Masons, and shopkeepers lived over shops.
My town’s main street is T-shaped which runs into the railroad. On the other end of Main, the town is split in two by a hundred-foot wide cross street. A street like this was known in many western towns as the Dead Line, the purpose of which was to separate moral businesses from those beyond the pale.
Dead Line streets were wide enough so that anyone who accidentally ventured into the wrong side of town, occupied by saloons, bordellos and in Haywire’s case, the barbershop, could easily turn horse and wagon around. Thus delicate constitutions were saved and reputations left intact.
Typically, the bank would be built next to the sheriff or marshal’s office, which explains why bank robberies in the Old West were rare. Only the most daring outlaw would attempt a bank robbery. It was much easier to rob stages—and a whole lot healthier.
Movies do get some things right. For example, buildings in many towns were mostly wood with false fronts. These fake facades were added to make hastily-built buildings look more impressive and provide a place for signage. Some towns, especially in the south-west where few trees could be found, were built mostly from adobe.
Speaking of movies, what western would be complete without having the hero barge through a saloon’s bat-wing doors? In reality, not every saloon had such doors. In some parts of the country, it was too cold or windy and too much dust would blow inside. Saloons that did have café doors also had standard doors that could be shut and locked when necessary. A tour guide at Universal Studios explained that movie sets had saloon doors of different sizes: an extra-large one to make the heroine appear small and demure, and an extra-small door to make the hero appear taller and more imposing.
Another thing that frontier towns had that you won’t see in most western movies is a sign telling visitors to check their guns. Now that’s one area where Hollywood and Haywire can agree.
Have you ever visited a western ghost town or movie lot?
Welcome to Two-Time, Texas
There’s a new sheriff in town and she almost always gets her man!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
For 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!
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.