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John Ford’s Wilderness: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The poster that launched Liberty Valance
The poster that launched Liberty Valance

[originally published in slightly different form in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1978, Volume 47 No. 4; reprinted with thanks to BFI]

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been so widely discussed, dissected and applauded that by now it must rank as one of John Ford’s least underappreciated films. Its reputation is due in no small part to the obvious feeling Ford invested in the project, making of it his final meditation on a large part of the mythic territory he invented and embellished in more than four decades of film-making. Liberty Valance is particularly interesting for the explicit way it juxtaposes a characteristic Ford frontier West (cf. My Darling Clementine) with another West that, with its contemporary technology—telephones, electric fans and smoking train engines—is recognizably modern. Significantly, just as the “past” sequences are, apart from the explicitly revisionist world of Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s parting look at the frontier, so too the “modern” sequences are, apart from a brief vignette in Donovan’s Reef, his parting glance toward contemporary America.

The standard critical approach to Liberty Valance has been to emphasize the contrasts between its two worlds and to characterize it as celebrating the mythic frontier and mourning its passing and betrayal by the corrupting forces of progress. This approach has produced a substantial body of perceptive commentary on the film, but somehow its operative word—“elegiac”—seems inadequate, implicitly neglecting as it does Ford’s ambivalence towards the past and the richness and complexity of his treatment of the post-frontier West.

Like many Ford films—most obviously those dealing with the military—Liberty Valance focuses on the struggle to subordinate the individual to achieve some greater communal good. Liberty Valance, however, not only presents such a struggle, to civilize the wilderness frontier, but explicitly shows the result, the modern town of Shinbone, and implicitly questions whether the sacrifices are justified. In that sense, the film is perfectly congruent with the notion of a Ford who became increasingly bitter and pessimistic with age, and ultimately challenged many of the moral tenets his earlier films had so eloquently affirmed. But what is not so well understood about Liberty Valance is its awareness of how the modern world is not simply a betrayal of what preceded it, but a logical extension of it; the flow of history is organic, the present an extension of the past. Ultimately, Ford professes faith in neither wilderness nor garden; he has considerable affection for the past, but no real belief in the viability of a society based on untrammeled individualism. Thus he undercuts his celebration of the mythic past with a corrosive revisionism that, far more than any lines of quotable dialogue, demonstrates his commitment to confronting and scrutinizing, rather than simply printing, the legend that is the subject of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Civics Lessons

The extent of Ford’s willingness to question, if not actually discard, even the most sacred American myths and ideals comes into vivid focus in a relatively straightforward, almost didactic scene midway through the film. This sequence takes place in the new school in the frontier community of Shinbone, where teacher Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) presides over a virtual western miniature of the American melting pot. The class day begins with a group of Mexican children singing the ABC Song while their patriarch, buffoonish town marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), beams his approval. This is followed by a brief description of the American political system as one where “da people are da boss,” by the Swedish-accented Nora Erickson (Jeanette Nolan). Even the makeshift classroom seems like a museum of Americana: written on the blackboard, a converted stagecoach schedule, are the words “Education is the basis of law and order,” and the walls are adorned with likenesses of Washington and Lincoln, and even a crudely drawn American flag.

The next question is addressed to the class’s token Negro, Pompey (Woody Strode, here looking as Uncle Remusy as Ford could make him), and he stands up so that his face shares the frame with the likeness of the Great Emancipator himself. But then a peculiar thing happens to the storybook civics lesson. As Pompey begins his recital, his illiteracy betrays him and he says “was writ” instead of “was written.” Ranse, who did not interrupt Nora’s recital or comment on her garbled syntax (leaving the corrections to a zealous student), sternly corrects Pompey’s error: “was written, Pompey.” And he delivers the correction in an exasperated, almost patronizing tone, his manner cool and even slightly intimidating, with little of the folksy warmth or good-natured tolerance he shows everyone else in the room, even visitors ill-mannered enough to wear hats or light pipes in the classroom. Ford acknowledges this difference, punctuating the correction by cutting from Pompey to a slightly asymmetrical shot of Ranse sternly seated at his desk, and viewed from an angle used in no other context in the scene. The rest of Pompey’s answer is fragmented into alternating shots of an uncertain Pompey—who never does manage to finish— and Ranse sternly correcting him and discouraging another student from helping him. Both Stewart’s delivery and the visual treatment of the scene suggest, without ever quite insisting, that the teacher, so supportive of everyone else in the class, is subtly, perhaps unconsciously, patronizing his black student; Ranse later gives Pompey “poke chop money.” Thus when Pompey apologizes for forgetting the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal,” Ranse’s self-satisfied reply, “that’s all right, Pompey, a lot of people forget that part of it,” has a layer of unconscious irony.

