By Rosalie Tirella
“Election Day – you can depend on it – they’ll be here.” That’s John Wayne talking to James Stewart – warning him about bull-whip-thrashing, town-destroying, democracy-shredding, biggest-psychopath-from-BOTH-sides of-the-Picket-River “Liberty” Valance (Lee Marvin) in the John Ford masterpiece, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.
As always with Ford, his movie transcends simplistic bang-bang Westerns. It’s about a lot of things: true love and sacrificing EVERYTHING/your happiness! for your true love …
… It’s about decisions made in youth – and regretted in old age. It’s about your roots and trying to reclaim them when it’s too late. It’s about people growing older and changing through the years. … Another theme in this great American film: Our AMERICAN democracy – safeguarding it, nurturing it, helping it grow in tough environs, like the beautiful cactus rose that also “stars” in the movie.
This Sunday, Monday and Tuesday (Election Day) try to catch this John Ford film. After all, it’s about ALL AMERICANS’ inalienable rights: OUR right to vote without fear or interference, to read freely, to write freely, to speak our minds, voice our opinions. It is about the noble freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly … equal education for all and free public schools throughout our land. It’s about saying goodbye to the Old West where gunslingers made the laws to suit their purposes/purses and the New America where voters elect people (white men back then) who REPRESENT we, THE PEOPLE, in Congress and in the White House. And, if our elected reps don’t represent us, we the people, as Nora says in the movie, in their humble one-room school-house: “then WE VOTE THEM OUT!!” Nora says this in her Swedish accent (she and her husband Peter are Swedish immigrants). She says it in a “classroom” filled with Mexican children, a Black man, a special needs guy, new American citizens, old people, children, a man with a stutter: AMERICA. John Ford knew this diverse land was made for you and me – and he told us so through this film. Can we understand and preserve our republic today?
Our Election Day approaches. Our very own Liberty Valance, Donald J. Trump, could – could!! – be re-elected!! NO PEACE in our land, as long as Trump hangs his orange hat in the Oval Office. Our cherished American Democracy hangs in the balance. Liberty Valance and his bull whip around every hitchin’ post. Donald Trump and his bull whip tongue “demagoguing” in every swing state in the union, spreading lies and COVID 19. Valance had his goons; Trump has his Proud Boys and Neo Nazis, KKK and other killers, psychopaths who plotted to kidnap the governor of Michigan, blocked Joe Biden buses, shot peaceful protesters with pepper spray. And worse. They carry shotguns to polling sites …
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was one of Ford’s last films, made in the early 1960s. On the big screen, or your home screen, it looks shockingly mundane – nothing like the usual majestic John Ford film, in color and shot in Vista Vision (see The Searchers). The gorgeous Monument Valley is gone!! The authentic looking sets are missing, too. The views that take your breath away are, for the most part, absent. AND YET STILL WE ARE TRANSPORTED! Gripped by the greatness of this movie! Pulled in by the themes, complex and true to life. The towering acting talents John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart engulf you. Vera Miles – especially when she plays the older Hallie – is very good. All the character actors are lively, fun and interesting to watch. Symbols, maybe one-dimensional, but captivating. Still, this is Wayne’s flick. It is John Wayne who carries this black and white movie-gem.
The film opens with a train pulling into the dessert town of Shinbone, Texas. It brings Ransom Stoddard and his wife Hallie back home – years later – for the “funeral” of an old friend, Tom Donophon, once the toughest good guy in town, the coolest fast shooter. Now he’s a bum, forgotten by the community, dying impoverished, shoved in a pine coffin. Tom died alone, unloved, on the periphery of life. Ransom and his wife come for the funeral which is really no funeral – just an old man stuffed into a rough-hewn pine box, hastily built the coffin is, parked out of the way, in the old carpenter’s back room. The corpse, besides being bootless, is missing his holster … The only mourner: an old Black man sitting in the corner, Tom’s dear friend and helper, Pompey. Pompey is bereft.
Hallie and Ranse arrive at Shinbone at the tail-end of their marriage and Ranse’s illustrious political career. Both conceived here in Shinbone. The once homespun Ransom is now a bloviating politician – full of himself and his empty sppechifying. Hallie, is a ghost of her former Shinbone self, when she was the lively, feisty waitress at the local greasy spoon. She has lost all her vigor, spunk and cheerfulness – she is a sad, wistful old woman, a woman still missing her true home – and her true love, the love of her life: Tom Donophon (John Wayne). Tom: The Man Who Shot (and killed) Liberty Valance – for her.
But the whole town, the whole state! believes it’s Ransom Stoddard who shot Liberty Valance! A brave and noble deed! It’s in their history books. They share Ranse’s story every day, pass it down from one generation to the next: The young tall gangly lawyer Ranse Stoddard confronts the sicko, sadistic Liberty Valance in a gun fight – AND WINS! SHOOTS DEAD THE BEST SHOT IN THE TERRITORY! KILLS A NOTORIOUS KILLER! RANSE IS A HERO!
Ranse’s alleged killing of Valance – a menace to the town and everyone in it (so many whipped to near death by Valance, scores more shot and killed by Valance, too!) – launches Ransom’s political career. He becomes governor, senator, ambassador, now possibly candidate for vice president of the United States! It gets him Hallie, too – she feels for the lawyer when he first comes to town, carried by Tom and Pompey into Peter’s Place, whipped to unconsciousness by Liberty Valance. Ranse brings out the mother in Hallie. He also brings in his law books, lawyering, justice for all without guns but through laws ethos. Ranse even starts teaching Hallie and the townspeople to read in a tiny ramshackle school room. Hallie has always wanted to learn how to read. She, like so many in Shinbone, are sick of being terrorized by Liberty Valance and his thugs, sick of the blood and death. …
Hallie, like everyone else in Shinbone, believes Ranse killed Liberty Valance. BELIEVES THE LIE Ranse builds his whole life on – after Tom tells him the truth – that he was the shooter – and urges Ranse to run for political office. For Hallie! “She’s your girl now!” the unshaven, untethered Tom says to Ranse. He is broken-hearted. He had set fire to his own home, the extra room he was building special for Hallie after they married … He tells Ranse he regrets killing Valance to save Ransom – for Hallie. For her happiness. That meant he lost his joy.
From then on for Tom it’s a spiraling down into alcoholism, poverty, isolation. He loses his land, his farm, his horses; doesn’t care what he looks like or where he sleeps. Hallie goes off to Washington DC with Ranse, after he wins the election, and starts a whole new life – the wife of a pompous politician, a man who loves her but loves himself a hundred times more. John Wayne burrows ever deeper into a depression that only quits when he’s finally squeezed into that cheapo coffin.
Hallie craved the rule of law. She wanted books, newspapers, schools, shops and irrigation for her dessert town so gardens filled with all kinds of flowers could flourish. Ranse represented the new America. She chose him. But years later, when she furtively places a cactus rose on Tom’s coffin, Hallie realizes what she lost when she chose Ranse: she lost Tom Donophon! Tom was real, smart, sexy, strong, brave – and he loved her with a love she hasn’t known since abandoning him (she was his girl first!)
I so like the movie’s final scene!: On the train back to Washington, Ranse muses aloud about retiring and moving back to Shinbone to be a country lawyer. Hallie’s eyes light up! For the first time in the movie she looks happy! But then a porter walks up to where they are seated, punches their train tickets and kisses up to “The Senator” saying: “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!” Both Ranse and Hallie look devastated. The hopeful smiles melt from their faces. They realize the lie they built their successful, wealthy, entitled lives on LIVES ON. Now a legend! They will never return to Shinbone.
They can’t come home.