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Monday, April 28, 2014


Favorite western movies? I’ve got a few. But if I had to choose, I think it would have to be The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

This Hollywood classic, starring John Wayne as Tom Doniphon, Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance, Vera Miles as Hallie Ericson, and Jimmy Stewart as Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard has just about everything a western cinema fan could hope for: action, romance, right-over-might…and an unforgettable theme song.

Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story was made into a movie in 1962. It’s one of my oldest “movie” memories, as I was five years old when it made the rounds to the movie theaters and drive-ins.

Here’s the description of the movie according to Wickipedia:b>

Elderly U.S. Senator Ransom "Ranse" Stoddard and his wife Hallie arrive by train in the small western town of Shinbone, to attend the funeral of an apparent nobody, a local rancher named Tom Doniphon. Prior to the funeral, Hallie goes off with a friend to visit a burned-down house with obvious significance to her. As they pay their respects to the dead man at the undertaker's establishment, the senator is interrupted with a request for a newspaper interview. Stoddard grants the request.

As the interview with the local reporter begins, the film flashes back several decades as Stoddard reflects on his first arrival at Shinbone by stagecoach to establish a law practice.

A gang of outlaws, led by gunfighter Liberty Valance, hold up the stagecoach. Stoddard is brutally beaten, left for dead and later rescued by Doniphon. Stoddard is nursed back to health by restaurant owner Peter Ericson (John Qualen), his wife Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and daughter Hallie. It later emerges that Hallie is Doniphon's love interest.

Shinbone's townsfolk are regularly menaced by Valance and his gang. Cowardly local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is ill prepared and unwilling to enforce the law. Doniphon is the only local courageous enough to challenge Valance's lawless behavior.

"You, Liberty...I said YOU pick it up..."

On one occasion, Doniphon even intervenes on Stoddard's behalf, when Valance publicly humiliates the inept Easterner. Valance trips Stoddard who is waiting tables at Peter's restaurant. Stoddard spills Doniphon's order causing Doniphon to intervene. Valance stands down and leaves. Doniphon tells Stoddard he needs to either leave the territory or buy a gun. Stoddard says he will do neither.

Stoddard is an advocate for justice under the law, not man. He earns the respect and affection of Hallie when he offers to teach her to read after he discovers, to her embarrassment, she's had no formal education. Stoddard's influence on Hallie and the town is further evidenced when he begins a school for the townspeople with Hallie's help. But, secretly, Stoddard borrows a gun and practices shooting.

Doniphon shows Stoddard his plans for expanding his house in anticipation of marrying Hallie, and reminds him that Hallie is his girl. Doniphon gives Stoddard a shooting lesson but humiliates him by shooting a can of paint which spills on Stoddard's suit. Doniphon warns that Valance will be just as devious, but Stoddard hits him in the jaw and leaves.

In Shinbone, the local newspaper editor-publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) writes a story about local ranch owners' opposition to the territory's potential statehood. Valance convinces the ranchers that if they will hire him, he can get elected as a delegate to represent the cattlemen's interest. Shinbone's residents meet to elect two delegates to send to the statehood convention at the territorial capital. Valance attempts to bully the townspeople into electing him as a delegate. Eventually, Stoddard and Peabody are chosen. Valance assaults and badly beats Peabody after Peabody publishes two unflattering articles about Valance and his gang. The villains destroy Peabody's office. Valance also calls Stoddard out for a duel later in the evening after Valance loses his bid for delegate. Valance leaves saying "Don't make us come and get you!" Doniphon tells Stoddard he should leave town and even offers to have his farmhand, Pompey, escort him. But when Stoddard sees that Peabody has been nearly beaten to death, he calls out Valance. Stoddard then retrieves a carefully wrapped gun from under his bed and heads toward the saloon where Valance is. Valance hears he has been called out and justifies going out in self-defense. His wins his last poker hand before the duel with Aces and Eights.


In the showdown, Valance toys with Stoddard by firing a bullet near his head and then wounding him in the arm, which causes Stoddard to drop his gun. Valance allows Stoddard to bend down and retrieve the gun. Valance then aims to kill Stoddard promising to put the next bullet "right between the eyes," when Stoddard fires and miraculously kills Valance with one shot to the surprise of everyone, including himself. Hallie responds with tearful affection. Doniphon congratulates Stoddard on his success, and notices how Hallie lovingly cares for Stoddard's wounds.

