Saturday, September 25, 2010

Great showdowns: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Two of my favorite showdowns are from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The first is a confrontation over a fallen steak in a restaurant in Shinbone, a small western frontier town, and it is unusual for a showdown because no guns are ever drawn and no shots are ever fired. It emphasizes, though, one of the film's main themes — the way of the gun vs. the coming of law to the Old West. The former is highlighted not only in the movie's title (it is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, after all, not The Man Who Prosecuted Liberty Valance), but also in the characters Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a vicious outlaw and hired gun for cattle barons looking to intimidate voters into defeating a proposal for statehood, and Tom Doniphon, a tough but respectable rancher who provides the only real challenge to Valance's skill with a gun. The Law is represented by Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), a lawyer from the East eager to bring a more civilized order to the frontier.

On his way to Shinbone, Stoddard's coach is robbed — and Stoddard himself is severely beaten — by Valance and his gang. Ransom is found and rescued by Doniphon, who leaves him in the care of Hallie (Vera Miles), a waitress at Pete's Place and, ostensibly, Tom's future wife. To pay for his room and board, Ransom washes dishes at the restaurant, and on one night he volunteers to help Hallie serve food, much to the consternation of the women in the kitchen, who feel wearing an apron and waiting tables are not duties befitting a man. Ransom insists, however, and carries Tom's dinner into the dining room just as Liberty Valance — who had entered the room just moments before and forced a party of cowhands out of their chairs — is making himself comfortable. Ransom, seeing Liberty at the nearby table, stops short. Valance jeers, but Ranse carries the plate towards Tom's table, only to be tripped by Valance as he walks past the outlaw. Both Ranse and the plate hit the floor hard, and as Tom's food scatters, Valance and his men laugh derisively.

Tom walks slowly into frame and stands behind of Ransom, who is still on the floor recovering from his fall. "That's my steak, Valance," says Tom, as Liberty jumps to his feet. After a pause, Valance, chuckling, tells Ransom, "Well you heard him, Dude. Pick it up." Ranse starts to get to his feet, defiantly refusing to do as told. But Tom cuts him off, leaving Ranse on his knees, and sidesteps him to face Liberty. "I said you, Valance. You pick it up." A tense standoff begins, as Liberty silently considers his chances against Tom in a close-range gunfight. As Valance and Doniphon remain locked in a stare-down, Ransom, with a look of adrenaline-fueled rage, loses his patience. He stands up, angrily shouting at the two. "What's the matter? Everybody in this country kill crazy?" He picks up the steak, slaps it onto the plate, then slams the plate onto Tom's table. "There! Now! It's picked up!" Valance and Doniphon don't flinch — their eyes are still locked, gun hands at the ready. After a moment, Liberty backs down, though still taunting Tom by dropping some coins on the floor. "Why don't you get yourself a fresh steak, on me?" he says, his eyes still locked on Tom's. He then turns, slowly walks toward the door, then suddenly spins on his heels while going for his guns. Tom quickly checks Liberty's draw — "Try it, Liberty! Just try it!" he says, and Valance freezes. Liberty's face changes bitterly, and instead of drawing, he takes out his anger by beating one of his henchmen as he pushes his way out the door.

This scene further emphasizes the courage Ranse demonstrates during the coach robbery, when he steps in front of Liberty Valance when the latter threatens a woman. It shows that Ranse, despite his preference for reason over violence and his apparent blindness to prevailing gender roles, is in his own way as brave as Tom. But it also serves as the moment when Ranse realizes how complicated a task it will be to bring lawfulness to the west — he is fully aware that it was Tom and his gun that scared Valance away, not fear of the law. It's a quintessential James Stewart moment, too, showcasing the actor's talent for playing men pushed to the edge, whose anger explodes into defiance in the face of possible ruin or death. (The following scene, where Ranse recovers from the incident, is another well-executed move from the George Bailey playbook.)

The second — and most significant — showdown from Liberty Valance is shown twice: once when it happens, and again in flashback (technically both instances are in flashback, as the events are told by Ransom decades after they occur). After the confrontation at Pete's Place, Ranse knows it's just a matter of time before Liberty comes back for revenge. In secret, he begins practicing with a gun, and gets one memorable lesson from Tom, who angers Ranse by shooting paint cans while Ranse is still near them, covering the lawyer in white paint.

