The first time I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 46 years ago, it was in its second run at one of the neighborhood movie theaters that still abounded in New York in the early Sixties. It felt as if it belonged in a theater like that, a little bit faded and off the main drag. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was born old. With its black-and-white photography and its backlot sets, its aging stars incongruously cast as young men, its barnstorming turns by John Carradine and Edmond O’Brien, it seemed like a movie from another time. Its use of flashbacks—the revelation made by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) to Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) presented as a flashback within the larger flashback of Ranse’s narrative that occupies most of the film—only emphasized that the whole movie was a flashback to an age of filmmaking already gone. For young moviegoers the only thing really contemporary about it was the presence of Lee Marvin, who in terms of the John Ford universe seemed like pure rock and roll; and Strother Martin, as his howling half-witted sidekick, was already punk rock. By assembling Marvin, Martin and Lee Van Cleef as the heavies, Ford had managed to forecast the movies that within a few years would displace his own kind of cinema: Point Blank, For a Few Dollars More, The Wild Bunch.
To enter the movie theater to see Liberty Valance felt really like stepping out of time, appropriately for a movie that plays so profoundly with time and memory and chronological sequence. It begins with an ending, and for the first quarter hour creates the impression that we have intruded on some private ritual of mourning. The exchange of glances between Marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) and Hallie (Vera Miles) suggests a sorrow beyond words. Ford gives us the emotional climax up front, before we can understand anything of what we are seeing, or grasp, for example, the significance of Link’s remark: “He didn’t carry no handgun, Ranse, he didn’t for years.” The weight of those opening scenes is so oppressive that what follows seems at first like an escape in the only possible direction—backward, into the past.*
When Ford made Liberty Valance at age 67, he had already directed over 120 movies, beginning with The Tornado in 1917. His health was declining and changes in the film industry were making it ever harder for him to find work; without John Wayne’s clout the picture probably wouldn’t have gotten made at all. Ford—who over many decades had built up a sort of private polity of actors and technicians where he reigned supreme—must have sensed that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance might be the last film where he would be able to exercise the kind of directorial control to which he was accustomed.
To ask what Ford’s authorial intentions were in this or any other of his films is to pose a question he would likely have found unnecessary. Making movies was what he had been doing since his youth. It was an occupation into which he had fallen for the fortuitous reason that his long absent older brother Francis had made a career for himself as actor and director. Ford took advantage of the opening and found himself employable as actor and stuntman in an industry just beginning to operate on a much larger scale. (He was one of the Klan riders in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.) From the moment he began to work as a director he scarcely had time to contemplate the larger meaning of his chosen profession: he was either immersed in the making of films or (as Joseph McBride recounts in his biography Searching for John Ford) knocking himself out in alcoholic binges that increasingly became a necessary relief.
Had Ford chosen to make a statement about the meaning of his life—and he was not given to such statements—he might well have emphasized his years of military service in World War II over his career as a commercial filmmaker. (His military service, as it happens, chiefly involved filmmaking.) But even to venture that much is presumptuous; better to say that Ford was a man of extraordinary pride who sometimes chose to deny his obvious artistic ambition and whose essential solitariness expressed itself, paradoxically, in the midst of crowded and tumultuous moviemaking. He made a community—a world—in which he could work and live, and by force of will and talent was largely able to maintain it against outside pressures through the long arc from, say, The Iron Horse (1924) to The Searchers (1956). When we look at his films as aesthetic objects divorced from the circumstances of their making, we are probably doing what Ford himself had neither the time nor the inclination to do. But it was precisely the quality of his immersion in the process of making them that gives them their peculiar weight. Meaning in Ford—the deep meaning that often contradicts or modifies the apparent meaning of the screenplay—is a by-product of process.
In the neatness of its structure, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance bears comparison to Ford’s great breakthrough of 1939, Stagecoach. There are many connections large and small between Stagecoach and Liberty Valance, starting with the stagecoach that Ranse Stoddard dusts off just before the main flashback begins. The presence of Wayne, Carradine and Devine evokes the earlier film (indeed, the Devine of Stagecoach, with his Mexican wife, might well have aged into the Devine of Liberty Valance); Wayne’s Ringo Kid, like Tom Doniphon, has “a cabin half built” for his future bride; on a dark street Wayne guns down a desperado who has just won a poker hand with aces and eights (the “dead man’s hand”); and Jack Pennick (the most quietly ubiquitous of Ford’s stock company), who was the bartender in Stagecoach, is still serving up drinks in Liberty Valance.
