Filmsite Movie Review
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)

Plot Synopsis (continued)

(3) The Restaurant Dining Room Confrontation

The next sequence surveyed a typical Saturday night in the lively town (when Liberty Valance was rumored to be there), with four key locations:

  • Hank's Saloon (a number of drunks were thrown out through the entry's swinging doors)
  • Mexican Cantina (on a front porch, a Mexican prostitute was propositioned by several poncho/serape-wearing Mexican riders - members of Liberty's outlaw gang returning to town?)
  • The Shinbone Star newspaper office (drunken editor-in-chief Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) and the Marshal assisted equally drunk fellow Doc Willoughby into his buggy)
  • Peter's Place restaurant

In the kitchen of the restaurant, Ransom had been forced to take a job as an apron-wearing dishwasher/waiter (challenging traditional gender roles - as a "ladies man"), to show his indebtedness and gratitude to the Ericsons (surprisingly, he didn't take up Doniphon's offer of 'credit'!).

Dutton Peabody ordered his usual meal (the only items on the non-existent menu) of "steak, beans, potatoes and deep-dish apple pie" from hard-working, competent waitress Hallie who was taking orders. While at the washtub, Ransom had fallen behind on a stack of dishes to clean - slowed up by reading from his mended law book (after Valance had ripped it apart) at the same time. He was single-minded in a search to find legal written justification to arrest and jail Liberty Valance.

He was eager to point out to Hallie one particular sentence in his law-book, proving that the Marshal had jurisdiction, beginning with: "Under the law of this Territory....'' But then he was shocked to learn that she was illiterate, and was extremely embarrassed to admit it: "I never had the schooling...I can't read, and I can't write." When he suggested that he could teach her to read, she completely discounted the value of education altogether: "What good has readin' and writin' done you? Look at ya, in an apron." Nora bolstered Hallie's viewpoint: "What is reading and writing for a girl? She make a wonderful wife, Hallie, for the man she marries." Peter endorsed Tom Doniphon as the perfect strong, dominant and confident husband for her: "And if Tom Doniphon is smart, he pops the question to Hallie."

The Marshal arrived for another meal, on-credit ("on the cuff") (a blackboard kept track of his food tab with dozens of X's). He was called over by Ransom who was taking a break in the kitchen area. The young attorney was eager to share new legal findings from his law book about the Marshal's 'jurisdiction' regarding the stagecoach robbery by Valance:

Marshal, I was wrong the other day, but I've been reading up on Territorial law, and there it is right there. Now, I'll draw up the complaint. Take care of all the legal details. But you do have jurisdiction. Says so right there. So the next time he sets foot in this town, you arrest him.

The Marshal became nervous about the prospect of challenging Valance and swiftly lost his appetite. When Hallie brought Ransom his evening meal, she expressed second thoughts about her reluctance to learn to read, and wide-eyed - she asked: "Ranse, do you think I could? I mean, grown-up and all? Do you think I could learn to read?" He was reassuring: "A smart girl like you? Of course you can learn how to read." Nora was allowed to join Hallie and become Ranse's second tutored pupil.

Homesteader Tom Doniphon arrived in the back of the busy restaurant, handsome and "all dressed up" to impress Hallie, but she responded mostly in an off-handed way. He was carrying a gift of a blooming desert cactus rose to flatter her ("Prettiest cactus rose I ever did see") - a symbol of his love for her blossoming from the desert soil. She asked Doniphon's devoted helper Pompey to immediately plant the rose for her in her small garden outside. Doniphon noticed Ransom's hand-painted wooden shingle-sign propped up on a book ledge - RANSOM STODDARD ATTORNEY AT LAW. He then prophetically warned with stern advice: "You put that thing up, you'll have to defend it with a gun, and you ain't exactly the type." Doniphon ordered a steak meal and then joined Peabody at his table. Eager for a story to write and print up, including Doniphon's engagement and possible marriage to Hallie, Peabody encouraged Doniphon's romantic courtship: "Do I hear wedding bells?"

Shortly later, there was a significant and prophetic short conversation between Ransom and Hallie. After her cactus rose was planted, Hallie was admiring it as "the prettiest thing you ever did see" - although Ransom slightly devalued the gift from Tom of a simple desert cactus flower (compared to the variety of garden roses found back in the civilized East and in other less arid places). He asked: "Did you ever see a real rose?" His romantic tactic or strategy was contrasted with Doniphon's approach - he was promising a 'real' civilized rose rather than a hardy desert cactus rose. She replied, hopefully, that the wilderness might soon bloom and be fertile if the Picket Wire River was brought under control: "No, But maybe someday. If they ever dam the river, we'll have lots of water and all kinds of flowers."