The showdown happens at night, on Shinbone's darkened main street. Ranse discovers that Valance and his men have badly beaten the editor of the town newspaper and destroyed the newspaper office where Ranse was establishing his law practice. While he knows that he is no match for Liberty in a gun fight, he resolves to face him anyway and sends word to Liberty to meet him in the street. Ranse, still wearing his apron, retrieves his gun, pulls down what is left of the sign he had hung outside his office, then starts down the street toward Liberty.

Valance controls the situation from the start, telling a determined but obviously frightened Ranse to come forward out of the shadow. Ranse obeys, only to be toyed with as Liberty shoots a jug hanging close to Ransom's head, splashing him with water (echoing Tom's humiliating paint can trick). Ranse gathers himself, then steps forward, only to be shot in his gun arm and watch his gun fly into the street. Liberty leans against a post laughing as Ranse, blood pouring from his arm, moves slowly toward his gun. "You got two hands, Hash Slinger. Pick it up," taunts Liberty. As Ranse slowly reaches for the gun, Liberty shoots the ground nearby and continues to laugh. Ranse takes the gun in his left hand, then slowly steps up onto the sidewalk to face Valance. Liberty stops laughing and changes his expression so that we know he is done with games. He steps away from the post, points his gun at Ranse, and pulls back the hammer. "All right, dude. This time, right between the eyes," he says, taking aim. Ranse quickly raises his gun and fires. Liberty is thrown back against the post, then staggers onto the street and falls over, dead.

As a crowd bursts from the saloon and surrounds Valance's body, Ranse, holding his bleeding arm, walks slowly back to the restaurant, where Hallie follows him to the kitchen to tend his wound. As she does so, she tearfully confesses her fear that Ranse would have been killed and kisses him on the forehead, just as Tom walks in. It becomes apparent to Tom that Hallie will marry Ranse and not him, and his bitterness over this realization manifests as anger in the following scenes when he roughs up Valance's men in the saloon, gets drunk, then returns to his home to burn down the addition he had built in anticipation of living with Hallie.

The significance of Tom's anger is not fully revealed until the territorial convention, where Ranse — bolstered by his reputation as the man who shot Liberty Valance — is nominated to represent the territory in Congress. Uneasy with the controversy surrounding his new fame, Ranse leaves the convention hall. Outside he is confronted by a grizzled and bitter Tom, and explains to him that he wishes to go back east instead of build a career based upon his killing of Valance. "You talk too much," Tom tells him. "Besides," he continues, "you didn't kill Liberty Valance." In flashback, Tom explains to the astonished Ranse how he had hidden in the shadows across the street, and shot Liberty Valance just as Ranse fired his own gun. When Ranse asks Tom why he did it, Tom replies, "Hallie's happy. She wanted you alive." Ranse then re-enters the convention hall to accept his nomination.

In secretly killing Liberty Valance, Tom knowingly sacrifices his future happiness with Hallie for Hallie's future happiness with Ranse. But his sacrifice is for more than just Hallie — by shooting Liberty Valance, Tom not only saves Ranse's life, but gives Ranse the reputation needed to get him elected to Congress, which in turn gains statehood for the land "south of the Picketwire" and ushers in the secure law, order, and prosperity Ranse had hoped for all along. More significantly, Tom's action establishes the film's main thematic paradox, that law prevails only by exploiting the violence it intends to replace.

See also: What's in a name: Liberty Valance and Ransom Stoddard


  1. since you apparently visited MY blog on this same issue, I thought I'd repay the favor.

    Nice recap of the screen action, however, I'd dispute your analysis regarding any alleged 'sacrifice' by Tom Doniphon. As I stated in my blog, I doubt Tom acted out of any sense of you so rightly noted, Tom didnt even know that Hallie wasnt choosing him until AFTER Liberty was dead.

    Aside from any discussion of 'two against one,' in this showdown, as I mentioned in my blog, we have no real proof that it was Tom's and not Ransom's bullet that killed Liberty.

