Film / The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact... print the legend."
Maxwell Scott

Directed by John Ford in 1962, the film opens with the return of Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), to the small frontier town of Shinbone. Stoddard is an influential and well-liked political figure, but nowhere is he more revered than in Shinbone, the place where his career started. On this sad day, however, Ransom has returned to pay tribute to an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who has died. Initially, he intends to slip in and out of Shinbone with little fanfare, but, when a newspaper reporter corners him, he decides to reveal the true story about how his life in politics began.

We see in flashback when years earlier, Ransom arrives in Shinbone broken, bruised, and bloodied after being robbed and beaten by the notorious outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who drips malice and paranoia. With the help of Hallie and her parents, he recovers his health and vows to bring Valance to justice. For Ransom, a book-learned attorney with little knowledge of the real world, "justice" means "arrest and jail." But in Shinbone, where the marshal (Andy Devine) is completely spineless and almost everyone else is afraid of Liberty, justice is a bullet. This is the lesson that Tom tries to impress upon Ransom, that in Shinbone, enforcing the law requires a gun, not a book. Tom is one of the most respected men in Shinbone because of his prowess with a gun and because he is the only one who can, and will, stand up to Liberty and make him back down. The two become rivals for Hallie's affections, but each earns the other's grudging respect.

By the way, this is the film responsible for introducing John Wayne's famous Catch-Phrase of calling someone "pilgrim."

Spoilers ahead! Tread carefully.


Tropes:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Understandable, since it's based on a short story. The movie adds Pompey and Link Appleyard as major characters, and it expands Ranse's efforts to start a school into a major subplot. The territory becoming a state (which was only alluded to in the short story) also becomes a pivotal plot point.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Ransom Stoddard and Tom Doniphon were named Ransome Foster and Bert Barricune in the original short story.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Ransom is far more sympathetic than in the original short story. His literary counterpart is a naive, arrogant, somewhat weaselly man who goes West for lack of anything better to do with his life, and the story largely focuses on how his pointless quest for revenge against Valance ends up consuming him. In the movie, he's a mild-mannered lawyer-turned-schoolteacher who's dedicated to bringing education and progress to the West, and his showdown with Valance is presented in a much more sympathetic light (since Valance is actually shown to be a menace to the town, instead of just a random thug that Ransom has a grudge against).
  • Affectionate Nickname: "Pilgrim" for Ransom, courtesy of Tom.
  • The Alcoholic:
    • What happens to Tom. In the flashback, Tom had given up the demon drink to stay sober for Hallie's sake. When he loses her...
    • Ransom's flashbacks reveal half the civic leaders of Shinbone - Newspaperman Peabody, Doc Willoughby for examples - were drunk most of the time too.
  • Anti-Hero: The film changed the Western hero from the clean cut sheriff who cleaned up the town and dispensed justice with a gun to the worn down grizzled antihero who dispensed justice with a gun.
  • Arch-Enemy: Liberty Valance to Tom Doniphon and Ransom Stoddard.
  • Artistic License History: Mention In-Universe as a reason not to spread the truth even when Ransom confesses.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: Upon seeing the "Ransom Stoddard: Attorney At Law" sign, an amused Tom asks Ranse "You really aim to hang that up outside somewhere?" Ranse looks about ready to roll his eyes as he replies, "That's why I painted it!"
    • Another one between Liberty and Tom. Liberty: "You looking for trouble, Doniphan?" Tom: "You aiming to help me find it?"
  • Badass Boast: Tom saying Valance is "the toughest man south of the Picketwire...next to me."
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: The whole point of the movie.
  • Being Good Sucks:
    • Ransom gets this in the start: being an upstanding paragon of civilization gets him beat, threatened, and ridiculed in The Wild West. Tom gets it in the end. By secretly helping Ransom and letting him take the credit, Tom loses his girlfriend, turns into a drunk, and ultimately winds up forgotten, broke, and buried in a simple pine box.
    • An even more powerful example with Tom. In the brief flashback scene before he kills Liberty, the anguish on his face when he steps out of the shadows is incredibly palpable. He knows he's about to kill a man, save the life of someone he doesn't particularly care for, and lose the woman he loves. Everything in his life is about to change, and not for the better. Also, what is overlooked in this scene is that Pompey had already gotten there before Tom and was standing there with his rifle, and given how much Pompey clearly respected Ransom, Pompey may have been about to kill Liberty himself. Tom would not have wanted Pompey to be punished if the truth ever came out, which was another reason for him to kill Liberty himself.