[Note: Years later, it appeared that her inspiring words were fulfilled by Senator Stoddard's sponsorship of a Congressional irrigation bill.]

Liberty Valance (with his leather bullwhip) and two of his outlaw gang members, Floyd (Strother Martin) and Reese (Lee Van Cleef) barged through the double-doors of Peter's Place. Initially, the evil and nefarious Valance leered suggestively at Hallie (signified by a forward tracking camera motion toward her), hinting that he would potentially rape her if they were alone. The filled-to-capacity restaurant suddenly went quiet with their arrival - and the Marshal comically fled out the back door. The gang brought chaos and disorder to the restaurant when Valance and his dirty men forcibly co-opted the table of three cowhands, including the steak dinner of stuttering Kaintuck' (Shug Fisher) who had timidly acquiesed. Apron-wearing waiter Ransom, who backed into the restaurant with Doniphon's dinner on a tray, was faced with insulting jeers and laughter from the abusive and drunken Valance: "Looky at the new waitress."

In the memorable confrontation scene, Valance deliberately tripped Ransom as he walked by to serve Tom Doniphon's steak dinner order - and malevolently sent him sprawling to the floor with the steak. Ransom's weakness was contrasted with Doniphon's rugged toughness, who challenged and threatened Valance: "That was my steak, Valance!" Doniphon refused to be cowed, and ordered Valance (rather than the appeasing Ransom) to pick up the dirty steak. Valance asserted: "Three against one, Doniphon." Tom pointed out simply: "My boy, Pompey, in the kitchen door." Tom was backed up by Pompey (alerted by Hallie), standing with a cocked shotgun in his arms at the kitchen door behind Valance. Floyd volunteered to get the steak, but Doniphon brutally kicked him in the face! The two men stood staring at each other - immovable and frozen in their positions.

To prevent and avoid a deadly confrontation, Ransom rose between the two of them and shouted out:

What's the matter? Everybody in this country kill-crazy?

He kow-towed to prevent a further skirmish by picking up the steak himself: "Here! Now, it's picked up!" The stand-off was averted and defused, and peace was restored by Stoddard's civilizing and mediating action. Valance dropped three coins onto the floor for Doniphon's new steak order: "Why don't you get yourself a fresh steak on me?" - again challenging Tom to pick up the coins. When Doniphon was unwilling to be subservient or bluffed into needlessly drawing his gun, the sneering Liberty announced: "Show's over for now," and the trio exited after him. Outside, Valance took a swig and tossed his half-empty bottle of whiskey through the restaurant's front window, and then randomly shot up the town to further victimize it before riding off with his buddies.

Doniphon's point about the power of a gun (rather than "law and order") was a pertinent but difficult-to-accept lesson for Ransom:

Doniphon: Now I wonder what scared him off.
Peabody: You know what scared him? The spectacle of law and order here, risin' up here out of the gravy and the mashed potatoes.
Ransom: All right, all right, you made your point. It was the gun that scared him off. Pompey's gun, your gun, Tom.

Doniphon claimed that he had the "right to interfere" in Ransom's squabble, because it was his steak. Ransom responded that he didn't pick it up to save Tom's life, but to make a statement about keeping the peace. He became incensed: "Nobody fights my battles." Doniphon was pleased that violence had been avoided: "Well, cool off, Pilgrim. It's all over. Nobody got hurt," but also acknowledged that Valance would seek further revenge - not against himself, but against the pacifist, non-gun-toting Pilgrim:

Ransom: lt is not all over, and everybody here knows it. He'll be back.
Doniphon: He sure will, but not after me. After you, Pilgrim.
Peabody: And you can't shoot back with a law book, Mr. Stoddard.
Doniphon: What Mr. Peabody's tryin' to say is that if you wanna stay healthy, there's two ways to do it.
Ransom: Either I buy a gun or get out of the Territory. Is that what he meant?
Doniphon: That's it, Pilgrim.

To assuage Ransom's hurt feelings, Peabody offered to have Tom hang his "Attorney at Law" wooden shingle rent-free outside of Peabody's newspaper office. Hallie spoke up and refused for Ransom, knowing that Valance would take it as a challenge and destroy it. However, Ransom stubbornly accepted and asked to hang it up the next day, and then defiantly asserted to Tom: "I'm staying, and I'm not buying a gun either." Doniphon wished him "good luck."