    Further, why would Tom wait until Ransom decided to take Liberty on? He was skilled with a gun, if he had a mind to go vigilante, why didnt he do it prior? Why lurk in the shadows? I myself find it hard to characterize any act by Tom Doniphon as 'sacrificial' perticularly in light of his later behavior. He CLEARLY was a 'sore loser,' and I believe his private disclosure to Ransom, on the eve of Ransom's apparent political victory, was an attempt to poison the happiness of his rival as he leaves town with Tom's love interest in tow.

    Its interesting to view others' opinions, and I appreciate your visit, even though you didnt comment. I'll post a link where others can visit your blog, and I'd appreciate if you'd credit my blog for an alternate viewpoint as well

  2. Thanks for your comment and the interesting suggestions.

    As to why Tom never shot Valence before, it’s probably because Valance was never a real threat to Tom. During their showdown at Pete’s place, it’s clear that both men knew Tom would win in a gunfight; it’s also clear that Tom was ready to kill Valance under what he considered the right circumstances -- a “justified” quarrel where Valance drew first.

    I suggest that Tom’s declination after Ranse’s duel with Valance is due not only to the loss of Hallie, but to the fact that he killed Valance under improper circumstances -- from the shadows, unseen. (And I think it can be reasonably accepted that it was Tom who killed Valence, based upon the skill Tom displays earlier in the film versus the ineptness of Ranse’s shooting.) That he chose this moment shows that he valued Ranse’s life -- not out of love for the man, but for the better future he saw for Shinbone under Ranse’s leadership. Prior to Ranse’s arrival, the thought of statehood was probably not something in which Tom put much hope. In Ranse, however, it is likely that Tom saw a man as determined and, in his own way, as tough as himself -- someone who could probably make statehood happen if he could stay alive long enough to do so.

    By keeping his actions secret, Tom not only protected his honor (Tom couldn’t confess to such a shooting), but transferred it to Ranse, giving him a victory to go with his otherwise suicidal bravery. By not disclosing the truth to Hallie, Tom allowed Hallie to enjoy the better future he imagined she would have with Ranse. Of course, we are not shown any other interaction between Tom and Hallie after the showdown, so Hallie’s own thoughts and feelings are all but discounted; it is possible she would have stayed with Tom anyway, had he not given up on their future together. (Hallie clearly displays a sense of nostalgia -- if not outright regret -- by placing the cactus rose on Tom’s coffin.) Still, I think the shame Tom would have felt over the way he killed Liberty would eventually force his isolation. His sacrifice, therefore, was for the future of Shinbone and it was tied to his belief that Ranse could improve that future.

    And I think it’s correct that Tom’s revelation was intended to taint Ranse’s happiness, for it was not Ranse’s happiness Tom cared about, but Hallie’s. This parting shot was all Tom could throw at Ranse without completely destroying what he felt was good for Shinbone and for Hallie -- i.e., Ranse.

  3. You're all crazy .. Stewart was beside himself after the shooting , as if he had done something unspeakable , it could perhaps break a man who was once so solid .. Bereft to say the least consumed with a bleakness .. And as for Wayne , he didn't do it , or bring it to his attention to Belittle him , he did it to calm him down , to let him know , hey .. With all due respect , your still that DAMN righteous man & don't forget it , go on & do what's right , Wayne knew it was killing him .. & perhaps Wayne did have an Ax to grind but he Knew well enough not to destroy the guy .. Because after all Wayne was a Man himself & he .. like Stewart had been confronted with Evil , but Stewart did Show Up ... People look Liberty was a Thug , a Thug .. I know you Know What Thugs are , & he's gonna meet Stewart in the Street ?? To What Take a Life ? Take a Soul ? Take someone's Dignity ?? Cause you Know ?? that's what Thugs do & for What ?? Then go back inside for a drink & miserable life as normal ?? Wayne seen this for what it was worth ... Liberty was a Bully ... You know what a Bully is ? Right ?? Wayne told him Stewart , because it could have gone either way .. Could've gone to his head or Broke his Spirt