    • Another subtle sign of how far Tom had fallen since the incidents of the film takes place early in the movie. Pay close attention to Tom's coffin when Ransom opens the lid to view the body. Simply put, the coffin is just not long enough or wide enough for Tom's body to fit, if Tom had been the man he used to be. It's not a case of the undertaker simply contorting the body any way he could to make it fit, Ransom would have gone ballistic if that had been the case. The implication, which becomes more plain over the course of the film, is that decades of apathy, alcoholism, bitter regret, and brooding over what might have been had all combined to make Tom waste away to a mere shadow of the man he used to be.
  • Big Bad: Liberty Valance.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Tom, just as much a hero as Ransom (in his own way), dies drunk and alone. Ransom hasn't gotten over his guilt that Tom never got his credit, and that he took Tom's happiness away when Hallie fell for him. Worse, the legend that Ransom killed Liberty Valance - a total lie - remains. The only good thing at the end is that Ransom lived up to Tom's hopes of using that lie to give Hallie - and the residents of Shinbone and the West - a better life.
  • The Cameo: John Carradine shows up as an ex-Confederate orator representing the cattle barons during the convention for statehood.
  • Central Theme: Is the truth more important than a good legend?
  • Changed My Mind, Kid: Subverted when Tom Doniphon acts the part of the cavalry in the gunfight with Valance, but neither audience nor characters know it until much later.
  • City Slicker: Ransome is a Tenderfoot. In a reversal of the usual pattern, he doesn't toughen up to fit the Town, instead acting as a civilising influence. Once, that is, a certain Liberty Valance has been shot.
  • Clear My Name
  • Dare to Be Badass: An interesting example, where Tom challenges Ranse to fess up, accept the false story of killing Valance, and give Hallie "something to read and write about"!
  • Darker and Edgier: This is one of the harshest Westerns John Ford ever made. It mocks his earlier works like My Darling Clementine, which wholeheartedly embraced the need for heroes. Only The Searchers can top this film's dark mood. This film does echo Fort Apache with the theme of needing our heroes more than the truth. But where the earlier film ended on an uplifting note, the later film holds no such illusions.
  • Dead Man's Hand The titular character Liberty draws this hand right before being shot.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: There's some debate among film historians whether the movie was deliberately shot in black-and-white for stylistic reasons (i.e., to emphasize the flashback elements by invoking Ford's earlier work), or else due to a limited budget. Ford, cinematographer William Clothier and others gave conflicting answers over the years. In a letter to critic Bosley Crowther, Ford said that he was trying to go back to the style of westerns in the silent era which many historians note is so unusual for him to explain his intentions, least of all to a lowly critic, (being a Trolling Creator), that it probably was his intention.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Tom never does a formal proposal to Hallie and eventually misses his window when Ransom steps up. This makes Tom an embittered, tragic man in his old days.
  • The Dog Bites Back: "I don't like tricks, myself!"
  • The Dreaded: Liberty.
  • Eagleland: Played with. The movie suggests that our Manifest Destiny of moving Westward was not as clean and heroic as the school books want us to think.
  • End of an Age: A major theme of the film. It opens with a funeral for Tom Doniphon, one of the last true cowboys in the West. The climax comes when Doniphon is ultimately overshadowed by Stoddard, the meek politician who helps "civilize" Shinbone by spearheading the Territory's efforts to gain statehood.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Valance's flunkies Reese and Floyd occasionally seem shocked by their boss's bloodlust. Floyd tries (unsuccessfully) to diffuse the confrontation between Liberty and Tom in the restaurant, and both men prevent Valance from actually killing Ranse and Peabody.
    • Liberty himself seems to have a twinge of shock when he believes he whipped Peabody to death, like he didn't intend to go that far. It doesn't take him long to get over it, though.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The title.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Senator Stoddard as the title character. He didn't.
  • Flower Motif: The cactus blossom that Hallie places on Tom's coffin. Saguaro blossom is the state wildflower of Arizona, hinting at which territory the film depicts.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Liberty Valance is going to get shot. By a man.
  • Foreshadowing: Liberty is playing poker when Ransom calls him out for his lynching of the newspaper editor Peabody. He tosses down Aces and Eights - The infamous "Dead Man's Hand". John Ford uses this often.
  • Framed for Heroism: Ransom gets a heroic reputation for killing a man, and that reputation can propel him into the White House if he wants. He didn't commit the killing in the first place. He gets rewarded for something he didn't do. On the other hand, his real heroism is being willing to make a stand and face Valance rather than fleeing.
  • Genre Deconstruction: The film is ultimately about the death of the Old West, and it ends with Tom dying alone and unremembered after succumbing to his alcoholism, while another man marries his only love and takes the credit for his final heroic deed.
  • Giggling Villain: Floyd, one of Liberty's henchmen.
  • Give Me a Sword: Tom silently signals to Pompey to throw him the rifle as they watch the showdown between Liberty Valance and Ransom Stoddard.
