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

Plot Synopsis (continued)

(7) Stoddard's Showdown with Liberty Valance

That evenng, the drunken Peabody was printing up the latest edition of the Shinbone Star in his office:

"LIBERTY VALANCE DEFEETED - Stoddard-Peabody Elected. Valance Outnumbered in Startling Show of Courage by Townsmen. Lawyer and Editor Elected as Delegates to Territorial Convention."

In a delirious and intoxicated stupor, the inebriated Peabody admitted to himself that he had made a spelling error with his "unsteady hand," and that he was very afraid. He could only be fortified to be courageous by purchasing another whiskey keg at the nearby Mexican cantina - and then he mis-quoted Shakespeare's Hamlet and Horace Greeley while tipping his hat to his own shadow:

But have we credit? Huh? That is the question. Have we credit? Well, credit is cheap. (To his printing press) Wait for me, ol' servant of the public weal. Our shining hour is yet to come! As for you, Horace Greeley, Go West, old man, and grow young with the country.

Outside, Shinbone's main street was cleared of people (and Valance was rumored to be in another saloon verbally threatening both Ranse and Peabody), although Peabody claimed he should be allowed passage: "My inalienable right, the pursuit of happiness."

In the back of the restaurant in the kitchen, Peter and Nora begged Ranse to leave immediately, but he first wanted to honorably pay off his debt: "I owe you for three days' room and board. I, uh, I just want to square my account. I wanna square my account before I go." Hallie peered outside Peter's Place and saw Peabody staggering down the wooden plankwa back to his office as he quoted briefly from the Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V - a foreshadowing of the coming gun feud:

And those in England now asleep shall think themselves accursed they were not here. Whilst any lives that fought with us on St. Crispin's Day. But when the blast, the blast of war, blows in our ears, then we summon up...

Inside Peabody's newspaper office, his lit oil lantern revealed Valance and his gang waiting for him and holding up the latest edition of the Star. Peabody joked: "Liberty Valance. And his Myrmidons! Liberty Valance taking liberties with the liberty of the press?"

[Note: The term "Myrmidons" referred to Valance's hired guns or subordinate followers who were intensely loyal without questioning their leader. In Greek myth and Homer's Iliad, Myrmidons were skilled battle warriors commanded by Achilles during the Trojan War.]

The gang bashed his whiskey keg into his printing press (to literally destroy the 'power of the press'), stuffed the crumpled-up newspaper down his throat to force him to literally eat his words, nearly beat him to death with the bullwhip, threw the lantern through the window and ransacked the office, while the fiendish Floyd giggled psychotically. Outside, Valance shot down Stoddard's wooden shingle, sending town onlookers scurrying.

[Note: Earlier, the threat of Liberty's violence had also closed down the school - 'education' - in the office's back room.]

Apron-wearing Stoddard ran across the street from the restaurant to find his half-destroyed shingle dangling precariously (the words "Attorney at Law" were left hanging), and the bloodied, unconscious Peabody sprawled on the floor. Peabody rose up and called out Ranse's name while babbling: "I sure told that Liberty Valance about the freedom of the press," before collapsing.

Incensed, Ranse pulled down his destroyed and broken shingle, and threw it onto the ground. He told Marshal Link to alert Valance that he had finally accepted the gun challenge, and was waiting to confront him on the street for the film's inevitable climactic and deadly shootout-showdown. He returned to the restaurant for his gun, while Hallie ran off to tell Pompey to alert Tom and inform him ("Ranse is out front with a gun"). Pompey told her that Doniphon was engaged playing cards - and so was Liberty - linking their characters.

In the saloon, bullying gunslinger Liberty Valance was gambling at a poker table, where both Doc Willoughby and the Marshal confronted him for the "accident" that incapacitated Peabody, and for the threats on Stoddard's life. They faced a completely mismatched opponent: "You all know that Ranse Stoddard couldn't shoot the hat off his own head with a gun in his hand...If you gun him down, it'll just be pure murder." Valance revealed his winning, last poker hand: "Aces and 8s."