The sequence is just unsettling enough that when Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), Pompey’s master/employer/companion, bursts into the classroom and sends Pompey back to work, our response is curiously ambivalent. The overt content of the civics lesson, expressing faith in universal education, law and egalitarian democracy, makes it reprehensible to deny a black man access to education. But Pompey’s actual position in the classroom, where he is more completely servile, more truly a “boy” in demeanor and circumstance than anywhere else in the film, complicates our response. Of course, in the early Shinbone Pompey cannot eat in a restaurant, drink in a saloon, or vote in a town meeting. But when Valance comes on the scene, forcibly imposing “Western law” at its crudest—“a man settles his own problems” — Pompey becomes important. In such circumstances, he advances—literally as well as figuratively— from the fringes of the action (as he lounges outside the town meeting, he is so near the edge of the frame that in some 16mm prints he is only partially visible) to its center. And he carries himself with dignity and a cool self-possession that starkly contrasts to his abject servility elsewhere. In fact, in the restaurant, when Ford cuts from the face-off between Tom and arch-villain Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) to Pompey, the black man is not only shown self-assuredly cradling his gun, but explicitly pictured as the defender of the film’s nuclear family, the Ericksons: Hallie (Vera Miles) stands next to Pompey, while Nora and Peter (John Qualen) huddle together in the background, in obvious terror. And Pompey later takes on the role of defender of democracy when the sound of him cocking his rifle marks the end of Valance’s effort to take over the town meeting.

Pompey (Woody Strode) protects the family
Pompey (Woody Strode) protects the family

Another detail of the classroom sequence is significant; in the ABC recital the children pictured most prominently are all Mexican, one speaking so little English that he even uses Spanish to ask permission to go to the bathroom. Through the rest of the story, Shinbone’s Mexican-American community is treated as a period detail that complements other elements of a vibrant Fordian community: Devine’s monumentally incompetent town marshal, assorted stuttering cowhands and drunks and the Swedish-accented Ericksons. By contrast, the modern town is drab and efficient: the Devine character hasn’t been elected marshal “for a dog’s age,” the trains—uniquely in Ford—run on time, and there is no hint—not even a stray Irish brogue—of diversity. The overall tone of the schoolroom sequence is still affectionate enough to suggest that Ford approves of the proceedings, but not without recognizing the role of education in the homogenizing process that has created the modern Shinbone.

Ford’s misgivings about the past are partially obscured by the obvious pleasure he takes in re-creating the early Shinbone, where everything, from the steaks in a restaurant to the drunkenness of the newspaper editor, Dutton Peabody (deliriously overplayed by Edmund O’Brien), to Liberty Valance’s villainy, is larger than life. The differences between the two Shinbones are neatly summarized by their respective newspaper editors. O’Brien’s Peabody, founder of the Shinbone Star, is often almost uncontrollably idiosyncratic, his staggering bombast and crusading fervor largely fuelled by alcohol; his successor, Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), is cool, soft-spoken, and presumably efficient—his wrinkled coat notwithstanding. Peabody has a passion for truth; his only question about the newsworthiness of a story is “Do you know that for a fact?” And not even the near-certainty of physical harm can deter him from printing a story that is true. By contrast, the modern editor suppresses a news item, the true story of Valance’s death, with the pragmatic explanation: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Before speaking those words, Scott picks up the notebook containing the story, tears the pages, crumples them up and throws them into a stove. That unwittingly echoes actions earlier in the film. First, after a stagecoach hold-up Valance tears the pages from a law book, throws them to the ground and savagely beats young lawyer Stoddard to teach him a lesson about the West—“Western law.” Later, when Valance takes exception to a story in the Star he crumples the pages, stuffs them into Peabody’s mouth, beats the editor nearly to death and ransacks the newspaper office. Thus when the modern editor calmly tears up and discards a truthful account of the past, the action resonates with a feeling of betrayed idealism, of giving up something worth fighting for. A similar but more equivocal effect was created earlier when Ranse learns of Valance’s plans during the classroom sequence and erases “Education is the basis of law and order” from the blackboard and crumples the copy of the Star he had been using as a classroom textbook in democracy.