  • Grammar Nazi: Ranse frequently corrects others' speech errors.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: No one will, or can, ever know who really killed Liberty Valance.
  • The Gunslinger: Both Liberty and Tom are feared gunmen. Tom is the only one Liberty fears.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: Every major character is chewing the scenery like nobody's business. And the one-scene cameo by John Carradine tops them all in the Large Ham category. It's amazing by film's end that the soundstage they filmed on is left standing.
  • Heartbroken Badass: Tom Doniphon, who lost the woman he loved and his chance to become a heroic, legendary figure, though the last part probably didn't bother him as much as the first part. Losing the woman he loved to Ransom haunted Tom for the rest of his life and he was never able to move on from it and find love again with anyone else.
  • The Hero: Left open to interpretation.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Played straight, both ways. Ransom feels guilty enough about shooting a man, even if it was a monster like Liberty Valance. Tom doesn't feel guilty about really shooting Liberty, but his life falls apart anyway when Hallie switches her affection to Ransom, whom Tom despises AND respects.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Tom refuses to take credit for killing Liberty Valance because Hallie loves Ransom now, and because Tom knows that Ransom can do better - and provide for Hallie better - with that reputation than Tom can.
  • Hypocritical Humor: The orator arguing for the cattle barons' desire that the territory remains a territory (that they can control) denounces the settlers' attempt to promote Ransom as the Congressional representative to get them statehood. He argues - while wearing the Confederate officer's uniform no less - they shouldn't send the man who killed Liberty Valance to the same place where Abraham Lincoln died like a saint.
  • I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Tom Doniphon shoots Liberty Valance and saves Rance because Hallie would have been sad if he had died. He also bows out when he finds that Hallie has fallen deeply in love with Rance and not with him, and ends up miserable and alone as a result.
  • Ironic Echo: "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!"
  • Jerkass: Liberty Valance.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Tom Doniphon is a much better man than he'd like to be, and does he ever pay the price for it.
  • Large Ham: Peabody—and how! John Carradine also makes the most of his one scene.
  • Love Triangle: Ransom, Hailie and Tom Doniphon. It's played with in that it seems at first that Hailie loves Ransom which she does, which drives Tom to sacrifice his future for Hailie's. But the final scene implies that years later, Hailie may have loved Tom after all.
    Ransom: Hallie, who put the rose on Tom's coffin?
    Hallie: I did.
  • Meaningful Name: Liberty Valance embodies the dark side of the freedom offered by the Old West, where the strongest always emerge on top. Ransom Stoddard embodies the trade-off of freedom for education and progress (to "ransom" something means to exchange it for something else).
  • Mistaken for Badass: Tenderfoot lawyer Ransom Stoddard kills the notorious outlaw Liberty in a gunfight, making him a local hero. Except it wasn't really Stoddard...
  • Never Learned to Read: Hallie is embarrassed to admit that she can't read.
  • Never Live It Down: In-universe; Ransom's life is forever defined by the demise of Valance, and years later people keep bringing it up cheerfully. However, deep down he's haunted by this association.
  • Noodle Incident: Ransom agrees to give an interview to the young reporter because the founder of that paper once fired him. However, this is never shown to happen during the flashback that constitutes most of the movie.
  • No Party Given: Ransom's party is never established.
  • No Place for Me There: Tom realises that civilisation has no use for a man like him.
  • The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
  • Offhand Backhand: During the restaurant scene, Doniphon kicks one of Liberty's men in the face without taking his eyes off of Valance for a moment.
  • Politically Correct History: Averted. When Pompey (Doniphon's black farmhand) enters the town saloon, he is bluntly told that he can't come in.
  • Propaganda Hero: Ransom Stoddard is for better and worse, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", even if he was pacifist by nature and did not want to shoot Liberty Valance and ultimately did not shoot Liberty Valance, that reputation got him into political office and led him to do great deal of good for the lawless town and promote much progress. That myth is so powerful and so important to the town's reputation that the legend has indeed become fact as is clear in the film's closing lines:
  • Rancher: Tom Doniphon had a small ranch. He was going to marry his sweetheart and grow cactus blossoms. She falls in love with Ransom instead.
  • Recycled Soundtrack: At the beginning of the movie, in the scene in which Hallie comes near Tom's burned house, the music from Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln is played.
  • Retcon: In-universe. "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: One of the leads is Jimmy Stewart, the other is John Wayne. This dynamic was basically inevitable.
  • Settling the Frontier: The theme of this film (and many of Ford's other Westerns):
    Hailie: Look at it. Once it was a wilderness. Now it's a garden. Aren't you proud?
