Who REALLY shot Liberty Valance?

The other day I was shopping in a local grocery store and I heard a snippet of the song “The Man who shot Liberty Valance” playing on the store loudspeaker.  I always loved this song as a kid, and hearing it was a nice treat.  Of course, the song played in my head for the next few days since my head seems to think I like a constant stream of background music…

Several days later, I decided to look for the tune on YouTube, and found a nice video  where the original song was paired with actual footage from the John Ford movie starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance.  The basic plot for the movie is this: A Rancher, Tom Doniphon, (played by John Wayne)  has the hots for local cutie named Hallie (played by Vera Miles), who falls for fancy pants lawyer by the name of Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart) who comes to town from back East somewhere.  Local bad guy Liberty decides he doesnt like Ransom (on principle I guess) and humiliates him every chance he gets.  Tom  sees how pathetic Ransom is with a gun and attempts to teach him how to shoot.  Liberty has a run in or two with Tom but recognizes Tom cant be bullied so that goes nowhere really.  Eventually, Ransom is fed up with Liberty’s bullying and decides to face him man to man in a gunfight which he seems to win.  Ransom goes on to more fame and fortune with Hallie by his side, and the last scene in the video shows Jimmy Stewart on a train with Hallie (who is now his wife), and the conductor of the train makes a comment about “nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!”  (Liberty robbed his fair share of trains Im thinking).  Ransom pauses while lighting his pipe and his wife Hallie looks ahead strangely stony faced.

Happy ending yes?   NO.  In another clip (removed by Paramount Pictures), you learn that there were 2 gunmen facing Liberty that night…the one you see (Ransom),  and the one you didnt see (Tom).  In a weird twist, Tom claims HE shot Liberty instead of Ransom.  Now why would he do this?  The movie would have us believe that Tom shot Liberty so that the lady he secretly loves (Hallie) can have the man SHE loves (Ransom)…but I have some reservations about this scenario:  if Tom was so all-fired good with a gun, and he had a mind to shoot Liberty himself, why did he wait until Ransom faced him?  Why hide in the shadows?  And WHY, if he was going to shoot from the shadows, would he then claim to Ransom that it was HE who killed Liberty?  For the traditional explanation, please visit this blog This video by New York Times critic A.O. Scott pretty much echoes the foregoing explanation and I include it because it shows the two gunmen actually facing Liberty that night.

I maintain that Tom, while admittedly good with a gun was nonetheless cowardly because he shot in secret and claimed the credit in private, and in so doing emasculated his rival.  Think about it.  Ransom is about to leave town because he is ashamed of killing Liberty and doesnt want a career based on that killing.  What better way to get the final dig at a rival than to claim to have been the actual means behind the death of a bully?  Ransom’s openly brave gunfight is now tainted by the thought that he didnt actually succeed after all, and that someone else had to do it for him.  That’s pretty diabolical if you ask me.

When you see the first clip it looks to me like Ransom DOES kill Liberty.  The timing was right, the angle was right…Here’s what the Lyrics had to say:

Everyone heard two shots ring out, a shot made liberty fall
The man who shot liberty valance, he shot liberty valance
He was the bravest of them all.

Everyone heard 2 shots, right?    So either Tom shot at exactly the same moment as Liberty –or–Tom shot at the same time as Ransom and took advantage of Ransom’s insecurities by claiming to have shot Liberty.  Ive watched that 2nd clip over and over and at the key moment seems to show that Tom fired at the same moment as Ransom, which just seems a bit too pat to me.  What would Tom have said if Liberty actually managed to hit Ransom?  Would he come out of the shadows?  There’s also the equally valid possibility that Tom MISSED Liberty and the only shot that killed him was Ransom’s.  We never know the truth because no autopsy is mentioned so we dont know how many bullet wounds Liberty actually died from.

Personally, I think Ransom was ROBBED, because he was the only one there actually facing Liberty and putting his own life on the line.  Either way, I hope Tom Doniphon died a lonely bitter old man.

Footnote:  Unfortunately, due to the moronic studio practice of claiming copyrights to what should by now be public domain, the reader no longer has the luxury of the visual impact provided by the former video clips posted here.  I apologize for that, and hope that one day these same studios can pull their collective heads out and allow them to be posted again.  Until then, I wont be holding my breath….