[Note: It was known as "the dead man's hand," allegedly drawn by Wild Bill Hickok before he was shot dead in a Deadwood, South Dakota saloon.]

With his gun at his side, Stoddard (still wearing his apron) awaited the appearance of Valance out in the dark and dusty street - a pivotal duel between the clumsy and inept Stoddard, and the menacing gunslinger Valance. The drunken Valance began playfully taunting: "Hashslinger, are you out here?" As they walked toward each other, Valance shouted out: "Come closer where I can see you. Get out of that shadow, Dude." Valance shot at a hanging water/wine jug that burst next to Stoddard's face. This first shot recalled Doniphon's shooting of a paint can that sprayed Stoddard with paint.

Valance's second shot wounded Ransom in his right arm and dislodged the gun from his hand. As further torment, Valance suggested that he pick up the gun with his left hand from the dirt ("You got two hands, Hashslinger"). A third shot hit the ground next to Ransom's gun. Unsteady and bleeding, Ransom staggered forward. Finally, Valance aimed his cocked gun and vowed: "All right, Dude. This time, right between the eyes" - miraculously, Ransom - shooting left-handed at the same time - appeared to shoot Valance dead. As Ransom stumbled off wounded, witnessing townsfolk rushed forward to view Valence's dead body: "It's Liberty! Liberty's dead!" Doc Willoughby came up to the body and after taking a swig of whiskey, he promptly exclaimed: "Dead," before walking off.

Ransom struggled into the kitchen of the restaurant where he was treated - again - by Hallie and the Ericsons. As Hallie bandaged his forearm, she tearfully confided in Ransom and asked for understanding and forgiveness, and confessed that she wouldn't have been able to bear his death:

"If it had been you instead of Valance, I would...I can't help it. I feel so guilty. I didn't - I didn't want you to run away. I wanted you to stay. Forgive my -- Oh, I'm sorry."

Doniphon entered the back kitchen door, saw them embracing and listened to them consoling each other, realizing their love for each other. He also apologized for coming too late to help, before hastily retreating: "Sorry I got here too late, Hallie. But you got yourself out of that fix real handy. I'll be around." Outside, Doniphon pensively struck a match on a wall (a foreshadowing of a future fire!), lit his cigarette, and listened to festive Mexican mariachi dance music at the Cantina and from some Mexicans who passed by while singing and strumming guitars. He watched as Liberty's corpse was lifted onto a buckboard, with his legs dangling off the end as he was unceremoniously carted away.

In the saloon, the somber Doniphon began to drink heavily (after witnessing Hallie's love for Stoddard - and for another significant reason, later revealed!), while Pompey begged for him to return home. The bitter sad, and tragic result of Ransom's elimination of Liberty Valance had allowed the lawyer to win Hallie away from Tom and ultimately make her his wife - Hallie was the woman Doniphon had loved in silence and had hoped to marry.

Doniphon listened to Liberty's two accomplices (or Myrmidons):

  • Reese was engaged in a verbal tirade, vehemently complaining to the Marshal: "That lawyer fella shot him down in cold blood!"
  • Floyd was also trying to stir up a lynch mob among the citizenry with a rope noose in his hand: "It was murder! Pure murder! And I say, if the Marshal don't put Stoddard in jail, we ought to take care of him ourselves! I say we ought to hang him!"

Doniphon became furious due to the clamor. First, he hurled Floyd out onto the street: "Can't a man get a drink around this town in peace?" Then, he disarmed and knocked Reese out with his gun-butt, and then angrily ordered the weakling Marshal to take care of him: "What are ya gettin' paid for? Drag this scum outta here." For once, the Marshal forcefully deputized Kaintuck' and Highpockets to drag the two knocked-out "scum" away. He also comically showed false bravado, was humorously boastful of his prowess, and took unwarranted credit for the outlaws' banishment. He shouted after them ineffectually: "You tell those ranchers north of the Picket Wire that hired you, that me, Link Appleyard, run ya outta town. And I'll do it again if you ever come back." Comically, the swinging bar door hit him from behind.

