A few years ago, I had to assemble a syllabus for a writing class. I added John Ford’s 1962 black and white western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I don’t quite remember why, and I was worried how it would go over. Thankfully the first class discussion went much better than expected and the essays the students wrote were very engaging. After screening it multiple times every semester since and analyzing scenes in obsessive detail with a variety of students, I really think that it is one of the greatest American films ever. Sure, it’s well-directed, incisively written, and sensitively acted. More importantly, it illustrates how we Americans tend to think about the issues that we have been grappling with from the start.
It’s more than the sum of its parts: a folk tale out of Twain, a little revisionist history, and the profound simplicity of a Greek myth. The film offers up familiar All-American archetypes and narratives only to show us all their contradictions. There’s some unexpectedly complex and pointed racial and gender commentary, and it’s a marvelously subtle love story to boot. It’s a Western that’s simultaneously kind of an anti-Western. If you haven’t seen it before, I apologize for the inevitable but necessary spoilers but trust me — even if you know what’s coming, it still works its magic, which is how you know you’re in the presence of greatness.
We begin roughly at the turn of the 20th century, as a grand railroad chugs into a Western town by the homely name of Shinbone, somewhere in the Texas/Oklahoma region. Senator Ranse Stoddard, played by the great everyman James Stewart, is visiting with his wife Hallie, played with fierce dignity by Vera Miles. By the long looks on both of their faces, we can see they have some deep private emotional debts to pay. The local newspapermen are curious as to why a Washington big shot like Stoddard has stopped by to pay tribute at some nobody’s funeral. As Hallie goes off to a private reverie, Stoddard decides the townsfolk have the right to know, and he sits down to tell us all the tale.
Flashback to the late 1800s. Stoddard comes West as a young man fresh out of law school in the East, back when whole generations took Horace Greeley’s famous advice to “go West, young man” and settle the vast and (to them, at least) unknown landscape. An anarchic, wide-open space, where everything is up for grabs, and everyone is on their own. Some have argued that settling that vast expanse, brutal and bloody as it often was, impressed a stoic, austere sense of self-reliance into the American psyche and is one of the reasons why a lot of Americans tend to be reflexively suspicious of government, expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, value guns, and so on.
Ranse gets ambushed by Lee Marvin’s vicious outlaw Liberty Valance, flanked by his two goons (one of whom is Lee Van Cleef, later known as the “bad” in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) who gleefully watch as Liberty rips up Stoddard’s law books and sadistically beats him half to death. A shocked Stoddard asks what kind of a man Valance is, and Valance snarls back: “What kind of a man are YOU, dude?” The term originally referred to an untested ranch hand, which is Valance’s way of verbally branding Stoddard as a pathetic wimp, a city slicker out of his depth in the wild. Stoddard is brought back to recuperate at a local restaurant run by young Hallie’s Swedish immigrant parents.
Enter a dusty cowboy named Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne in one of his greatest roles. There’s a well-known difference between being a movie star and an actor, and John Wayne, like Jimmy Stewart in his own right, managed to be both. One could argue that he often coasted on being the iconic alpha male, ever the rough and ready cowboy. Yet it’s also true that he proved his acting chops whenever he worked with a great director like Ford or Howard Hawks, who understood the audience’s instinctive urge to root for him, which they then challenged by complicating his characters’ motivations.
The Searchers and Red River (just to name a couple of his most famous films) put Wayne’s leading man in positions of authority only to gradually reveal how questionable their actions and beliefs really are: racist, a bully, blinded, and misled by pride or rage. As film scholar Joseph McBride’s epic study Searching for John Ford demonstrates, Ford held deeply conflicted philosophical and political sympathies over his long and colorful life. He certainly cared more about making capital-A Art than he ever let on, protecting his sensitivity and sentimentality with gruffness, and drinking binges.
His best work (with Fort Apache being a clear thematic forerunner to Liberty Valance’s concern with officially sanctioned untruth) subtly interrogated the themes of duty, honor, and community while seeming to endorse them, which is a very tricky thing to pull off. Ford probably defined the Western genre more than anyone. (He once cracked, “I’ve killed more Indians than Custer,” and made Cheyenne Autumn to show their side of the story, as he had in previous films) And, even though he certainly has his less-than-enlightened moments the deeper you look into his work, it’s clear that he’s not satisfied with simplistic answers to how we settled the West.
Liberty Valance is the toughest and most ruthless guy around, except of course for Tom, who matter-of-factly holds up a gun, sarcastically calls idealistic Ranse “pilgrim,” and flatly states that “out here a man solves his own problems.” We know exactly what he means. Tom is an example of a classic American archetype — a key Western trope — of “the good bad guy” who may indeed possess a private moral code but isn’t afraid to bend or break the established rules.