Doniphon alerted Hallie that he would be out of town for awhile, horse-trading north of the Picket Wire River, and expressed hope that he wouldn't return and find a destroyed shingle - and newspaper office. Clearly in love with Doniphon, but also feeling a bit lost, Hallie stood silhouetted at the kitchen back door to watch him leave down the alley.

(4) The Newspaper Office and Schoolroom

At this time in the western frontier's history, there were two groups struggling for supremacy who had differing views on statehood. The two viewpoints were described by Dutton Peabody's editorial headlines in the Shinbone Star: CATTLEMEN FIGHT STATEHOOD, SMALL HOMESTEADERS IN DANGER:

  • "cattle barons from across the Picket Wire" - referring to ruthless cattle barons and wealthy ranchers, north of the Picket Wire River, who wanted the Arizona territority to continue without change, with unfenced "open range" grazing lands that were outside of federal government control; they fought the move toward statehood; this group used Liberty Valance's gang and other hired guns to enforce their beliefs
  • "small homesteaders" - referring to poor, struggling lower-class farmers and small town residents, south of the Picket Wire, who welcomed governmental benefits of progress and statehood (roads, schools, transportation by rail, better law enforcement, etc.)

By this time, Stoddard had opened up a one-room schoolhouse in the back of the newspaper office, to teach literacy, civics, and the ideals of democracy. On the blackboard, he had written: "Education is the basis of law and order" and he had hung up pictures of George Washington and Lincoln, and an American flag with 38 stars. Pupils included Hallie, Nora, a bunch of children, a few male townsfolk (Lazy J ranchhands Highpockets (Ted Mapes) and Kaintuck', and Mr. Herbert Carruthers (O.Z. Whitehead) with his hooky-playing son), Pompey and the Marshal (with his young Mexican wife Julietta (Jacqueline Malouf)). Stoddard was teaching the ABCs and the basics of government ("studying about our country and how it's governed"). Nora recited what had been learned so far about representative government:

The United States is a republic, and a republic is a state in which the people are the boss. That means us. And if the big shots in Washington don't do like we want, we don't vote for them, by golly, no more...Anymore.

Stoddard asked the class members about the "basic law of the land" often changed by amendments, and Pompey was called upon to answer: "lt was writ by Mr. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia...and he called it the Constitution." Pompey correctly identified the document as the Constitution, but confused its authorship. [Note: Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, which was mostly written by James Madison.] Ranse was unduly harsh when correcting him: "The Declaration of Independence." Pompey, presumably a freed slave, continued haltingly (with assistance) to recite the Declaration's opening words in the preamble: "We hold these truths to be, uh...self-evident, that, uh, that (Pompey paused at the next phrase, and Ranse finished the quote) ...that all men are created equal.'' With a slightly pompous attitude, Ranse further lectured:

This law of the land also states that the governing power rests with the electorate. The electorate! Now, that means you! That means the people. And you exercise this power through the vote.

Ranse held up the Shinbone Star newspaper as the "best textbook example in the world - an honest newspaper" - and stressed the importance of democratic voting rights. He began to explain the controversy between anti-statehood cattlemen and homesteaders, and mentioned how statehood would be good for schools, families, further frontier development and progress, and safety:

Makes it very clear that if the big ranchers north of the Picket Wire River, if they win their fight to keep this Territory an open range, all your truck farms, and and your your corn, the small shopkeepers and everything, the future of your kids, it's, it'll all be all over, be gone! And they call upon you, in this article, they call upon you to unite behind a real strong delegate and carry this fight to Washington, if necessary.

Doniphon stormed into the schoolroom after a three-week absence, and implicitly criticized the need for education and civilization. He complained that Pompey's farmwork hadn't been completed: "What have you been wastin' your time around here for? Get on back to work. Your schoolin's over."