As Doniphon kept drinking at the bar, the bartender disallowed Pompey from entering, but his racist rules were overruled by Tom ("Who says he can't?"). To avoid any further conflict, Doniphon threw coins about (to pay for the drinks and damage), prompted the band to play, and the two left together to tend to their horses and farmwork, at Pompey's urging ("Come on home"). Doniphon sarcastically called his place: "Home, sweet Home."

A drunken Doniphon staggered into his ranch house and set the unfinished extra addition on fire with his oil lantern - the structure he was building as a residence for his bride-to-be Hallie. Doniphon (and his horses) were saved only by Pompey's intervention, who dragged Tom onto a buckboard. Doniphon watched from the back of the buckboard, with Pompey, as the entire ranch was engulfed in flames - a literal destruction of Tom's future.

(8) The Territorial Convention and Doniphon's Revelation of What Really Happened

The next sequence began with the image of a huge "WELCOME" banner strung up on a wood-frame convention hall. In Capitol City during the Territorial Convention for statehood, the debate for keeping the Territory as it was or voting for statehood resumed in a crowded hall with bench seating. Voting was about to take place (after nominees were proposed) to select the Territory's delegate to the Congress of the United States in Washington, DC.

Both Ransom, recovering from his gunshot wound (with a sling on his right arm), and a bandaged Peabody arrived as the two delegates. Ransom listened as Honorable Major Cassius Starbuckle (John Carradine) stood and announced facetiously that he was throwing away his oratorical prepared speech (it was shown to be a blank piece of paper). With great aplomb and overexaggerated histrionics, he formally nominated five-term Congressman Custis "Buck" Langhorne (Tom Hennesy) - a representative of the cattlemen. A cowboy on horseback with a trick rope bounded onto the stage, comically to the tune of Home on the Range.

Then, across the aisle separating the two sides, Mr. Dutton Peabody of the Shinbone Star delivered a second rousing oratorical speech - a verbal duel rather than a gun duel. He was in favor of nominating Stoddard as a reform candidate, to bring significant change and law and order, end corruption, and foster progress and civilization:

Fellow delegates, like all of you, I have listened in awe and admiration to the magnificent oratory of the Honorable Major Cassius Starbuckle, the cattlemen's mouthpiece. The lowing herd is still with us. But, uh, seriously, under the spell of his eloquence, I could see once again the vast herd of buffalo and savage redskin roaming our beautiful territory, with no law to trammel them except the law of survival, the law of the tomahawk and the bow and arrow. And then, with the westward march of our nation came the pioneer and the buffalo hunter, the adventurous and the bold. And the boldest of these were the cattlemen, who seized the wide-open range for their own personal domain, and their law was the law of the hired gun.

But now, now today have come the railroads and the people. The steady, hard-working citizens, the homesteader, the shopkeeper, the builder of cities. We need roads to join those cities, dams to store up the waters of the Picket Wire, and we need statehood to protect the rights of every man and woman, however humble. How do we get it? I'll tell you how. We get it by placing our votes behind one man. One man! And we have that man with us here. He is a man who came to us not packing a gun, but carrying instead a bag of law books. Yes, he is a lawyer and a teacher, the first west of the Rosy Buttes. But more important, he is a man who has come to be known throughout this Territory in the last few weeks as a great champion of law and order. Ladies and gentlemen, I nominate as your delegate and mine, to the Congress at Washington, the Honorable Ransom Stoddard!

Scraggly, unshaven, dirty and bedraggled Doniphon appeared at the back of the assembly - a meeting to which he had refused his own nomination - because of his planned life with Hallie! He sat slouched down on a stairway behind a railing to listen, as Cassius Starbuckle took the floor and questioned whether Stoddard's candidacy for the US Congress was appropriate, since his "only claim to the office is that he killed a man." Stoddard's notorious reputation after Valance's shooting was both helpful and hurtful to his nomination. Starbuckle continued, challenging and asking about the qualifications of Stoddard to serve in a government position - "a man who usurps the function of both judge and jury and takes the law into his own hands."

