I take a look at a movie that tells us a lot about ourselves, for better or for worse.
Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), arrive in the Western town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of a cowboy named Tom Doniphan (John Wayne). While the two arrivals are the talk of the town, almost no one seems to care about the deceased, including the undertaker, who steals the man’s shoes. Hallie rides with an old friend, Pompey (Woody Strode), to see Tom’s home while Ransom talks with local newspaper editor Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) about why he’s at the funeral for a seeming nobody.
25 years prior, Ransom Stoddard is a newly-minted attorney who is heading out West. On his way into town, he is robbed and beaten by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his two henchmen, Floyd and Reese (Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef). Ranse is rescued by Tom Doniphan, who takes him to Shinbone. Hallie and her parents (Jeanette Nolan and John Qualen) care for Ransom (or “Ranse”) and give him a job in their restaurant. Ranse quickly learns that the local Marshal, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), won’t do anything against Liberty Valance, even when Ranse finds legal precedent for him to arrest him. Tom Doniphan is the only person that stands up to Valance, with Tom advising Ranse that the only thing Liberty will respect is a gun. An incident in the restaurant between Tom and Liberty proves this. Ranse tries to convince Tom that the justice system can deal with Valance, but he also starts to practice with a gun. He also starts to educate the town in reading, writing, and civics.
Hallie, who Tom has courted for a while, becomes concerned for Ranse and asks Tom to look after him. Tom humiliates Ranse, who punches him, earning some begrudging respect from the cowboy. Tom also shows Ranse the renovations he’s making to the house so that he and Hallie can get married. Ranse acknowledges that everyone in town knows Tom and Hallie are a couple. At the same time, Shinbone, a US territory at this point, elects two delegates to go to the statehood convention. Valance, who works for the cattle barons, nominates himself, but loses the election to Ranse and Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), the local newspaper editor. In response, Valance beats Peabody mercilessly and challenges Ranse to a gunfight. Ranse refuses to leave town and heads out to meet Valance. Valance toys with Ranse, shooting his arms, but before Valance can kill him, Ranse gets a shot off and Valance falls dead.
Ranse goes back to be treated by Hallie, who admits to having feelings for him. Tom, seeing this, gets drunk and burns down the house he built for Hallie. At the statehood convention, a speaker, Maj. Cassius Starbuckle (John Carradine), mocks Ranse for being famous for killing a man. Ranse resolves to withdraw himself from the delegation, but is talked out of it by Tom. Tom reveals that he is the one who killed Liberty Valance, shooting him from across the street before he could kill Ranse. Tom regrets saving Ranse’s life, because he lost Hallie, but he tells Ranse to take the nomination. Tom also implies that he doesn’t want Ranse to tell anyone about what happened, because Tom technically committed murder. Ranse goes on to be a Senator and a Governor and likely to be the next Vice President of the US if he wishes.
In the present, Ransom finishes his story, but the editor burns the papers, saying “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ransom sees that Hallie put a cactus blossom, the same thing that Tom grew for her, on his coffin. As they head back to DC, Ransom asks how Hallie would feel if he retired and became a farmer in Shinbone. She responds happily. When a conductor helps the Stoddards with many transfers to ease their journey, Ransom thanks him. The conductor responds with “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.” A sad Ransom looks at the ground.
The prompt for this was the fairly vague “A Film That You Think About A Lot.” There are a number of movies I think about frequently for various reasons, but, as I’ve been trying to write a paper about this film off and on for a decade, I think this had to be my choice. This film was one of my father’s favorite movies and has eventually become one of mine. It’s a story that can be dissected in a lot of ways and on a lot of levels, with the focus and message changing for me almost every time I watch it, depending on what I’m going through in my life at the time. It’s the kind of film that acts as both a mirror and a lens, allowing you to see both yourself and the world differently. It does this not through trying to talk about some grand philosophy or a convoluted metaphor, but instead by just telling a traditional Western story with an edge of cynicism and reality.
The film was made by John Ford, the legendary director of Westerns such as The Searchers and Stagecoach, as well as The Grapes of Wrath. During WWII, he filmed the Battle of Midway and was wounded in the process. He directed over 140 films and holds the record for the most wins for Best Director at the Oscars. He pioneered shots that are now industry standards and he made John Wayne a household name. He was a big deal, is what I’m saying. However, this movie always stands out to me because it’s the only Western he made that doesn’t buy into the mythology of the West.