~ by irishgrl on November 16, 2010.

9 Responses to “Who REALLY shot Liberty Valance?”

  1. Reading this, I feel like you saw what you wanted to see rather than what was actually presented.

    The question of Tom missing is ridiculously unlikely. He is shown to be proficient enough with firearms to hit paintcans in one shot each without even taking careful aim. To miss with a rifle? Not a chance. On the reverse, Ranse couldn’t even shoot straight with his good arm when given time to aim carefully in a virtually stress-free environment. Could he have hit Valance under those circumstances? Sure, he could’ve. Did he? Probably not. Firing a gun with one hand when you don’t know how to shoot well is no easy thing. Either Valance was hit by both or only Tom. The chances of both Ranse hitting him and Tom not would be less than 1%. No one would have been looking for a bullet hole elsewhere because no one would have thought to question how the shootout apparently obviously played out. Ranse probably did miss and Tom almost certainly shot and killed Valance – as the movie suggests.

    Tom nearly pressed the issue with Valance earlier, but he had no particular fear of Valance and it’s suggested in the restaurant early on that Valance is at best unsure of his chances in a straight out shootout. Of course, Liberty is quite obviously a coward. Nearly all bullies are. He has no interest in fighting any time he considers it possible he might lose. That’s why he constantly picks on Ranse – Ranse is far braver, but he stood no chance against Valance with a gun. But as far as Tom goes, aside from that one instance, Tom is not shown to have any particular interest in killing Valance and only does that one time when Valance spills his food – tough guy cred, and all.

    When Hallie sends word for Pompey to find Tom, he obviously got the clue that she (the woman he loved) would be devastated if Ranse was killed. At that point I’m not sure he took Ranse seriously as a rival to Hallie’s affections. It was only when he came in and saw her with him that he realized that by keeping Ranse alive he had unwittingly lost Hallie.

    Your belief that Tom was a coward is short-sighted, in my opinion. If he was a coward, he would never have faced Liberty face up in the restaurant earlier and Valance would have been able to run rough shod over him. In most instances, you would be right that shooting from the shadows is cowardly, but when we are presented with an image of a man who has already been shown as uncowardly, we must come up with an alternative solution.

    My interpretation based on everything we know of the characters: Tom was not a glory-hunter and cared nothing for the credit of killing Liberty Valance. He had no interest in being a representative of the state. The limit of his ambitions was to be landowner and a husband to Hallie. Why didn’t he come out into the open? Perhaps he viewed Valance less as a man and more as a dog that needed to be put down. And really, if he’d butted in, Ranse would have been viewed as a weakling who needed someone else to fight his battles. That would have been far more damaging to him. Tom knew Ranse was almost certain to be killed, so the only way he could keep both Ranse’s life and dignity intact is by doing what he did. No one would know but him and Pompey, both of whom knew Tom was no coward.

    And to be clear, Tom had no intention of ever claiming the credit. If he had, he would have done it sooner than he did. The timing is crucial. His revelation is saved until *after* Ranse is ready to withdraw his name from the convention over the shame of having killed Valance – not because he cares what people think of him, but because he realizes they were right. He had become what he had desperately tried to avoid: just another man who had to kill rather than let the law handle his problems. The reality remained, as Ranse well knew, that while Valance and others like him were a dying breed, yet in the here and now they still had to be dealt with. That didn’t make him feel any better, though, about having to compromise his principles. His shootout with Valance was not something he ever wanted. He only went out because that was the way things were still done then and would be still for a short time longer. Tom tells Ranse so that Ranse can live with his conscience: He is not a killer.

    Ranse’s bravery is intact because he still went out to face Valance, however reluctant he was to do so, the fact is he went. Bravery is not about killing or violence, but it *is* about standing up when you are forced to, which is exactly what Ranse did throughout the film. Ranse did not call out Valance, Valance called Ranse out. It was fight or be shot down. That’s why he went, and that is why he was brave: Going out with no real reason to believe he might live through it.

    It’s a curious thing that you think Ranse was ‘robbed’ of the credit. That was something he never wanted. His actions and words throughout the whole film are those of a man who hates violence. What you see after his conversation with Doniphon at the end is relief that he did not in fact shoot Valance.