A tumult broke out, and shouts and boos echoed in the chamber, as Starbuckle brought up more issues about Stoddard's unstatesmanlike conduct:

What other qualifications has he, then? The blood on his hands? The hidden gun beneath his coat? The bullet-riddled body of an honest citizen? this your fearless champion of law and order?...I tell you, the mark of Cain is on this man, and the mark of Cain will be on all of us if we send him with bloodstained hands to walk the hallowed halls of government where Washington... yes, and Lincoln still live, immortals in the memory of man.

The principled Stoddard fled from the room to duck away, with extreme qualms of conscience. He was unable to justify a future political career as "the man who shot Liberty Valance" - the sole factor that would assure a victory. Doniphon followed after him and called out: "Pilgrim!"

During a private conversation with Doniphon, Stoddard asserted that he was on his way home to return back East where he belonged. [Note: Both were somewhat 'homeless' - Doniphon had already burned his house down.] Doniphon pointedly asked: "Valance couldn't make ya run away. What is it now, Pilgrim, your conscience?" Stoddard explained his conflicted conscience: "lsn't it enough to kill a man, without trying to build a life on it?"

In the film's major plot twist-revelation, Doniphon informed Stoddard about the real truth of the legendary gunfight. Ransom had NOT shot and killed Liberty. A short ensuing 'flashback-within-a-flashback' was introduced with a swirl of smoke from Doniphon's cigarette and a filmic dissolve:

You didn't kill Liberty Valance...Think back, Pilgrim. Valance came outta the saloon. You were walkin' toward him when he fired his first shot. Remember?

Doniphon revealed how he was hidden on a side street with Pompey when the showdown occurred. Pompey had thrown Tom a rifle and at the exact moment of Valance's fourth and potentially-fatal shot, Doniphon killed Valance from a side angle, without anyone knowing at the moment of the blast. He had killed Liberty to sacrificially protect the love of his life Hallie from heartbreak (knowing Stoddard would have died in a face-off), and also for the greater good of the Territory poised for statehood.

Both Stoddard and Doniphon were flawed, and had compromised their staunch principles or philosophies. Stoddard had chosen to resort to gun-violence and had taken the law into his own hands, rather than allowing the legal system prosecute Valance. And Doniphon had violated the rules of chivalry - he admitted that his pure motive was for love of Hallie and her well-being, but he had committed murder (rather than killing Valance in a fair fight). He could have let Stoddard die in the gun battle, and thus obtain Hallie, but realized Hallie would have wanted him to protect Stoddard, and so he intervened. However, he was now very regretful for saving Ransom's life, for compromising himself - and for losing Hallie forever:

Cold-blooded murder, but I can live with it. Hallie's happy. She wanted you alive....I wish I hadn't. Hallie's your girl now. Go on back in there and take that nomination. You taught her how to read and write. Now give her somethin' to read and write about!

As a result, Stoddard would now have to live a double life. He would receive all the credit and notoriety for miraculously being "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Knowing privately that he wasn't a murderer, he would still remain a hypocrite with lost idealism based upon a fraudulent lie. However, Ransom marched back into the meeting and accepted his nomination to boisterous cheers, as Doniphon strode off. He passed a large poster for the anti-statehood Langhorne - the losing candidate - suggesting that both of them (and their way of life) were passing into oblivion. Presumably, Doniphon died a drunken, defeated, celibate and disconsolate man. In some ways, Stoddard was the 'man who murdered Tom Doniphon.'

[Note: All through his political career, Stoddard regretted knowing that the basis for his own success as a politician was built upon the foundation of a real and genuine, but unheralded archetypal cowboy hero - Doniphon. Over the years, Ransom had always felt burdened and uncomfortable that there was no veracity to the legend surrounding himself, although he comforted himself that he had chosen to work for bettering the public good. The community was much to blame for continuing to praise him and his reputation, however, and maintaining the illusion that Ransom's way had triumphed, rather than lauding Tom's truly heroic individual act of bravery and sacrifice. Doniphon's killing of Valance also led to personal losses for him - an aborted domestic life with Hallie.]