Doniphon told Peabody that his paper's words were honorable and "noble," but he was against printing them - fearing it would incite violence: "If you put that paper out, the streets of Shinbone are gonna be runnin' with blood." Stoddard questioned Doniphon's claim and they entered into an argument over the impending warring struggle between ranchers' guns (in the North) fueled by Valance's mercenary forces, and the people's votes (in the South) represented by sodbusters and homesteaders. [Note: Doniphon's words linked this film to Ford's earlier My Darling Clementine (1946) in his reference to 'Old Man Holliday'.]:

Stoddard: There are more votes south of the Picket Wire than north.
Doniphon: That's right, but votes won't stand up against guns...He's (Valance) out recruitin' hired guns for the big ranchers...It's already started...Valance and his men crossed the river yesterday, killed a couple of sodbusters, Old Man Holliday and his son...They tried to bushwhack me, unfortunately for one of 'em...They'll be here, all right, tomorrow or the next day, accordin' to how much 'Who-Hit-John' they consume. But election day, Pilgrim, you can depend on it. They'll be here.

The school classroom was promptly dismissed by Hallie, and Doniphon protectively warned her to avoid the school. Attendance would put her in the midst of a "shootin' gallery." She became infuriated and protested being ordered about: "Now, you listen to me, Tom Doniphon. What l do and where l go is none of your business. You don't own me." He devalued her resistance by repeating his earlier compliment, before exiting: "You're awful pretty when you get mad."

After everyone had departed, Hallie noted with some sadness and upset that Ranse was erasing his blackboard's motto: "Education is the basis of law and order." The phrase described how education was tied to civilizing forces that would bring written laws and order. She reminded him of his ideals: "After all you've taught us, how can you say we should knuckle under now?" Ranse affirmed Tom's dire warning that he had uttered before he left:

"When force threatens, talk's no good any more."

Left alone in the classroom, Hallie silently worried that her dreams of 'blossoming' advancement and education were being dashed by the coming conflict and Stoddard's new desire to resort to arms. She watched as Stoddard rode out of town in a buckboard, and was informed by Peabody that Ranse had begun to practice with a gun (loaned to him by Peabody) twice a week in the country, possibly to face Liberty Valance. She became even more fearful and ran out the back door of the school. She desperately called after Tom - but there was no answer. She was caught in the middle - deciding between the two loves of her life - a book-loving lawyer and a gun-toting rancher.

(5) Gun-Shooting Practice

At the Doniphon ranch where Pilgrim (also called "Professor") had been summoned by Tom, the ranch-owner set down boundaries regarding their mutual friend Hallie. He showed off a new wing being constructed on his ranch for his bride-to-be. Even Stoddard seemed to understandd the prevailing view of the townsfolk and Tom that the two were almost betrothed. He denied that he was romantically interested in Hallie:

Doniphon: I'm tellin' ya that Hallie's my girl. I been buildin' that brand-new room and porch for her, for when we get married.
Stoddard: Well, Tom, I guess everybody pretty much takes that for granted.
Doniphon: Everybody except Hallie, maybe you.

Reportedly, Hallie had come to Tom after speaking to Peabody and was "frettin' herself sick because you were gonna get yourself killed facin' up to Liberty Valance."

During a target-practice sequence, Doniphon tossed a paint can into the far distance and challenged inexperienced "gunslinger" Stoddard (who was obviously out of his element) to shoot it while offering markmanship coaching about how to handle a gun. He had a condescending and abusive rather than helpful tone:

  • "You've got to cock it first."
  • "Balance it light in your hand, and don't jerk the trigger. Sque-ee-ze."

When Stoddard missed twice with his "popgun," Doniphon wanted to show off with his own revolver. After Stoddard placed three other paint cans on corral posts, Doniphon shot and deliberately splattered Ransom's suit with paint from the last of three targeted buckets. As Pompey responded with laughter, Tom then explained how the "trick" should teach him a lesson. He was suggesting inadvertently that Stoddard might have to fight and defeat Valance through trickery (which actually occurred later on):

I hate tricks, Pilgrim, but that's what you're up against with Valance. He's almost as fast as I am.

Ransom approached toward Doniphon, gave a growling response and slugged him in the jaw - sending him to the ground: "I don't like tricks myself, so that makes us even!" They had gained a new-found respect for each other, evidenced by Tom's new nickname for Stoddard: "Gunslinger."

(6) The Territorial Convention Delegate Election

The townsfolk were gathering in Hank's Saloon (with a closed bar during voting), where a sign was posted: "MASS MEETING ELECTIONS." At the door, whiskey was confiscated from attendees, and only white adult male residents (south of the Picket Wire) were allowed to enter and exercise the franchise (that meant that Pompey and all women were excluded). Inside the rowdy gathering, order was restored by Tom Doniphon, who had taken the mallet, urged people to sit, and closed the bar. Attorney at law Ransom Stoddard was called upon to chair the meeting. Although denied even a beer, press man Peabody reluctantly agreed to keep notes. Positioned awkwardly under a stairway, Stoddard used a wooden mallet [a bung starter, used to loosen the stopper (bung) out of barrels, kegs or casks] as a makeshift, order-restoring gavel.