Night and Day

One expression of Ford’s ambivalence towards the mythic past is the visual treatment of the early Shinbone. As Ranse recounts it, Shinbone is a nocturnal settlement with a vaguely hallucinatory air. The past is introduced by a shot of a malignant rocky nightscape where Valance and his minions are about to rob a stagecoach. And most of the other early sequences of the past take place at night; not until the schoolroom sequence do we see a scene that takes place entirely during daylight hours—or, for that matter, any evidence that children live in Shinbone; it is difficult to imagine a place less suited to raising children than the nocturnal wilderness settlement. And the lawless events occur at night: the stagecoach hold-up, the spilled dinner and the final shoot-out (where Tom, not Ranse, kills Valance). By contrast, the schoolroom sequence, the town meeting, the statehood convention and Tom Doniphon’s funeral—like all the action in the modern town—take place during the day. Indeed, the modern town, introduced by a train crossing a verdant landscape, is a sunny and peaceful place, the streets dusty but the yards almost lush with leafy trees and shrubs.

And the nocturnal actions have an almost dreamlike quality. Obviously, Valance is the film’s principal nocturnal figure. At times he seems like an hallucinatory embodiment of pure and unconstrained evil; early in the film, the mention of his name is enough to evoke gasps of terror from Hallie and Nora. And Valance’s sidekick Floyd (Strother Martin at his sleaziest) squealing and writhing almost orgasmically as he watches Valance beat Peabody, is one of Ford’s most twisted and repulsive characters. Enhancing the dream-like effect is Valance’s apparent exemption from the physical laws that govern movement through space. He is rarely shown actually arriving anywhere. His presence may be signaled by a sound, as of horses when he arrives at the town meeting, or he may simply materialize, as at the stagecoach hold-up, where he looms up out of a rock formation. He seems as immune to the “natural law” that governs how civilized people behave as to the laws of nature that govern human movement through time and space. His most frightening materialization takes place in the newspaper office, when the drunken Peabody turns on a lamp and Valance and his men appear out of the darkness, occupying space that was empty when we last saw it. (There is a particular perversity to this scene; in other Ford films such apparitions have been loved ones, e.g. Maureen O’Hara in How Green Was My Valley and Rio Grande). And it is surely significant that the only time Valance appears during daylight hours, at the town meeting, he is controlled.


Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) face off in the restaurant
Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) face off in the restaurant

The landscape of Liberty Valance seems almost palpably denatured and drained of vitality. Even the fact that the director of The Searchers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—to cite two obvious examples—chose to shoot Shinbone in black and white wilderness and locate it far from the director’s beloved, poetically majestic Monument Valley, reflects how fundamentally he is reimagining his mythic West. Virtually all of the action takes place within the town, and the only exteriors are a couple of sequences at the generically nondescript site of Tom’s ranch. The exclusion of the natural world anticipates the visual confinement of the besieged mission in Seven Women. Shinbone is not as claustrophobic or isolated as the mission, but both settings feel like sanctuaries offering their residents precarious protection from the terrors of life outside.

Ford’s limited use of exteriors is inevitably a comment about the past. The question the town faces is whether the cattle barons will retain control of the area to keep it lawless, governed by “Western law”—the subject on which Valance gave Ranse a tutorial after the stagecoach hold-up; the question is also stated as whether the area will be controlled by those north or south of the Picketwire River dividing the territory. But the denatured landscape and the town’s isolation from the natural world frame the issue more elementally. And while the narrative suggests that the absence of law and civilization offers the individual—or at least strong individuals like Valance and Doniphon—a pure anarchic “freedom,” the film visually re-defines the question, by showing the “free” society estranged from nature, bereft of contact with the natural world. That, in turn, gives urgency to making the land habitable; the need to free the land from the constraining grasp of a handful of individuals for use by the larger society is the most compelling argument for the coming of statehood, the railroad, and civilization itself.