The most important line in this film, and the one which was nominated for the AFI’s greatest quotes of all time, is “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s said at the end of the film. The key to the line is that it’s said after we have spent the entire film knowing how the story ends, but not what the story was. We know that Ransom Stoddard has a wife of many years, that he’s a famous and beloved man, and that he’s respected almost without equal in the US. However, the film reveals that almost everything is based on a lie and that the real hero of the story, the real man who shot Liberty Valance, is the man whose boots are getting stolen off of his corpse. Because that’s the reality of the West: Everything we think we know about it is a lie. While the reality was that the West was dirty, lawless, and cruel, we ignore the murder and the injustice and the greed and just focus on the noble image of the cowboy and the legends of their exploits. This movie is even one of the first Westerns which addresses slavery and racism, including an iconic scene of Pompey reciting the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. However, when he gets to “all men are created equal,” he forgets the line. Ransom responds to Pompey, “a lot of people forget that part.” While Unforgiven would later really take this to another level, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the original anti-Westerns.
The film doesn’t doesn’t try to beat your head in with this message, either. In fact, you could watch the movie and think it’s just a pretty sincere tale of the West. That’s part of the brilliance of this film. It’s got a pessimism about the West, but it has the cast and crew of a traditional Western to draw you in. John Wayne… well, you know who John Wayne is. He was America’s cowboy hero and he always will be. Jimmy Stewart was a different kind of hero, usually an everyman (and, unlike John Wayne, he fought in the War). That put them in perfect contrast from the get-go. Vera Miles was the love interest in both Westerns and Hitchcock films (and would have been with Stewart in Vertigo if she hadn’t been pregnant), meaning that she had associations with both kinds of leads. Lee Marvin wasn’t just a bad guy in this, he was the worst guy. He’ll kill you just as soon as look at you, and he’ll make sure you know it. Just to drive the point home, his henchmen were portrayed by two famous Western actors who were also iconic villains. Strother Martin was the prison captain in Cool Hand Luke and Lee Van Cleef played “the Bad” in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. The rest of the cast were all stock actors playing the same roles that they usually did, which makes this movie feel even more like a legitimate Western.
Another really interesting aspect of the movie which undercuts the typical Western message is the underlying fight for statehood. Here we see that the people who are seeking “independence” and “freedom” within the territories are almost exclusively people like Valance who work for the cattle barons. They’re paid to murder and steal by the cattle barons in order to ensure that they maintain their stranglehold on the industry. In contrast, almost everyone else wants statehood, because that means law and order and democracy. It’s another undercutting of the myth of the West by showing that most of the people didn’t actually benefit from the freedom of the frontier and wanted civilization. Also, it’s a reminder that some people have always been screwing over everyone when they had the chance.
Then there’s Tom, Ranse, and Hallie. When Ranse arrives, everyone in town assumes that Hallie and Tom are eventually going to be married. Tom himself thinks as much and frequently flirts with Hallie and brings her flowers, the traditional way to court women back then. Even Ranse assumes that Tom and Hallie will end up together. However, we see Hallie start to become interested in Ranse after he starts helping her learn to read and write. Tom is interested in her as a woman, but Ransom is interested in her as a person. However, she only ends up really being interested in Ranse after he fights Liberty Valance, something that is distinctly Tom-esque. Later, we see that she has some regrets at her decision and that, on some level, she will always love Tom and his idolization of her.
I think this film is massively underrated and needs to be reevaluated. To give you an idea of how important it is, if you’ve ever heard someone do a John Wayne impression where they say “Pilgrim,” THAT’S FROM THIS MOVIE. This is the only film in which he says that, and only at Jimmy Stewart. It also contains one of my favorite scenes, in which a politician claims he has a written speech, crumples it up, and says he’s going to speak from the heart. Someone uncrumples the paper and we see that it was blank the whole time. The “spontaneous” speech was always planned. It’s a reminder that American Politics really was always largely about spectacle and empty platitudes. A movie in the 1960s talking about a period in the 1880s manages to seem pretty contemporary in that aspect, and that should be disturbing. The only notable thing is that the politician in the movie was a better orator than America has sought in my lifetime.
Honestly, you need to see this movie. It tells you more about the US than most films. This movie mostly talks about the West, but since the West is one of America’s most iconic images, it’s really about America and how much of it is built on trying to remember the Legend of America more than the facts of it. To remember the story rather than the reality. Much like Ransom at the end of the film, while the Legend might get you what you think you want, you can’t move forward until you admit the truth, even if the world doesn’t want to hear it.
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