The Lordsburg of Stagecoach is not very different from the Shinbone of Liberty Valance; what is different is where the two films end up. In the last scene of Stagecoach, the noble outlaw Wayne and the newly reformed prostitute Claire Trevor ride off into the wilderness away from the corruption and moral narrowness of towns, with the full approval of George Bancroft’s sheriff: “Well, they’re saved from the blessings of civilization!” In Liberty Valance no one is saved, because there is no longer a romantic wilderness to ride off into, only a train to Washington, D.C.—the same train that spewed black smoke over the landscape at the beginning of the movie.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Ford had, after a string of problematic scripts (The Horse Soldiers, Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together), a screenplay that with its tightly meshing arguments and counterarguments evoked a sort of cowboy version of Corneille. In fact it’s a nearly perfect screenplay—at least for Ford. It’s hard to imagine what any other director would have made of it, so imbued is every aspect of it, as finally filmed, with the Fordian ambience which by that date had begun to seem quite peculiar, a world unto itself.
From start to finish we are inside the little theater of John Ford. Almost everything feels as if it’s taking place indoors, even the street scenes and the stagecoach robbery. Here are no longer any sweeping vistas or epic cavalcades. Instead there is a sort of claustrophobic milling around in the middle distance. The interiors are narrow and (except in the strangely empty “modern” framing sequences) often overcrowded. In its central stretch the movie becomes one jammed set piece after another, much of it in long shot to accommodate all the players. Rather than having wide open spaces fit for heroic action, the characters at times barely have room to turn around. The effect has been compared to the silent Kammerspiel films of F.W. Murnau or Carl Dreyer, but just as often it evokes the theatrical tableau set-ups of Griffith, an old-fashioned full-frontal approach of which Ford is entirely conscious. Critics at the time were mostly appalled by the lack of visual splendor. But Ford seems determined to impress us with the ordinariness of the life he depicts. Did any Western ever have so much to say about dishwashing?
It’s a film with no digressions, no interludes. So powerful and suggestive is the central schema that every other detail becomes relevant within it, whether the dishwashing—woman’s work that brands Ranse Stoddard as ineffectual for undertaking it—or O’Brien as the newspaper editor Dutton Peabody drunkenly reciting a speech from Henry V—the intellectual guarding himself with literature against real-world violence.
Ford’s usual choral contingent of drunks, cowards and stammering bumpkins assembles more or less for the last time to fill out the population of Shinbone. By now their weathered faces seem like part of the landscape. Or rather, in the absence of landscape, it is their faces and voices that become the landscape. The voices are important. For a movie that in retrospect seems to exude an air of stillness, there is a remarkable amount of talk in Liberty Valance, and it isn’t small talk. We are given a classroom session, an election day political meeting, a territorial convention, each with its share of yelling and speechifying, each an occasion for straight-out rhetorical exhortation from all sides, with even Liberty Valance getting to make a more or less cogent speech laying out the realities of the situation from his narrow but unimpeachably realist viewpoint.
In fact nearly every conversation hinges on a debating point. When Ranse Stoddard asks Liberty Valance and his accomplices what kind of men they are, Valance replies: “What kind of man are you, dude?” A moment later, brandishing his quirt, he announces: “I’ll teach you law—Western law!” Everybody is always teaching somebody something. Ranse teaches Hallie to read; Tom teaches Ranse how to shoot a gun. By the time the movie settles into Ranse’s backroom literacy class it might seem to have become mired in the most banal kind of didacticism, with Jeanette Nolan as the Swedish restaurant keeper Mrs. Ericson reciting that “a republic is a state in which the people are the boss” and Woody Strode’s Pompey forgetting the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence so that Ranse can respond: “That’s all right, Pompey, a lot of people forget that part.” But affirmative as it is—giving Ford, in the Civil Rights era, a chance to present a racially and ethnically diverse classroom—the scene also quickly gets more complicated as Tom Doniphon barges in to bring word of impending violence. Instantly Ranse loses his authority as a teacher, as the men in the class gather around Tom for his insider’s commentary on the situation. Ranse reluctantly breaks up the school in the interest of his students’ safety, and we watch in close-up as he erases the sentence on the blackboard: “Education is the basis of law and order.” When Tom orders Hallie to go home, it sparks what turns out to be her definitive rebellion against his paternalistic claims on her: “You don’t own me!”
