Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and the Brilliance of John Ford
John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a classic western with a few film noir elements included, is elegiac in the sense that its narrative strategy is that of eulogistic remembrance by now-Senator Ransom Stoddard, of horse rancher Tom Doniphan, who once saved Stoddard's life and changed it much for the better, and who was the real man who shot Liberty Valance. According to Robert Horton, "This may be the saddest Western ever made, closer to an elegy than an action movie, and as cleanly beautiful as its central symbol, the cactus rose" ("Editorial Reviews"). Upon Tom Doniphan's death in the small fictional town of Shinbone (state unknown) Ransom and Hallie Stoddard arrive back in town to pay their final respects to Doniphan who sacrificed so much of himself, and so much of his own future happiness, for both of them. Upon Ransom Stoddard's return to tiny Shinbone, the press barges in on Stoddard and his wife Hallie as they sit quietly and reflectively inside the funeral home paying their final respects. In the same way that another great film classic, Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) begins with a journalistic inquiry, the trio of newspaper reporters at the start of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance have come to learn why a man of Stoddard's national importance would travel three days by train from his home in Washington, D.C. To attend the funeral of an obscure horse rancher. Stoddard's recollections become the elegiac element of this western, which is also a meditation on the meanings of abstract ideas, such as law and order, truth, justice, bravery and honor. In a place like Shinbone, where the man with the fastest gun makes the rules, Tom Doniphan has had more influence on Shinbone, and on life beyond it, than anyone but Stoddard himself (and perhaps Hallie) could possibly know.
Western conventions and icons in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance used to develop John Ford's implicit thesis on wilderness, civilization, and time passage include, for one, the rickety stagecoach: once essential to small towns like Shinbone, and in fact the very lifelines of such towns. Now, however, having been replaced by the railroad, it sits forgotten in a warehouse, dust-covered, obsolete, and forgotten. Symbolically speaking, when Ransom Stoddard first arrives in Shinbone, it is by stagecoach, but when he and Hallie return to Washington after Tom's funeral, they go by train.
Another important icon is the cactus blossoms Hallie loves. In remembrance of Tom at his funeral, Hallie places a single cactus blossom atop his coffin. The gesture underscores the idea of who Tom has been to Hallie: someone who, through quiet determination, strength of character, and selflessness, enabled Shinbone and its people, including her and Ransom, to blossom in life, just as the cactus does, miraculously, beautifully, in the barren the desert.
The centrality of Hallie's role as a leading character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is threefold. First Hallie is the archetypal frontierswoman who settled the American west. As such, she is strong, determined, and hard-working, yet gentle, nurturing, and physically beautiful. She brings out the best (and occasionally the worst as well) in others, including Tom Doniphan and Ransom Stoddard, two rivals for her love. If Ransom Stoddard represents the east and Tom Doniphan the west, Hallie comes eventually to represent both. Initially Hallie represents the untamed potential of the west (Hallie cannot read or write). Later, after she marries Stoddard and moves with him to Washington, Hallie represents the sophisticated refinement of the east. Still, the east is never in Hallie's blood like the west. During all her time in Washington, she yearns secretly for simplicity of Shinbone. If we see this as Hallie's story, it is an American western version of the bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) in which Hallie learns to recognize love for what it is, and comes to know her true self.
Tom Doniphan and Ransom Stoddard each have both strengths and failings, inversely proportion to one another. Stoddard knows theories of the law but Doniphan knows how the law really functions. Similarly, Ransom symbolizes the spirit of the law: principles of right and wrong; morality and justice, but without the seasoned knowledge, which Tom has in abundance, of how such concepts function in the world. When Liberty Valance wants his steak picked up, Ranse picks it up to avoid a fight. Ranse does not understand why Tom would rather fight than pick up a steak from the floor. Ranse considers both Tom and Liberty stubborn, while Tom (and probably Liberty) consider Ranse a pushover. Ranse is a man of personal integrity, who knows a great deal about how people, in Shinbone and everywhere else, ideally should be, but little about how people (at least in this town) actually are. Tom, on the other hand, though he has little book learning, knows from life how to size up others, including Stoddard (and Liberty). What Doniphan knows less of though, is how to share himself with others, or become close to them. For example, Hallie is the object of Doniphan's love, but she is only that: an object. Several times Tom tells Hallie, "You're pretty when you're mad" (or angry, or emotional). Still, he does not ever ask Hallie to explain her feelings, nor does he try to help her feel better, as Ranse always does. Clearly, Tom would protect Hallie from harm if she stayed in Shinbone and married him. But he would never truly see Hallie as an independent human being, separate from himself, with her own strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears, desires, etc. Tom often tells Hallie "You belong to me," to which Hallie always replies "I don't belong to anyone." Similarly, Tom declares to all, "Hallie's my girl," and naively believes this is so. But Tom never asks Hallie to be his girl. Meanwhile, Hallie, before Tom's eyes, "his girl" is falling in love with another.
Ransom sees Hallie as a full human being. He works with her in the kitchen and is not afraid to do "women's work." Ranse teaches Hallie to read and write, encouraging her desire to teach others by having her work in his school. Tom, on the other hand, tells Hallie she doesn't need to learn to read and write. Tom does not notice that Hallie wants to learn to read and write. Therefore, when Ranse's school and Hallie's teaching career fall apart, Tom has no idea how much these things upsets Hallie, or why they even should.
The question of whom we side with more: Ranse or Tom and why, is complex. The best answer is that we side with both, but at different times and for different reasons. Ultimately, we side more with Tom and feel sympathy and admiration for him. A great deal of the power of the ending of this movie is that our enormous sympathy for Tom, given his past attitudes and actions, comes as a surprise.
Both Tom and Ranse represent, distinctly yet equally, the best of imperfect humanity. We see our best (and our worst) selves within each of them. For most of the movie, we side with Ranse, who seems to be above the primitive, childish hostilities of Tom and Liberty. But in the end, when cerebral Ranse finally acknowledges the seriousness of Liberty Valance as a threat, and that he, like Tom, will brandish a gun, this implicitly validates Tom's viewpoint. Second, Tom's actions the night Liberty dies reveal at long last the kind of person Tom truly is. Before these two turning points, Tom, even though on the right side of the law, seems similar to Liberty: cocky; simplistic; selfish, boorish. For example, just as Hallie is an object Tom will "acquire" someday, Ranse is a "pilgrim." To prove his superiority with a gun, Tom deliberately shoots full cans of white paint onto Ranse's expensive suit, an act at once malicious and childish. Ranse immediately evens things up by punching Tom, knocking him to the ground and showing Tom Ranse is a "real man" after all, not just an overdressed eastern "pilgrim." In those respects, Tom's pugnacious personality is like Liberty's, except for Tom's honesty and respect for the law. But at the end, Tom both sacrifices Hallie to Ranse, and secures Ranse's political future by both assuaging Ranse's guilt about killing Liberty, and also by refusing to take credit for it himself. Those two acts demonstrate compassion and depth in Tom that surprise us. At that point, we see Tom as he is: not through his swagger or his manly threats, but through actions performed bravely, selflessly, without fanfare.
In comparing John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with a more recent western, Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990), with which "Kevin Costner came along and singlehandedly [sic] breathed new life into the genre" (Berardinelli) the two directors' interpretations of the American character are essentially similar: a strong but essentially…