Americans tend to have a soft spot for those charismatic if morally questionable rogues, both living and fictional: You can no doubt think of plenty of examples. In a country that was born in a revolution, we tend to dig the idea of rooting for the good guy with a gun, fighting for what’s right, even if he might fight a little dirty from time to time. That said, let’s not forget that this is the idealized version of a mentality that always teeters perilously close to less defensible things like vigilante justice, mob justice, autocracy, and worse. None of these are exactly foreign to American life either, then or now. I doubt that watching a film about using the threat of violence to keep violence in check was lost on a Cold War audience watching in the spring of 1962, especially with the near-apocalyptic Cuban Missile Crisis on the horizon.
This would be a sufficient plot point for most movies, but the stroke of genius is that Ford doesn’t stop there. He has plenty of sympathy for rugged but decent Tom, yet he knows perfectly well that the law of the gun isn’t any law at all, and that lawlessness is no way to live. A battered Ranse refutes Tom with Stewart’s familiarly reedy voice piping out the keywords: “I don’t want to kill him; I want to put him in jail!” Which certainly doesn’t seem very likely at that point, making it a brave statement. Ranse advocates for the importance of civilized principles: creating institutions, the political process, and the rule of law are what truly keeps order, especially in a town like Shinbone.
To his credit, Ranse walks it like he talks it: he does dishes and serves meals for the family (Hallie teases him for wearing an apron) and does his best to bring some basic literacy and democratic participation to Shinbone. The town is chock full of ribald, whiskey-swilling old coots, played with scruffy charm by Ford’s usual crew. He’s very tactful when Hallie embarrassedly reveals that she can’t read though before we know it, she’s helping him teach in a ramshackle, multiracial schoolroom which is the setting of one of the most powerful scenes.
Ranse explains that the citizens of Shinbone need to start voting for statehood in order to keep their autonomy against the encroachment of the cattle ranchers, who have Valance and his goons on the payroll. He starts to talk about what it means to live in a democracy, and Hallie’s mom proudly states that “the people are the boss.” Good to hear, but nothing is that simple when Pompey, the only Black character in the film, played by close Ford friend Woody Strode, stands up to speak.
Pompey’s backstory is unknown, though given the time and place he is possibly a freed slave. The film makes it clear that Pompey is an accepted, though at times slightly deferential, part of the community and is by no means a caricature. We know that he eats at the restaurant with Hallie’s family, he works side by side with Tom on his small ranch, and they seem to have an almost fraternal bond. He doesn’t hesitate to aim a gun directly at Valance to protect his friend, risks his life for him at one point, Tom publicly sticks up for him, and Pompey is clearly devastated at his death. It’s a pretty progressive choice: audiences at that time didn’t always see a prominent Black character, especially in this type of environment, with this much agency and dignity. Ford clearly took this issue seriously, with Strode starring in his previous film Sgt. Routledge, an outraged look at racial prejudice.
The same could be said for Hallie, who is certainly not anyone’s doormat or damsel in distress. She’s a hardworking, feisty, independent young woman making her way in the middle of nowhere who is clearly interested in Tom but doesn’t let the big fellow walk all over her. She stands up for herself. Tom implicitly claims Hallie as “his girl” all along using the Tarzan logic of the frontier (“you’re mighty pretty when you get mad” is his way of flirting) though Hallie starts to eventually realize that Ranse is the man of her dreams.
Hallie’s interest in Ranse is based on what he does for her mind, her imagination, which is a commendable way to look at courtship. You might not expect to see such an independent-minded woman in a Western, but they’re certainly around in other films like Johnny Guitar, The Furies, and Forty Guns. Just imagine the incredible grit and determination it would take to keep it all together in the late 1800s of the West, with pretty much zero help in the way of medical, educational, and institutional assistance.
When Pompey tries to remember those exalted words in the Declaration of Independence (written by a slaveholder) about all men being created equal, he can’t quite do it. It’s not because he’s stupid. Ranse cuttingly remarks that a lot of people forget that part, which had to resonate with audiences watching during the racially tense years of the early ’60s. Not to mention a very subtle moment later in the film when we see that Pompey, along with Shinbone’s women characters, does not vote on an otherwise joyful election day. The symbolic power of the film’s only Black character forgetting that exalted statement, with a portrait of Lincoln on the wall behind him no less, begs the perennial question about just how civilized we really are; whether we have ever lived up to our promises, and if we can ever expect to.
Tom barges into the schoolroom and kicks everyone out. Valance is heading back into town, which puts Ranse in the crosshairs. What good is all this fancy book learning when the bad men with guns are coming? Whatever choice Ranse makes is perilous. There’s a cart waiting to take him away, but in what might be an unintentional echo of Socrates’ final hours, he refuses to save himself and chooses to die for his principles.
