The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of those classic films I hadn’t gotten around to seeing other than having caught the end on TNT one day. But today I saw it and came away with a different conclusion.
At the end of the film, we learn that Tom Doniphan (John Wayne) really had shot Liberty Valance while the public had given credit to Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) who went on to have a successful political career.
Wayne is seen by many as the hero because he realized the only way you could deal with someone like Liberty Valance was through force and he did the deed that had to be done.
So the resulting fame for Stoddard was hugely unfair, right?
Watching the film, we see that Ransom Stoddard is indeed the story true hero and protagonist, and at times, almost a Christ-like figure. As a young lawyer, he comes to practice law in a lawless Western town and on the way into town, he’s on a stagecoach that’s robbed by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Stoddard raises no complaint when Valance seizes his father’s gold watch and robs him. But when Valance goes for a momento from a widow’s late husband. He receives a brutal beating from Valance and is left to die.
However, he is rescued by Doniphan. When he recovers, the college-education lawyer goes to work as a dishwasher in the hotel that took him in. He even takes on the duty of helping out with waiting tables. He’s mocked by Valance who trips him, causing him to spill Doniphan’s meal. When Doniphan and Valance prepare to have a shootout over who will pick up the food, Stoddard intervenes, humbles himself, and picks up the food.
Doniphan, while still doing dishwashing work, hangs up his shingle at a local newspaper, and begins teach people to read, and about their country. This is important as an election for two delegate to the territorial convention are to be held
At the convention, Stoddard and an ally (a local newspaper and town drunk played by Golden Globe Winner Edmond O’Brien) are elected, but Valance threatens to kill him. Doniphan offers Stoddard a wagon out of town, and he considers it.
While many people have imagined Stoddard as naively unaware that the law wouldn’t be sufficient to deal with Liberty Valance, Stoddard was no fool. When Stoddard found the town marshal was a coward, he began to take an old gun out and practice. However, he was nowhere near good enough as Doniphan proved in a humiliating display.
However, when Valance savagely beats the elderly newspaper editor, Stoddard walks down to confront Valance, still wearing the apron from his dishwashing job, a servant’s garment. There seemed to be a realization. Stoddard was the only man in town who would stand up to Valance and if Valance wasn’t stopped, he’d continued to destroy and hurt people. It was like Gary Cooper in High Noon except Stoddard wasn’t Gary Cooper with the gun. He had no hope of success.
He faced Valance, who immediately shot him in his gun hand. Stoddard picked up with his least favored hand. He wouldn’t run, he wouldn’t hide. He was the one man who would face Liberty Valance come what may.
What about Tom Doniphan? He makes a positive first impression when he brings Stoddard in. He appears to be a roguish heroic type at first blush, but when you look deeper, you find a very self-centered character.
Throughout the film, he tells us that he’s tougher than Liberty Valance, that he can beat Liberty Valance and he makes us believe. But he hasn’t. Doniphan is ready to kill Valance over spoiling his steak by tripping Stoddard, but does nothing while Valance oppresses his neighbors, and torments innocent people. When Stoddard nominate Doniphan for delegate, he refuses the post which would bring him into conflict with Valance.
Perhaps, the existence of Valance gave Doniphan a status of importance and made him an indispensable man in a lawless community. Or perhaps, Doniphan didn’t care about everyone else, but for whatever reason, Doniphan avoided the conflict.
Even Doniphan’s attempts to “help” Stoddard had mixed motives at best. His attempt to teach Stoddard to shoot only had the result of humiliating him. Stoddard believes that he’s a real man, a tough and violent character who can handle himself, and that Stoddard is a tenderfoot who is pretty much useless in the real world.
Some of this motivated by his desire for Hallie (Vera Miles) whose heart was slowly moving towards Stoddard. Doniphan takes it for granted that Hallie will be his wife and resents it when she stars having feelings for Stoddard. He forbids Stoddards to teach Hallie to read. It also seems that Doniphan’s decision to put Stoddard in as delegate and then offer him a wagon out of town when Valance threatens him is motivated by his desire to keep Hallie to himself.
However, when Stoddard decides to face Valance, she sends Doniphan’s servant Pompey to let him know because she scared of what will happen to Stoddard. So, when Stoddard and Valance face off, Doniphan fires the shot that kills Liberty Valance from across the street, thus losing the girl he loves to give her what she wants. Even the impact of this noble deed is lessened by Doniphan indulging himself in bitterness and self-pity.
In the end, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about two men: One man is humble and comes to serve the people of a frightened community and to bring law and peace, and is willing to put his life on the line for it. The other could easily bring order, but doesn’t because he’s so busy taking care of number one and his crowning heroic moment is shooting down a distracted man in the city streets. From my perspective, it’s not even close here as to who the hero is.
Without Ransom Stoddard’s courage and convictions, there is no movie. And while most of us don’t have the talent of Tom Doniphan, perhaps by God’s grace, we can be more like Ransom Stoddard in our towns and communities.
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