Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Thought on the Ending of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Tom Doniphon shoots the outlaw thug Liberty Valance from the shadows, keeps it a secret, then realizes that his girl Hallie is in love with Ransom Stoddard, whereupon he burns his house to the ground (starting with the new wing he'd built for her. When Stoddard is wracked with guilt thinking he killed Valance, Doniphon relieves his conscience, leaving him free to pursue his political career, founded on his false heroism. Does this make sense?

Setting aside the question of why Stoddard thinks its morally acceptable to base his career on a lie, but not on the real killing (he'd rather have people think he killed Valance than actually do it), rewatching the film this most recent time it's Doniphon that fascinates me. His tragedy is his unwillingness to act. He's the toughest man in town, admired by all, the only one brave enough, strong enough, fast enough to stand up to Valance, except he won't do it. Everyone similarly assumes he and Hallie will get married, but he never asks her. He's even elected as a delegate to the territorial convention but refuses to serve. Despite his many abilities, he simply will not take part in the community. Even his house is far outside the town (whereas Stoddard lives in its heart: at the restaurant and newspaper office). Why does Doniphon hesitate? In all other respects, he’s the same character John Wayne played in countless films throughout his career, the competent hero, cool under fire, respected by all. It would be easy for him to assume the title of town marshal from lovable cowardly drunk Andy Devine, and yet he has no interest. He’s the individualistic strain in American history: the isolationist, the Randian, the pioneer who wants not to build a community, but his own private empire. But he's conflicted: he finds himself drawn back to the community time and again, ostensibly by his love for Hallie, but also from an honest desire to help the townspeople avoid being killed by Valance and other instruments of the “Northern cattle interests” that are attempting to block statehood, and thus the establishment of law and order in the territory (statehood means the end of the so-called ‘open range’ the literal and symbolic manifestation of the raw capitalist power of the cattle barons: the land belongs to them because they have the power to take it). His sympathy for the townspeople is real, but not enough to motivate him to take action on their behalf.

So why then does he shoot Liberty Valance? And more importantly, why does he do it in secret? Supposedly he likes Stoddard and doesn’t want to see him killed, but what prevents him from announcing his presence before hand, or even after? Why does this man, who has no trouble dominating a political meeting while simultaneously refusing to participate in it, skulk in the shadows like a thief, a coward? Is it that the Randian half of him is ashamed of his altruistic impulses? Seeing how his act of heroism has won Hallie for Stoddard, he becomes disgusted with himself, burning his home, the symbol of his hopes for the future as well as his isolation from the community, to the ground. In a final act of self-negation, he tells Stoddard the truth, absolving him of the act of killing (to which Stoddard had remained steadfastly opposed throughout his ordeal in the West), and taking the sin on himself to suffer alone. That Stoddard, thus relieved of the sin of murder has no problem committing the sin of dishonesty says as much about the nature of politicians as it does his own character.

But what if Doniphon is lying, what if Stoddard really is the man who shot Liberty Valance? In this scenario, Doniphon is not simply a radical individualist who refuses to partake in community out of a twisted kind of idealism, rather he’s simply a coward. Sure, he talks a big game, and he certainly has a certain degree of martial prowess, but he refuses to put it to use, perhaps for fear of failure. This is why he can make a scene at the town meeting, mocking the participants and the rules (“the Law says the bar is closed!”) while turning down appointment to the delegation: if appointed, he might embarrass himself, perhaps showing himself to be ignorant of the rules or other social expectations. Much safer to hide behind sarcasm and mockery. Stoddard has none of this embarrassment. He has no fear about standing up for what he believes is right, regardless of his physical inability to defend it or himself. Stoddard thus fascinates and shames Doniphon. He is everything Doniphon wishes he could be.

And so, when Doniphon sees that Stoddard killed Valance, and thus won the heart of the girl Doniphon was too afraid to propose too, he shatters in self-disgust. He knows that his cowardice has lost him his chance at happiness. But still he admires Stoddard immensely. He goes to the convention and sees Stoddard break down and try to flee rather than stand for election. Recognizing that that kind of cowardice is his own and not Stoddard’s, he gives him a pep talk and tells him what he wants to hear: that he did not violate his belief in non-violence, that he is the man he always thought he was. Thus buoyed, Stoddard rushes off to become the heroic figure that will dominate the politics of the territory, and then state, for decades to come.

Either way, at the end of the film, the question of whether Doniphon's nature is individualistic or cowardly (or whether there's really any difference between the two) is irrelevant. As is the question of who really killed Liberty Valance. It's not just a matter of "printing the legend": it really makes no difference. Regardless of the why, Doniphon destroys of himself in favor of Stoddard’s elevation, and America is built on a lie.


  1. One aspect of this film that makes it so interesting is that all we know of what happened comes from Ransom Stoddard- neither Hallie, nor Marshal Appleyard, nor Pompey are there to refute anything in his tale to the reporters. One possibility (and the one that seems to be most commonly accepted) is that Stoddard's tale represents an accurate account. If so, then Doniphan was anything but a coward. He stood up directly to Liberty Valance more than once. Moreover, he was a rugged individualist who employed self-sacrifice for the greater good, and that is what America is built on- not a lie.

  2. One of the best endings of any film, after all Stoddard believed in and what he achieved in his career, he listens to the train guard as he tells him how the train company is going out of their way to get him back to Washington in record time , for a second taking pride in his achievements, only to be told
    'nothing's to good for the man who shot Liberty Valance'.... perfection!

  3. Perhaps Doniphon acted as he did because he realised his time (like that of Valance) was coming to an end: law and statehood and "civilisation" were coming and he couldn't offer Hallie what Stoddard could in the new world. He still loved Hallie (and, as the cactus flower at the end indicates, she still had feelings for him) and was so frustrated and angry he destroyed his house (a symbol of his being "civilised" but also outside society) and became a drunken derelict. Apart from wanting to help Stoddard (and secure the future for everyone) he might have thought he could say nothing about killing Valance or he would be tried for "cold blooded murder" as he says. (though saving someone else's life would provide extenuating circumstances).

  4. Dear Mr Gilman
    Like you it occurred to me even when I first saw the film that Tom Doniphon's story that he killed Liberty Vallance was unlikely. thre were only two shots heard. The first when Vallance wounded Stoddard and the second when Vallance died. Ans Stoddard's pistol was fired.
    I believe if you look at the history of the director and the sttars in the years before, you may find a clue as to why it is that John Ford felt that the Stoddard character should get the credit. The reason was that both Jimmy Stewart and John Ford had served under fire in WWII. Stewart had lead daylight precision bombing raids where losses could be 30% per mission, and Ford was wounded in the Battle of Midway. In WWII the Stoddards of the world had won the war with the cold courage of the committed intellectual while the John Waynes had stayed out of it. It is reported that Ford said as much a number of time on the set. As a result, even though the story of the book they were retelling had Doniphon kill Vallance, Ford made sure that one really never did know. I guess the Gene Pitney song, which was never part of the film, said it all. The man who shot Liberty Vallance was the bravest of them all, and Doniphon, in the story, never showed anything like the courage the Stoddard character showed in going out to face Vallance that night when all the odds were so stacked against him.