This classroom scene is nothing but a series of rapid interjections, some of them purely comic, but in a way it’s the most characteristic scene in the movie. The film as a whole may offer proof of Tom Doniphon’s initial contention that “you better start packin’ a handgun,” but it surrounds that contention with layers on layers of words; and it’s the words—symbolized by the slogan embedded in the movie’s title and burnished by teachers, newspaper editors and politicians—that finally win out over any original reality.
By the time Ford made Liberty Valance he was practicing an art of compression. He lingers over nothing; there is no time to lavish on second glances. He had always valued speed and spontaneity, and liked to catch actors unprepared before they had a chance to become too attached to their line readings. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a film which in memory can seem melancholy and languidly contemplative, but on the screen it moves at an urgent clip. There is no voluptuous immersion in the image for its own sake. Scenes that other directors would have milked for suspense or spectacular effect are short and matter-of-fact. Tom’s burning of his house, and the release of the horses from the corral to save them from the fire, is recounted in a sequence all the more powerful for being pared to the bone. It burns its way into the movie as if surfacing from some medieval saga or early Swedish silent film, the only moment in Liberty Valance that really feels like the outdoors, to signal that the possibility of a wilderness home, the refuge of independent spirits like Tom Doniphon, is going up in flames. There are moments of repose, even stasis, but they happen very fast and are soon gone. Certain emblematic shots—the cactus roses blooming amid the burnt-out remnants of Tom’s house, the closed coffin framed in the doorway, the cactus rose set on top of the coffin—are inserted as if to
remove them from their surroundings and place them outside of time altogether. These moments are stark and sharp and, once gone, never return. The rest is bustle, a world of unavoidable unruly interaction. Within that bustle there are relatively few moments when characters are alone, but they are crucial: Hallie alone in the classroom after the school has broken up, Ranse alone in the street waiting for Liberty Valance and pausing while he waits to take down what’s left of the legal sign that Valance shot up, Tom alone in a dark alleyway after he’s killed Valance (although we don’t know that yet) and has fully understood that he has lost Hallie to Ranse. Each moment of solitude represents some kind of agonized realization.
In Liberty Valance Ford offers only the faintest traces of those communal rituals of song and parade that occupied so much space in his earlier films. Mostly the collective rituals here are political, and they divide as much as they bring together. Aside from the mournful underscoring in the framing scenes, the main body of the film is almost without music except for stray bits of ambient music-making. The only dancing takes place far back in the frame, in one of the most elaborate shots in the film: Tom Doniphon, after the moment described above in the alley, moves forward through the darkness, the camera following him as he emerges into the public square where, outside the cantina, the Mexicans are dancing in celebration of Liberty Valance’s death, and Liberty’s corpse lies a few yards away on the back of a wagon, the heels hanging down. Tom is in the same frame as the celebration, but he takes no part in it.
All these scenes and moments and fleeting images find their place within the strong architecture of the central story. That they are not in any way separate from it is the mark of the extraordinarily focused energies of the film. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of the story being told, but somehow everything becomes part of that story. It is a story at once emotionally intimate and chillingly detached, and in that contradiction is the key to an art that, although it seems steeped in nostalgia and sentimentality, is finally marked by an arctic clarity.
For all the talk that goes on, Ford’s unraveling of the inner lives of his three central characters is accomplished almost wordlessly, chiefly through the performances he knew how to elicit from actors as different as Vera Miles and Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne. How much we come to know about Hallie, for instance, and how little of it comes from dialogue: her anger at Tom’s paternalist condescension; her anger at everything around her, even at Ranse for his awkwardness and unmanly politeness; her love for Ranse which is always a kind of mothering; her final grief which she can share not with her husband but with those she left behind, Devine as Link Appleyard and Strode as Pompey.
