We start the new year with endings—what I ironically call "Happy Endings." They are not entirely happy, they might even be tragic, but those last frames hang in the air, changing the dozens of minutes that preceded them, perfect endings for what has gone before.
A Warning: these scenes, coming as they do at the end, are so SPOILERIFIC, that seeing them, without the accompanying film, will, at the very least, leave you guessing and confused, and at the most, ruin the entire movie for you. If you have not seen this movie, read no further, but instead, seek out this film. You won't regret it.
The Story: "Remember?"
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance resonates more and more with me these days. The ironic story that was the last Western directed by John Ford (but maintained his themes of the parallel train-tracks of the mythic hum-bug of Nation-building, that run alongside the should-be heralded real accomplishments that don't make headlines) tells the story of three men who might influence the destiny of the frontier town of Shinbone: Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), an anarchic villain without constraint or morals; Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), a book-learned "pilgrim" schoolteacher, for whom word is law and principals; and the man-in-between, Tom Doniphan (John Wayne), a pioneer trying to tame the land, for whom the law might be a hindrance to his way of doing "what has to be done." The fates of these men reflect a political struggle of what "freedom" means, and the torturous course that can come with the establishing of "civilization"...and the bodies that that high-minded process can leave behind, in the interests of the many over the few.
A few key things about this scene, then a summation. Prior to this scene, it had been revealed that it wasn't Ransom Stoddard, but Tom Doniphon, in the shadows, who shot Liberty Valance in the stand-off on the street in Shinbone. Valance lay dead, but the fortunes of the other two men rose and fell in the instant of those simultaneous shots—Stoddard was hailed as a hero, while Doniphon, the actual perpetrator, disappeared into history, a forgotten and abandoned man. With the telling of The Tale on the occasion of Doniphon's death (and revealed in a flashback-within-a-flashback), the Shinbone press is made aware of the truth. But they don't print it, with the elegant words "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"—the word "becomes" being used, not as a verb of passing transformation, but as a flattering reflection. The legend is not the truth, but it reflects well on the man who has done so much for the city and the state, and so it is consigned to the furnace, as the publishing of it would do no real good for the living.*It is buried, along with the dead. May not seem fair, but neither is life and fortune.
And Pompey (the amazing and versatile Woody Strode)—Doniphon's ranch-hand and confidante is given a great deal of respect by Sen. Stoddard's wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), who reaches out and touches his arm earlier in the film when she first sees him after so many years, something that probably upset the Southern U.S. states in the early 1960's when the film was made. When the Stoddards take their leave of Doniphon's coffin, he is left with his hand outstretched, which the Senator surreptitiously fills with cash, during their parting hand-shake. I don't think it even occurs to Stoddard that the gesture may not be appropriate. He may think it magnanimous, but it is a small sacrifice...just good politics.
Compared to what Doniphon sacrificed, it is paltry. Whatever Stoddard has given up, he has realized large rewards. Rewards was not on Doniphon's mind, in the course of doing the right thing. In Doniphon's way, you do what has to be done and take the consequences—for the future of the country and for the benefit of the woman he loves. He takes the steps and pulls the trigger on the events that will throw Hallie into Ranse's arms. Later ("Remember?") he will say "She's your girl now. You taught her to read. Give her something to read about." He's bitter, he's suffered, but like Richard Blaine does at the end of Casablanca, he doesn't look back, accepting his fate. And that parting shot has echoes of the blunt last words of Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, where you want to grab the benefactor of your actions by the scruff of the neck and say "Earn this." It is only grace that chokes off the "you lucky bastard."
Not fair? Maybe. But History runs roughshod over all of us, folding us into itself. Whatever fates we reap, eventually, as was so scrupulously noted in Barry Lyndon, we will all be equal.
The Set-Up: It's big doin's when Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) comes back to the town of Shinbone. The former lawyer-schoolteacher who became the state's first Governor is not here on business, but for a personal matter that has the town's newspaper digging for the story of who and why. The man Stoddard and his wife (Vera Miles) are paying their last respects to is a local nobody, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), and the accomplished politician who rode into public life as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (Lee Marvin) decides to—finally—tell the story. Truth being told, we fade back to the present day.
SEN. RANSE STODDARD: Well, you know the rest of it...
STODDARD: I went to Washington.
STODDARD: ...and we won statehood.
STODDARD: I became the first governor.
SCOTT: Three terms of governor. Two terms of the Senate. Ambassador to the Court of St. James.
SCOTT: Back again to the Senate.
SCOTT: And a man who, with the snap of his fingers, could be the next Vice-President of the United States.
(Scott rips out the notes...)
(...then tears them up)
STODDARD: You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
SCOTT: No, sir.
(Scott throws the notes into the furnace, slams the door shut)
SCOTT: This is the West, sir.
SCOTT: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
CHARLEY: He's right, Ranse.
STODDARD: It's getting late, Hallie--
STODDARD: We'll keep in touch with you, Pompey.
STODDARD: I promise--
(Stoddard uses the occasion of shaking Pompey's hand to place some bills in it, and he protests.)
POMPEY: But, Mr. Ranse
STODDARD: Hallie, would you be too sorry, if once I get the new irrigation bill through...
STODDARD: ...would you be too sorry if we just up and left Washington?
STODDARD: I...I sorta have a hankerin' to...come back here to live. Maybe open up a law office.
HALLIE: Ranse! If you knew how often I'd dreamed of it.
HALLIE: My roots are here.
HALLIE: I guess my heart is here.
HALLIE: Look at it. It was once a wilderness.
HALLIE: Now it's a garden.
HALLIE: Aren't you proud?
STODDARD: Hallie...who put the cactus rose on Tom's coffin?
HALLIE: I did.
JASON: Here, got a brand new spittoon for you...uh, "cuspidor," Hallie...
JASON: And Luke the engineer's got a full head of steam in this old tar bucket.
JASON: We're gonna make 25 miles an hour or bust a boiler tryin'
JASON: And (ha, ha) we wired ahead to Junction City. They're gonna hold the Express for ya. Ranse, in two days and two nights, you're gonna be right back in Washington.
STODDARD: Thank you, Jason. Thank you.
STODDARD: 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.
JASON: Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Words by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck
Pictures by William H. Clothier and John Ford
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.
* Ford did something similar in the cavalry film Fort Apache, where Wayne's Captain Kirby York decides to present a more heroic image of the foolish and vainglorious attack and subsequent death of the Custer-like Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), with whom he'd had strategic disagreements. For the good of the Corps, York (whose character would appear in the third and final Cavalry picture She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.) paints a more "becoming" picture of Thursday and his intentions, for good or ill.