The changes the film observes revolve largely around transportation. The opening and closing shots are of trains crossing the landscape they have done so much to transform. The individuals most displaced by the transformation are Tom and Liberty, each closely linked to the horses that the trains have replaced. Tom, a sometime horse trader, first appears in the film riding into town and leading a wagon. Near the end of the film, even as his ranch is burning, he reminds Pompey to release the horses in a nearby corral. The only other recognizable riders in the film are Valance—likely a horse thief, as well as a stagecoach robber—and his associates as they ride through Shinbone, randomly shooting up the town. Townspeople travel by wagon or stagecoach, or later by train. The only time Valance uses such a conveyance is when he is dead and being carried out of town in a wagon.

And when a horse appears at the territorial convention, shortly after Valance’s death, it is so domesticated it walks onto the podium and drinks water from a pitcher—reduced, like the stagecoach Ranse uses to introduce his story, to a prop evoking the frontier. The very fact that the horse has become a prop illustrates how quickly the frontier has passed into history. Valance and Doniphon, stagecoach robber and horse trader, alike find themselves trapped in obsolescent careers, doomed by their inability to adapt.

Ranse, by contrast, is virtually defined by professional adaptability. In Shinbone, he is shown or referred to as a lawyer, dishwasher, waiter, reporter, schoolteacher, election official, gunman and convention delegate-elect. We are told that his later career includes serving as a delegate to Congress, governor, senator, ambassador, and possible vice-presidential aspirant (in short, virtually everything but a lawyer’s most obvious career goal, a judge). Doniphon and Valance instinctively refer to Ranse’s occupations when they address him: “Professor,” “Waitress,” “Hashslinger,” “Dishwasher,” “Mr. Attorney,” even “Pilgrim,” which may refer to professional as well as physical mobility. (The other steadily working survivor from the town’s past, undertaker Clute Dumfries, has a business sign that proclaims his professional versatility by reciting a litany of trades.)


The theme of idealism is explored through the film’s famous use of the “Ann Rutledge Theme,” that Ford first used in Young Mr. Lincoln. Though the music is the same in both films, its contexts and effects differ considerably. In Lincoln, the music evokes a consistent set of feelings, linked to Ann Rutledge, the love of Abe’s youth, to the promise she saw in him, and to the river that evokes her memory for him. It plays first as he and she walk along the river and they talk. When it is used later, it evokes his feelings for their lost love and her dreams for him, which remain vital and will come to fruition when the mature Lincoln assumes his mythic role as the embodiment of America’s highest ideals.

But the same music is used to evoke a range of feelings and associations in Valance. The first use of the theme seems similar to Lincoln: Hallie visits Tom’s abandoned ranch, and the music signals that the sight of the cactus roses evokes his memory. In the scenes of the early Shinbone, the music is used first just before Tom arrives at the restaurant, when Hallie listens to Ranse rhapsodizing about the joys of learning to read and he offers to teach her. It soon recurs as Hallie and Ranse stand in the doorway and look at the cactus rose Pompey has just planted on Tom’s behalf; Hallie admires its beauty, while Ranse describes the greater beauty of a real rose, something Hallie hasn’t seen. Later, the theme plays as Hallie and Ranse share their hope that “someday” —the same “someday” that Texicans (The Searchers) and black cavalrymen (Sergeant Rutledge) have dreamed of in other Ford films—real roses will grow in Shinbone. The theme is used yet again as Hallie straightens the deserted classroom after she has argued with Tom and seen Ranse erase “Education is the basis of law and order” and crumple his copy of the Shinbone Star. When she leaves the classroom, she calls first to Ranse, who does not hear her, and only later (and on Ranse’s behalf) to Tom. The final flashbacked use of the music comes after the shoot-out as Hallie and Ranse acknowledge the bond that Ranse’s facing of Valance (with Tom’s still unrevealed help) has cemented between them. The exchange culminates in a two-shot that is interrupted by the sound of Tom’s arrival; Ford holds the shot of Hallie’s reaction for such an abnormally long time after we hear the door open and become aware of Tom’s unseen presence that the odd visual rhythm, as much as Tom’s awkward manner when he does finally appear, emphasizes how much his arrival is an intrusion.