At its heart the movie is, as many have observed, the tragedy of Tom Doniphon, and the human dimension of that tragedy is conveyed entirely through what Ford was able to get out of Wayne. As we see Tom in his first scenes, before Ranse and his law books have changed things forever in Shinbone, he’s a man rooted in his world and, as much as he can be, content in it. Through the way Wayne carries himself we understand everything we need to know about that world: his body language becomes a shorthand for the description of a culture. By the end—when Tom barges into the convention hall to have it out with Ranse once and for all—he has become by contrast the Wayne of The Searchers, Ethan Edwards in all his bitterness and eternal solitude. The sacrifice he has made can be measured in that physical and emotional metamorphosis.
The scene which follows—in which we finally learn who shot Liberty Valance—is also remarkably short considering its importance. It’s as if Tom can’t wait to get out of there. If he has sacrificed his own prospects, his own world, it’s perhaps because he wanted Hallie to get what she wanted and perhaps because he really is strong enough (since we already know he’s the strongest person in the movie) to realize that any other course of action—to let Ranse die, to let the political status quo continue—would be unworthy of him. If he hadn’t, by subjecting Ranse to the hazing ritual in which he spattered him with white paint, found out that the lawyer was courageous enough to knock him down, perhaps he wouldn’t have considered him worthy of such a sacrifice. But since Ranse passed that test, Tom had to respect him, to help him, and finally to commit a kind of suicide on his behalf. But he doesn’t have to like him. The power of the final scene between the two men is in the withholding of the personal affection that is the last thing Tom has left to give. The only way he can preserve any remnant of himself is to walk away leaving Ranse feeling unloved. We wait for the brotherly wink that never comes. Whatever Liberty Valance may have to say about American history and society, I have no doubt that this scene also plays out some part of John Ford’s story, in a way that he could not have expressed otherwise: a drama less about political foundations than the intimacies of male loyalties and betrayals.
By way of an ending, instead of the bonding that was not to be, we get the train rolling down the track, winding around and moving deeper into the frame, as if about to disappear into a hole within the image. The famous train that Auguste and Louis Lumière filmed in 1895 came at the spectators, terrifying them with a vision of the future that was upon them. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance the train leads away, into a future already gone: the future both of the characters in the movie and of John Ford and all the others making the movie. The spectator is left stranded in the past, watching the train move toward the bend.
*A quick plot summary: A U.S. Senator, Ransom Stoddard, and his wife, Hallie, turn up unexpectedly in the southwestern town of Shinbone. Interviewed by a local newspaper, the Senator says they are there to attend the funeral of an obscure local citizen, Tom Doniphon, and when pressed for further explanation he launches into a narrative which constitutes the main body of the film: Ransom (“Ranse”) Stoddard arrives in Shinbone many years earlier as a young lawyer from the East; on the outskirts of town he is robbed, beaten and left for dead by a notorious local desperado, Liberty Valance. Rescued by Tom and brought to the local restaurant and lodging house, Ranse is reduced to washing dishes. While waiting on tables in an apron one evening, he is confronted by Liberty Valance but avoids further violence through Tom’s intervention. Abhorring the reign of lawlessness in Shinbone, Ranse sets up a law office and a school; among his students is the illiterate Hallie, who works at the restaurant, and whom Tom intends to marry. We learn quickly that Liberty Valance is in fact an agent of the big ranchers working against statehood; Ranse takes the side of the settlers and small ranchers campaigning for statehood. He is elected delegate to the territorial convention, but is challenged to a showdown by Valance. He attempts to learn how to use a gun, but is clearly outmatched. Although urged to leave town, Ranse faces Valance in the middle of the street; Valance is killed. Ranse goes on to the convention but is deeply uncomfortable with his new role as “the man who shot Liberty Valance.” Tom seeks him out and tells him the truth: it was Tom, not Ranse, who killed Valance, shooting him from an alley at the same time Ranse fired. Tom, who has lost Hallie to Ranse, bitterly insists that Ranse accept the political career that has been thrust on him: “You taught her to read, now give her something to read about.” Tom, who has burned down the house he built for Hallie, disappears into obscurity. When Ranse’s story is told, the newspaper editor tosses away his notes: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” On the train back to Washington, Ranse tells Hallie that he wants to retire and move back to Shinbone with her.