  • Shadow Archetype: Liberty to Tom, oh so very much. A great deal of the film's conflict comes from that fact that, in Ranse's eyes, they're really Not So Different: they're both cynical, tough-as-nails Western gunfighters who love the freedom of the Old West above all else, and believe that justice can only be dealt out with a gun. The only difference is that Tom has a Code of Honor that compels him to defend the innocent, whereas Liberty is an amoral thug who simply lives to take what he wants, but in either case neither of them has any place in the post-Wild West America.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Falls somewhere in the middle, though it is still arguably the most cynical of all the films that John Ford directed and both of the lead actors starred in. On one hand, Tom does give up everything he holds dear for the sake of the town, his friend, and the women he loves. Yet on the other hand he dies alone and forgotten while his friend takes the credit (even if reluctantly so).
  • Smug Snake: Liberty Valance knows enough of the law to figure out how to get away with murder, even though everyone in Shinbone knows he and his pack are involved.
  • The So-Called Coward: It's not that Ransom isn't brave. He just doesn't think a steak is worth dying for.
  • Spoiler Title: Only halfway.
  • The Stoic: Reese, Valance's non-giggly henchman who's a man of few words—played, appropriately enough, by Lee Van Cleef.
  • Tempting Fate: When Doc Willoughby works up the nerve to denounce Liberty for all the harm he's done, and notes how happy he'll be when the day comes for him to perform his physician's duty of declaring the gunman dead, Valance laughs and tosses a stolen gold coin at the doctor. "Payment in advance!"
  • Throwing Out the Script: Subverted. The pro-rancher candidate claims to do this. However, when the "notes" he so dramatically scrawled up and threw away are examined they turn out to be blank paper. The "words from his heart" was the speech he had memorised all along.
  • Took a Level in Badass: When Doniphon has Stoddard set the paint cans on the fence posts, he shoots them, and one of them spills paint on Stoddard, who socks Doniphon on the jaw and knocks him to the ground.
  • Tragic Hero: Tom Doniphon is a man perfectly adapted for survival in a lawless culture of violence, respected by all, even his enemies. He has a sense of justice that won't allow him to let the strong to victimize the weak, and his own heroism ultimately brings about his undoing and destruction. Tom could have let Liberty Valance kill Ranse Stoddard, which in turn would have let Tom keep his girl. Instead, he commits murder to save Ranse, with the certain knowledge that he would also lose his girl. By his own hand, he destroys his own hopes and dreams. That which gave his life meaning is gone. In the end he is nobody, a dissipated life, a forgotten man.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: While the title gives us a hint that Liberty won't make it to the final credits, and we see him being shot in the trailer—the left half of the screen is blacked out, so you can't see who's firing the shot.
  • Tranquil Fury: A powerful example after Ransom lifts up the lid of Tom's coffin and sees that the undertaker has stolen the boots from his corpse. His face barely changes expression but there's no doubt whatsoever that he's seriously pissed. The undertaker only digs himself in deeper by trying to make excuses.
  • Title Drop: Most notably, these are the very last words spoken in the film, an Ironic Echo to an earlier utterance.
  • Treachery Cover-Up: The film ends on an inversion. The reporters chose to cover up the fact that Ransom confessed that he did not kill the eponymous outlaw which made him a legendary figure.
  • Twilight of the Old West: Peabody's Rousing Speech points out the changing norms of the territory: cowboys and gunmen of a lawless frontier giving way to settlers and civilization in need of statehood.
  • Unbuilt Trope: If you primarily know of John Wayne's work through Pop Culture Osmosis, watching this film can be a bit jarring. While not Wayne's first movie as a leading man (that was The Big Trail), it's largely responsible for solidifying American pop culture's image of him: it was the first movie to cast him as a Lovable Rogue cowboy in a ten-gallon hat and a neckerchief who defends the weak while snarking cynically, and it spawned his iconic Catch-Phrase "Pilgrim", among other things. It's also a vicious Genre Deconstruction of Westerns that's ultimately about the death of the Old West, and it ends with Wayne's character dying alone and unremembered after succumbing to his alcoholism, while another man marries his only love and takes the credit for his final heroic deed.
  • Violence Really Is the Answer: "You can't shoot back with a law book, Mr. Stoddard."
  • The Western: Deconstructed. A man's heroic deeds in taming the West, which involve killing a killer, prove to be a sham, and worst of all when he finally tells the truth about how it happened, the people he tells it to refuse to accept the truth.
  • Wham Line: Tom to Ransom: "Besides...you didn't kill Liberty Valance."
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: It's never actually said which US territory is fighting for statehood in this movie, making Shinbone's location simply "The West". (However, a little research reveals that the Picketwire River (actually the Purgatoire River) runs through Colorado.)
  • Whole Episode Flashback: Which itself has a Flashback embedded in it.
  • You're Cute When You're Angry: Tom to Hallie at least twice.

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