In sum, in Valance the theme is associated exclusively with feelings that are remote and idealized, whether for Tom’s memory after his death, or for Ranse’s—and Hallie’s—hopes for the future. But it is never directly linked to the present, as it is when Ann and Abe talk in Young Mr. Lincoln. Instead it is linked to an ideal, promised or remembered, but always remote and distant, both the sound and the context suggesting the unattainable. Time inevitably betrays the dreams of youth and leaves only the melancholy of age to recall the past and mourn its passing. Thus, in the past, the music registers hope for the future, and in the present, regret at the lost past.

Tom remains apart from or out of time with the music. The relationship between Tom and Hallie assumes its greatest emotional resonance only in memory. Despite Tom’s best efforts, riding a wagon into town to come courting, giving Hallie a cactus rose, he cannot be domesticated. His gestures, like his hat, are somehow too large for the indoors. And naturally he is most out of place in the focal point of the film’s family life, the restaurant kitchen. There he is forever receding into the back of the frame, burning his hand on a coffeepot, or raising a bottle to his lips only to have Hallie grab it before he gets a drink from it. And virtually every time he enters the kitchen, he intrudes on some scene that marks the growing intimacy between Ranse and Hallie.

Tom and Hallie

Ranse is more the catalyst than the direct cause of Hallie’s estrangement from Tom. This is suggested by contrasting the two sequences where Tom, using almost identical language, tells Hallie how pretty she is when she is angry. The first such exchange, shortly after Ranse’s arrival, is comic; as Hallie fumes about Shinbone’s lawlessness and the marshal’s incompetence, her words aren’t explicitly directing anger toward Tom nor, at this early stage in the film, appealing to Ranse. Tom’s “You’re awfully pretty when you’re mad,” is shown in an extremely close two-shot of him and Hallie—perhaps the largest close-up in the film. Hallie’s reaction is shown in an almost equally close shot of her face and Tom’s shoulder. Her expression is not completely readable but it is clear that, on one level at least, she is pleased and takes his words as a compliment that partially defuses her anger. Still, the very fact that the film cuts away from the direct two-shot, so that we see only Hallie’s face as she reacts, gives the exchange a slightly unsettled (and unsettling) quality.

Tom (John Wayne) and Hallie (Vera Ellen)
Tom (John Wayne) and Hallie (Vera Ellen) in the kitchen

The implications of this tentativeness come into clearer focus when Tom repeats the phrase after he has announced Valance’s imminent arrival, dismissed school, and told Hallie to go home: “I don’t want you goin’ to school in no shootin’ gallery.” Ford cuts from a medium shot of the two of them to a medium close-up of Hallie, alone, as she replies: “Now you listen to me, Tom Doniphon, where I go or what I do is none of your concern. You don’t own me!” Clearly, this is anger directed at Tom, but his reaction, shown also in medium close-up, includes the same boyish grin—now totally inappropriate—he had in the previous exchange. As he finishes speaking, “Like I said, Hallie, you’re awfully pretty when ya get mad,” he starts out of the room. This time there is no specific shot of Hallie’s reaction, but her anger is evident even without visual emphasis. More to the point, both the inappropriateness of his response and the absence of visual emphasis on her reaction suggest the decline in the relationship’s importance to her. When she leaves the room, she calls first after Ranse, in whom she now places her hope for bringing law to the West.

There are other instances of Ford’s reticence in linking Tom and Hallie visually. Shortly after Tom gives her the cactus rose, they meet in the doorway between the restaurant’s kitchen and dining room. He opens the bottom of the door for her and, as they pass, he compliments her beauty, finally saying, in a manner he intends as courtly but that is a mixture of schoolboyish charm and diffidence: “Any more color ‘n’ you’d be prettier than that cactus rose.” She stammers a reply, blushes and then, still within the same shot, moves into the left foreground and then out of the frame into the kitchen while he stands watching her, passes through the door and into the right background, into the dining room where he will soon confront Valance over a ruined steak.