Back in the present time, Stoddard was seen sitting in the office area before his interview-audience, but not showing obvious signs of guilt next to the room where Doniphon's inert and powerless body (bootless, gunless, and spurless) laid in a coffin.

The audience was reminded about Stoddard's long career as a politician - he had been accorded fame and credit for taming the West and civilizing the town, but it was also inferred that he had led a political life of transience without a permanent home (similar to Valance's declaration: "I live where I hang my hat") - something that Hallie regretted:

Stoddard: I went to Washington, and we won statehood. I became the first governor.
Maxwell Scott: Three terms as governor. Two terms in the Senate. Ambassador to the Court of St. James [the UK]. Back again to the Senate. And a man who, with the snap of his fingers, could be the next Vice President of the United States.

Upon hearing the truth of Stoddard's past, the previously over-inquisitive Scott now tore up the written notes of his novice reporter, tossed the scraps into a stove, and refused to publish the real story. He believed, in the West, that it was better to keep perpetuating the popular legend for the people (the lies regarding the falsity of his claims) rather than revealing the real truth:

Ransom: You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

In fact, Scott was right - the legend had indeed become fact.

Stoddard returned to the back room where a quiet wake was being held by the disparate mourners. The apologetic, mercenary-minded Clute gestured that he had located Doniphon's missing brand-new boots with spurs. Stoddard bid goodbye to Pompey with a wad of bills squeezed into his hand: ("Pork chop money"). On top of Doniphon's coffin, the cactus rose had been removed from the hatbox and was finally displayed - a symbol of love between Hallie and Tom. Hallie had placed (or 'planted') the beautiful blossoming plant, recently dug up from the wilderness-earth surrounding Doniphon's ranch and burned-out addition, to define her roots. As Stoddard shut the door on the coffin room, he gazed back at the plant, knowing that Hallie was still in love with Tom.

On a meditative train ride to return back East to Washington DC, the film had now come full-circle. Complex (and melancholic) reactions to their visit now spilled over and occurred during the film's final conversation between the Stoddards. More somber and contemplative, Stoddard suggested retirement from politics, and naively proposed that they move back to Shinbone after he had passed his new massive irrigation project bill in Congress: "I sort of have a hankerin' to come back here to live. Maybe open up a law office." She was relieved that they could maybe start over and nostalgically return to her roots, with some dissatisfaction that so much of their childless (unflowering or unblossoming) married life had been a lie, and that she still loved Doniphon and the western world he symbolized:

If you knew how often I'd dreamed of it. (pause) My roots are here. I guess my heart is here. (pause) Yes, let's come back.

She recognized that he was most proud, not for his famous reputation and moniker, but as he had promised, he had transformed the West from a wild, untamed desert wilderness into a lush and civilized, more modern 'garden'. She also admitted that she had put the beautiful cactus rose on the coffin:

Hallie: Look at it. lt was once a wilderness. Now it's a garden. Aren't you proud?
Ransom: Hallie, who put the cactus roses on Tom's coffin?
Hallie: I did.

They again spoke with effusive conductor Jason in the film's final moments of dialogue - who again reinforced the Senator's sole claim to status as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance":

Jason: Here, got a brand-new spittoon for you. Uh, 'cuspidor', Hallie. And Luke, the engineer's got a full head of steam in this ol' tar bucket. We're gonna make 25 miles an hour or bust a boiler tryin'. And, ha, ha, we wired ahead to Junction City. They're gonna hold the Express for ya. Ransom, in two days and two nights, you're gonna be right back in Washington.
Ransom: Oh, thank you, Jason. Thank you, and I'm gonna write a letter to the officials of this railroad and thank them for their kindness and for going to all this trouble.
Jason: You think nothing of it. Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.

Their train continued on its way along the tracks, billowing smoke and blowing its whistle - a symbol of the passing of time for the two aging characters who had been forced to look back upon their earlier days, with some sadness.

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