What follows is a slight variation on the classic Western showdown. In an ominous moonlit side street, completely alone, an apron-clad Ranse slowly walks towards what we all assume is certain death, terrified but nevertheless taking aim at a cackling drunken Valance, who first wounds him out of sheer spite. Just doing that much is heroism already. He awkwardly aims his gun, shoots, and down goes the bad guy. Ranse is a hero! The day is saved!
For all his admiration for the rough and ready types, Ford’s sentimental side is hidden but deep, and you can see it in how he delicately choreographs romantic moments. Having come up as a filmmaker in the silent era, he trusted in the power of simple facial expressions and gestures to convey emotion. The way Hallie and Ranse look at each other says everything about what they mean to one another in that moment. When Tom realizes that all is lost, his dissolute reaction is an example of his inability to articulate feelings of disappointment without making a huge mess. Most of the time Tom confidently fills the frame with his massive chest, sly movements, and cocky grin, but we are also aware of his profound weaknesses.
Ranse goes on to win the nomination to represent Shinbone yet even he is not sure if he’s truly worthy of the title, since after all his public reputation is largely based on being rewarded for violence, however justified it may have been, which is what he’s been arguing against all along. This goes completely against his deepest principles and suggests that maybe they don’t really matter, since after all his law books weren’t what saved the day. Another valuable bit of political wisdom that the film offers: while people like to instinctively rally around the alpha figure, the right person to be in power is usually the one who seeks it least.
Ranse flips the usual hero’s script — courage, decency, and idealism are his true superpowers and what truly make him a capable leader. Nevertheless, Tom has some news for Ranse as he takes him into the smoke-filled back room at the convention. A weary Tom tells an entirely different story about the way things really went down that fateful night, complicating the narrative all over again: “YOU didn’t kill Liberty Valance.”
Tom explains that it was he who did it, with Pompey’s help, while standing off in the shadows. He explains that he’s able to live with that blood on his hands, which is quite an admission in itself. He’s willing to let Ranse take the credit for his actions and thus win Hallie’s heart and become the leader of Shinbone because he knows that Ranse’s intellect and idealism will enable him to take the nowhere town to the next level. So, the qualities that we’ve assumed all along apply to Ranse may really apply to Tom, arguably on an even deeper level, since he also possesses an idealism and nobility that makes him the true hero of the film. Or does it?
Coming back into the present day, when Ranse finally finishes telling the newsmen the truth (which given his reputation could result in political suicide) he’s surprised that the newsman resolutely tears the story up: “This is the West, sir, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” We know what he means within the context of the story so far, but this eagerness to abide by this revealed fiction — from a journalist, no less! — only leads us into more complicated territory.
Should we print the legend? These days, the traditional assumptions about our country’s character, political structure, and history are being pointedly and properly (in my view) challenged, so by that way of thinking the answer would be a definite no. Legend, you might say, is another word for lie, or at least fiction. One could argue that The People both need and deserve to hear the truth, however unpleasant or awful it may be, and only then can they make up their informed minds. Delusions don’t do anybody any good, especially in a democracy.
At the same time, it can’t be denied that telling people the truth (whether in America or anywhere else) isn’t always the best way to motivate them. It doesn’t inspire them to listen to the better angels of their nature, to borrow a phrase from Lincoln, who knew a thing or two about trying to get people to rise above their worst instincts and whose illustrious legacy was humanized in the earlier Ford film Young Mr. Lincoln. There’s a lot of truth in the old saying that people simply can’t handle too much reality, and that certainly applies to the often soul-crushingly dismal state of the world. The more we pay attention the more incurably messed up the world seems to be.
I think it can be argued that the film actually doesn’t encourage enthusiastic self-deception, cynical disillusionment, or a Noble Lie, by the simple fact that at least it tells the viewer the truth. It even subverts the entire mythology of the West by reminding the audience (the film was a hit) that it’s really only a legend after all, partly created by movies much like the very one you’re watching. We know that the story Ranse Stoddard lived well on for all those years was a lie, or at least not the whole truth, and that he was willing to admit it, which maybe makes a moral difference and maybe doesn’t. We know Ranse is good, he’s just not killing Liberty Valance good, and even though Tom evidently was, that trait wasn’t enough to build anything on, and he knew this perfectly well. But even if we know what really happened on that fateful night (and there’s even room for some doubt about that, too, if you examine the scene closely) this information doesn’t give us all the answers. We have to decide for ourselves.
Which is exactly the kind of moral complexity that leaves the viewer ruminating about what kind of qualities they expect in a hero, and we often go to art and mythology to consider just who we are and what we value. Those issues are also on the docket during every election cycle and are in the air during every patriotic celebration. It sure doesn’t seem that we as a country particularly want to know the painful facts behind our prosperity or the dirty little secrets of our exalted figures, probably because it might ruin their exalted image. Of course, that doesn’t make them go away. Whoever shot Liberty Valance might not matter to the people of Shinbone, but it does to us, and maybe that makes all the difference.•