Stoddard explained the purpose of the gathering and coordinated the nominations and voting, to select or choose two delegates to attend a regional, statehood Territorial Convention in Capitol City:

We're here to elect two delegates, because the growing population south of the Picket Wire entitles us to two. Now, these two delegates will represent us in the Territorial Convention for statehood...You know the issue. The cattle interests want to keep this Territory an open range...ruled by their high-handed ideas, whatever they are. And we, that means everybody in this room, we're for statehood! We want statehood, because statehood means the protection of our farms and our fences, and it means schools for our children and it means progress for the future!

Now, we'll proceed with the nominations. Now remember, you can nominate as many as you feel like, and in order to show you how this procedure works, I'm gonna step out of the chair for a minute. That's parliamentary law. You can do that. I'll step out of the chair, and, uh, l'll make my, uh, I'll make the first nomination. I'd like to nominate a man who I think is the only man in Shinbone who has the right qualifications to lead us in our fight for statehood. Now, I could stand up here and talk about this fella all day, but I know that everybody in this room could do the same thing, and I don't think that's necessary. I nominate Tom Doniphon. (Cheers and applause)

Although nominated, Doniphon quickly refused his candidacy for personal reasons: "I refuse the nomination...'cause I got other plans. Personal plans."

[Note: Was he refusing the nomination, knowing that Stoddard's political pre-eminence would place him in direct peril and jeopardy with Liberty Valance, and force Stoddard to leave town? It was likely that Doniphon, who represented personal freedom, didn't want to be in a political position, and he also realized that in Stoddard's absence, he would be free to court and marry Hallie.]

Suddenly, horses approached and Valance and his gang tried to crash the meeting, although were told by the mayor that they were ineligible to vote because they didn't live south of the Picket Wire. Valance quipped: "I live where I hang my hat," and barged in. He noticed the most recent edition of the Shinbone Star with the headlines: "TWO HOMESTEADERS KILLED BY LIBERTY VALANCE AND GANG. Wife Watches Helplessly As Husband Beaten to Death. Identifies Killers." The victims were farmers Roy Stevens and his brother John, who were killed by Valance when they refused to stop using a waterhole.

The next nomination was for Ransom Stoddard himself, seconded by Doniphon who mentioned Stoddard was a perfect candidate because he knew the law and "throws a good punch." Valance permitted his sidekick Floyd to nominate him as the other delegate, seconded by Reese. Although the motion was overruled by Doniphon, the nomination was allowed by Stoddard, noting Valance's "address unknown." Highpockets nominated Mr. Peabody, the notorious "town drunk," who protested his selection:

No! No! No ya don't. No. I-I'm a newspaperman, not a politician! No, politicians are my meat. I build 'em up. I tear 'em down. But I wouldn't be one. I couldn't be one. It'd destroy me. Give me a (drink)...Good people of Shinbone. I-I-I'm, uh, your conscience. I'm the still, small voice that thunders in the night. I'm your watchdog that howls against the wolves! I'm, I'm your - your Father Confessor!

After the nominations were closed, Valance accosted everyone and waved his outstretched bullwhip before the vote was taken: "You sodbusters are a brave bunch when you're together, but don't vote any way now that you'll regret later, when you're alone." However, his warning fell on deaf ears, and Stoddard and Peabody were unanimously elected. Valance was outraged: "That vote don't mean a thing." [Note: In essence, Liberty's violent western bullwhip was defeated by civilization's peace-keeping, law-and-order gavel.] He was also fed up that Stoddard was hiding behind Doniphon's gun long enough. Before stalking out, Valance threatened Stoddard by baiting him with either getting out of town by nightfall, or else meeting him for a gunfight duel-challenge that evening on Shinbone's main street:

You got a choice, dishwasher. Either you get outta town, or tonight, you be out in that street alone. You be there, and don't make us come and get ya.

Doniphon was resigned to Stoddard's endangerment, with so little gun practice: "Well, he called it plain. Too bad you didn't come to me sooner with that gun." Doniphon seriously urged and advised Stoddard to leave town, for his own safety. Obviously, he could then fulfill his own marital expectations with Hallie. He said he would prepare Pompey to await him in a buckboard and take him away, but Stoddard didn't answer.

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