Sensing that he has lost Hallie's affections, Doniphon gets drunk in the saloon and drives out Valance's gang, who have been calling for Stoddard to be lynched for Valance's "murder." The barman tries to tell Doniphon's farmhand Pompey (Woody Strode) that he cannot be served (due to his race), to which Doniphon angrily shouts: "Who says he can't? Pour yourself a drink, Pompey." Pompey instead drags Doniphon home, where the latter sets fire to an uncompleted bedroom he was adding to his house in anticipation of marrying Hallie. The resulting fire destroys the entire house.

Stoddard is hailed as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and based on this achievement, is nominated as the local representative to the statehood convention. Stoddard is reluctant to serve based upon his notoriety for killing a man in a gunfight. At this point, in a flashback within the original flashback, Doniphon tells Stoddard that it was he (Doniphon), hidden across the street, who shot and killed Valance in cold blood, and not Stoddard in self-defense. Stoddard finds Doniphon and asks him why he shot Valance. He did it for Hallie, he says, because he understood that "she's your girl now". Doniphon encourages Stoddard to accept the nomination: "You taught her to read and write, now give her something to read and write about!"

Stoddard returns to the convention and is chosen as representative. He marries Hallie and eventually becomes the governor of the new state. He then becomes a two term U.S. senator, then the American ambassador to Great Britain, a U.S. senator again, and at the time of Doniphon's funeral is the favorite for his party's nomination as vice president.

The film returns to the present day and the interview ends. The newspaper man, understanding now the truth about the killing of Valance, burns his notes stating: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

"Hallie, who put the cactus rose on Tom's coffin?"

Stoddard and Hallie board the train for Washington, melancholy about the lie that led to their prosperous life. With the area becoming more and more civilized, Stoddard decides, to Hallie's delight, to retire from politics and return to the territory to set up a law practice. When Stoddard thanks the train conductor for the train ride and the many courtesies extended to him by the railroad, the conductor says, "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!" Upon hearing the comment, Stoddard and his wife stare off thoughtfully into the distance.

As a side note, one of the many reasons this film holds a special place in my heart is because I remember it as being the first time I made the connection between a scene onscreen representing a flashback. Remember the “flashback within a flashback” that the Wikipedia article mentions? The smoke from John Wayne’s cigarette moves and flows to take over the screen as he tells Jimmy Stewart, “You didn’t kill Liberty Valance. Think back…” That smoke took us back to the truth of what had happened, and my five-year-old brain was shocked—and enamored, even then, with the idea that time passage, or remembrances could be shown through the haze of cigarette smoke. It was the moment of truth for Ransom Stoddard.

For me, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance embodies the core of the west—good and evil, and how sometimes “the point of a gun was the only law”—and it all depended on the man who held the weapon.

Liberty represented the purest evil. Ranse was determined to fight him with the law he treasured—the desire to do things the legal way blinding him to the fact that Liberty didn’t respect that. In the beginning, his naivete is almost painful to watch, providing Liberty some rich entertainment. Though Tom finds it amusing, his growing respect for Ranse’s perseverance is portrayed to perfection by that familiar downward glance of John Wayne’s. Accompanied by the half-smile and his slow advice-giving drawl, the character of Tom Doniphon is drawn so that by the point at which he sees the handwriting on the wall and burns down the house he built for Hallie, the viewer’s sympathy shifts, briefly, to the circumstances Tom finds himself in.

But Ranse is determined to vanquish Valance one way or the other—with a lawbook or a gun—whatever it takes. In the final showdown, the lines of resignation are etched in Tom Doniphon’s face, and we know he is honor-bound to do the thing he’ll regret forever: save Ranse Stoddard’s life and lose Hallie to him.

I love the twist. Ranse truly believes he’s killed Valance. Again, to do the honorable thing, Tom tells him the truth about what really happened.

What do you think? If you were Ranse, would you want to know you really were not the man who shot Liberty Valance? Or would you want to be kept in the dark? If you were Tom, would you have ever told him? It’s a great movie!

Now you can sing along!


When Liberty Valance rode to town the womenfolk would hide, they'd hide
When Liberty Valance walked around the men would step aside
'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast---he was mighty good.

>From out of the East a stranger came, a law book in his hand, a man
The kind of a man the West would need to tame a troubled land
'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast---he was mighty good.

Many a man would face his gun and many a man would fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he
shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

The love of a girl can make a man stay on when he should go, stay on
Just tryin' to build a peaceful life where love is free to grow
But the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When the final showdown came at last, a law book was no good.

Alone and afraid she prayed that he'd return that fateful night, aww that night
When nothin' she said could keep her man from goin' out to fight
>From the moment a girl gets to be full-grown the very first thing she learns
When two men go out to face each other only one retur-r-r-ns

Everyone heard two shots ring out, a shot made Liberty fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.