Shortly after that confrontation, in a scene in the kitchen, Tom walks towards Hallie and stands next to her, but does not touch her, as she works over the stove. When he tells her he is leaving town for a few days, she replies with a noncommittal “Goodbye, Tom.” He stays in the room a moment longer, addressing his parting words and his gaze, which so often follows Hallie at other times in the film, towards Ranse and/or Peabody. Finally he turns and walks out and Hallie, oddly compelled, moves towards the door. In the next shot, in the alley outside, Tom moves through the right foreground and out of the frame. Hallie stands in the left background, in the centre of the lighted doorway, silently watching him move through the darkness, apparently unaware of her presence. Ford holds the shot after Tom disappears, freezing the image in time and emphasizing both Tom’s inability to see Hallie and her failure to call out to him. When Tom returns, nothing will be the same between them.

The next time Tom walks out that kitchen door, after the shooting of Valance, his departure is definitive. This arrival, Valance-like, takes place off-camera during a prolonged two-shot of Ranse and Hallie virtually embracing; Tom’s appearance is encompassed within a single shot in which he moves forward into the room, speaks, turns, and walks out. This time, Hallie does not follow him outside, and no light from the kitchen penetrates the darkness he enters. Instead, in the following shot, perhaps the most elaborate in the film, Tom seems almost to move outside of time. It begins with him in the alley, outside the kitchen. He pauses and lights a match that eerily illuminates his face for a moment. Then he walks forward past the camera, which pivots to follow him as he forms a ghostly silhouette. Then, with his back to the camera, he ponderously crosses the street, receding into the frame as he approaches the saloon/meeting hall. He walks past a wagon as Valance’s body is lifted into it, and the camera, still without a cut, partially reverses direction, leaving Tom and moving to the left to follow the wagon carrying Valance’s body out of town. The wagon, in fact, crosses almost the same ground that Tom’s wagon covered as it carried Ranse, prone and inert, into town after the stagecoach hold-up. The visual association of Valance and his former victim, Ranse, formalizes the outlaw’s demise as surely as the continuity of the camera’s gaze as it shifts without a cut from following Tom to Valance decisively links the two men, one condemned to wander between the winds, the other dead.

Tom soon even begins acting like Valance, tossing around chairs and money, breaking glass, and generally raising hell. Later he destroys his own home by tossing a lighted lamp—a lamp was virtually the only object Valance did not break as he ransacked the newspaper office—into some paint supplies and igniting a conflagration far more destructive than anything caused by Valance. This completes the process by which Tom is transformed from the self-assured horseman introduced riding into town to the unseen occupant of the stark wooden coffin that frames Ranse’s story and emotionally dominates the film.

The presence of that coffin may evoke much of the feeling in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but the film’s universe is ultimately defined by the impersonal images that frame the film itself, the trains crossing the landscape they have done so much to transform. As Ranse and Hallie talk together on the train, in a single take, of Ranse’s plans for retirement, Hallie reminds him of his achievements: “Look at it. It was once a wilderness; now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?” Ranse responds with another question: “Hallie, who put the cactus roses on Tom’s coffin?” After Hallie acknowledges “’I did,” the two sit nearly motionless, in a suspended moment that ends with the only cut of the sequence, to a slightly longer shot during which the camera moves in closer. Ranse reverts to the role of fence-mending politician during an exchange with the conductor. Finally, the conductor speaks the film’s last, ironic words: “Nothing’s too good for the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” As he hears those words, Ranse pauses, blows out the match that has not yet lighted his pipe, bows his head, and sits unmoving as the “Ann Rutledge Theme”—now a meditation on his lost dreams—begins (to continue until the screen darkens). The cumulative effect of the sequence, the words, the gestures and the music, is overwhelmingly poignant. Ranse pauses to reflect on the falseness of his mythic identity, and the hollowness of a life spent in the service of the progress embodied in the object whose image supplants him and ends the film: the train receding across the landscape that has become its garden.

© 1974 David F. Coursen