“No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Maxwell Scott, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an epic work by John Ford which centres on its two leading characters. Ranse Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, is the mild mannered man of the law who advocates learning to the citizens of Shinbone, and the implementation of law, order and civic duty. Wayne’s character Tom Doniphan is by contrast a man of the old West, a man who has pursued the goals of manifest destiny and opportunities for survival based on his own terms.
The two men represent the past and the future of the West, but each has a respect for the other. Stoddard advocates a tradition which sees civic institutions grow and flourish with safeguards for society. Doniphan by contrast represents a past which was governed by the laws of nature, saw the survival of the fittest in a harsh environment of the West, red in tooth and claw.
Doniphan, knows that his era is passing and that Stoddard represents the best for the town’s populace, for the country even, moving forward. Both have a common enemy in Liberty Valance, an ironic name for Lee Marvin’s lawless and brutal man of violence who haunts the town and opposes the suggested reforms of Stoddard as lawman. Both men also hold common affection for Hallie (pictured below).
Just as Doniphan represents the past, and Stoddard represents the future, Hallie is by contrast perfectly representative of her own time and place. She could retreat to a life with Doniphan in his abode on the edge of town that he has prepared for the two of them in anticipation of a future proposal. Likewise she could choose Stoddard and use his learning to gain an education and social advancement, which her life circumstances have denied her until his arrival.
The perfect shot in this film is attributed to the man who shot Liberty Valance. After torturous days during which Valance has plagued the town with violence Stoddard goes into the street to confront him. Valance toys with Stoddard at first, shooting him in the arm. Valance then signals that his next shot on Stoddard will hit him “right between the eyes”. To the town’s surprise Stoddard appears to fire first and, to everyone’s shock, Valance is hit with a fatal shot. The viewer will later find out, in the film’s big reveal, that it was actually Doniphan, hidden in the shadows, whose sniper’s rifle takes Valance out.
After Valance’s death, Doniphan watches from across the street as Hallie cares for Stoddard’s wounds. Doniphan then heads for the saloon before returning to his homestead, in a drunken rage. There he sets fire to the addition to his home that he has just finished in anticipation of asking Hallie to marry him. Although rescued by his ranch hand Pompey the house is destroyed.
The reason Doniphan’s is the perfect shot in this film is because his act is simultaneously a true act of heroism, and a true act of selflessness. Doniphan recognises that he is yesterday’s man, a man whose way of life will be overtaken by the sweep of development of an ever Westerly boundary to the nascent USA.
Doniphan takes the shot that erroneously afforded Stoddard the credit for Valance’s death. Doniphan takes the shot that (in his eyes) leads to the loss of Hallie to Stoddard. Doniphan takes the shot that he sees as killing off the last of the old ways of the West, in favour of statehood and the arrival of civilised society in Shinbone. It is a selfless act, and one which gives preference to the future represented by Stoddard who will go on to enter politics and represent the state in Washington DC. It does so at the expense of the past as represented by Doniphan himself: a man who serves to remind us of the hard bedrock of fighting men upon whom America’s veneer of civility was built during this key period.