  1. A great film. My favorite is 'The Magnificent Seven' and of course the film it is based on 'The Seven Samurai' Doris

    1. Oh, Doris, I love that one, too. There are so many good ones, it's hard to pick just one! LOL

  2. I do like this movie. I have to admit that my favorite Western(s) is the duo of John Wayne films Rio Bravo and El Dorado - the latter was Howard Hawks' remake of the former, with which he was never fully satisfied. Both are the story of a small group of brave men against a corrupt "boss" and his crew, and the redemption of a drunk (Rio Bravo has Dean Martin as the drunken deputy and El Dorado has Robert Mitchum as the drunken sheriff). Both feature a young side-kick who decides to throw in with the group after understanding what's at stake (18 year-old Ricky Martin in Rio Bravo and 26 year-old James Caan in El Dorado). Both are among my "go-to" Westerns - movies I have watched over and over, not only studying the story techniques, but for sheer enjoyment of the tale.

    1. JES, I think my husband has every line in both of those movies memorized. I won't hardly even watch them with him anymore because he aggravates me by quoting what comes next. LOL But I do love both of them, too. Just purely entertainment.

  3. The exchange at the end of the movie is one of my all-time favorites: Ransom Stoddard: You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott? Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. This is a powerful statement (and what I like about writing stories set in the Old West - one can exaggerate a little and get away with it because readers sort of expect it. lol)

    I also like that the movie-makers took Dorothy M. Johnson's good short story and created an exceptional movie. Back in my English and history teaching days, I used both the short story and the movie to study the western genre (well, and 'Shane') ;-).

    Now, to respond to your questions...

    Yes, as Ransom Stoddard, I would have wanted Tom to tell me who really shot Liberty Valance. Ransom had a hard enough time living with the "legend" when he thought he really had killed Liberty. On an emotional level, he hated that 'Ransom the man' wasn't separate from 'Ransom the shooter'. Then once he knew the truth, he dealt with it on an intellectual level, which was more important to him.

    From Tom's perspective, I think he had to tell Ranse the truth because his world was so black and white, including his love for Hallie and his friendship with Ranse (yes, I think he thought of Ranse as a friend in a twisted sort of way). Tom loved Hallie enough to know she was better off with Ranse, but he had to tell Ranse the truth about the shooting in order for that to happen. He also recognized how important Ranse was to the future of the state, and he had to clear Ranse's conscience.

    This situation reminds me of the friendship between Virgil and Everett in the movie Appaloosa (Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen). Someone has to sacrifice for the good of the others, and that actually makes the sacrificer the better person in the end.

    1. Kaye, I love that line at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, too. It's so symbolic of what is to come in the future for westerns--a foreshadowing. Shane is so perfect as a study guide for westerns. I found one on Amazon that is annotated for that very thing. LOVE IT. I used it in my writing classes a lot. I agree wholeheartedly with what you said about Tom and Ranse. I think Tom considered Ranse a friend, too. If he hadn't, he'd never have let Hallie go with someone he couldn't trust to the marrow of his bones. Thanks so much for your thoughtful answer. I have never seen Appaloosa. Sounds like I need to watch it. I love Viggo Mortensen.

  4. Great movie and great song. Interestingly enough, the song was not included in the motion picture soundtrack. Director John Ford apparently disliked the song and kept it off.

    Another great western, although more recent, is Kevin Costner's "Open Range." My absolute favorite, though is "Rango" believe it or not. Gore Verbinski pays loving tribute to all the old western cliches by giving them a comic twist with an all animal cast. Fantastic CGI animation so detailed it is hard not to think it is real and talk about great soundtracks! Hans Zimmer is one of the best composers around.

    1. JD, I agree about Rango. There are some great homages to classic westerns in the movie. Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake was over-the-top scary (well, for me, anyway). ;-)

    2. Kaye, Nighy was great (a rattlesnake makes a perfect western villain) as was the rest of the cast. The only thing I could find wrong with the movie was that it was over with too soon.

    3. Another one I need to see! I have not seen Rango, but my daughter and son (both grown) loved it.

      Big mistake for John Ford not to include that song. That was a huge hit and people still know it today. I have to say, though, I found a Gene Pitney song book for piano that had it in there and when I played it...well, let's just say, it lost something in the translation to piano. LOL

      Thanks for coming by, JD!

  5. I liked this movie. I'll remember that song forever. Wonderful post to classic westerns.

    1. Sarah, I loved that movie so much. But Jessica and I both end up in a big ball of tears at the end every single time. LOL And that song! Love it!


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