    Ranse’s respect for Tom in the present day scenes of the film would hardly be appropriate if he considered Tom a coward. Tom had saved his life and prevented him from becoming a killer. More than that, Ranse *knew* that Tom loved Hallie and expected to marry her, yet when Tom realized at last that Hallie loved Ranse and not him, Tom stepped aside without a word. Both in their way were courageous men, but diminishing Tom’s actions to pump up Ranse’s tires is to misunderstand both the characters and the plot, in my opinion.

    • Your analysis is unremarkable because it is intellectually lazy, or at the very least, lemming-like. You claim I saw what I wanted to see, which is false. I had seen that movie when I was a teen, and took it at face value like everyone else. Since that time, I’ve discovered that people are a lot more complex, and a lot less straightforward than you might expect.

      Further, my main purpose in writing this piece was to challenge viewers to look a little deeper, perhaps outside their comfort zone, and fairly consider the notion that there might be an explanation that falls outside the obvious.

      For example, what if the part of Tom wasn’t played by John Wayne, an actor that epitomized strength and integrity? What if the part were played by Lee Van Cleef, an actor best known for less principled characters? Would your perception be the same? I think not. Therefore, if we look past the actor to the action, I believe it IS possible to entertain the possibility that there could be more going on beneath the surface, and that is my aim here, to ask you to think outside the box.

      • I tend to agree with the interpretation as given by Sean. I appreciate their may be ulterior motives we are not aware of, as there often is in real life. But I feel we lack any significant evidence to substantiate those. And once we start down that road, anything can be speculated on.

        As far as I can tell, Sean is making comment above, based on what we do see and hear in the film. (That I feel being irrespective of the particular actor and their broader rep outside the film). I think the key line in the film, comes near the end, as is “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. This for me, infers that it was Tom who shot Liberty Valance. But the printed legend, (which has become taken as fact), is that Ransom did.

        I agree it seems unlikely a left handed, wounded Ransom would pull of that shot. And maybe Liberty’s lack of vigilance relates to the fact, the shot that killed him came from someone and somewhere outside his line of sight/focus.

        Tom is no doubt heart broken by the loss of the woman he wanted to have as a wife. But for me, that does not cast him as a generally negative or bad character. (e.g. burning down your house in a moment of despair, does not automatically make you a killer or a coward).

        I think Tom is meant to represent the old west hero. Full of machismo. Whereas Ransom, by contrast is a man of words, not acts, and represents the future shape of hero’s in a more civilised world.

        Ultimately, the truth is suppressed, because it is in the greater interest. Which I would guess, was a political message for the then times (e.g. 1960’s).

  2. The likelihood Liberty was shot by both of them is quite equal. After all Tom is not the perfect hero either. His jealousy leads him to get drunk and burn down his house symbolizing squashed dreams of living together with Hallie. He apparently has no other ambitions and is portrayed as one who denies leadership roles. Ranse is flawed himself in his apparent inability to defend himself with a gun.

    In this sense, both are handicapped heros, Tom emotionally, Ranse physically. Tom makes claims of killing Liberty, while Ranse would like to forget this action he morally and lawfully is against most of the film yet one that ironically delivers him to a high position of power, lawyer to politician.

  3. Hello Irishgrl and fellow commenters . Irishgrl, with due respect if you have not seen the entire movie since you were a teen and have merely seen a few youtube clips as of recent, you really should watch the entire film again – you may still have the same views but the entire film is crucial and is a top western known for depth and better rounded then most western period pieces. You only hear two gun shots because in the film two of the three shots were meant to be fired at the same time. your commenters have made some good sense here and there. I’ll just mention some overlooked items . The film begins with Liberty Valance and his sidekicks robbing the stage coach that Ransom was traveling west in and when Ranse trys to protect a widow woman, knowing potential murderers are pointing guns at the un-armed members of the stage coach party, Valance ends up beating Ranse half to death and leaving him in the dirt road for dead. Also during this scene Libery asks waht kind of man are you, dude and Ranse goes on a tangent about him being a legal attorney for the territory and Valance may have his guns now but Ranse ” will see him in jail!” At that point, Libery’s hate is more than principle – it is literal. In the scene where Valance trips Ranse while he was bringing Tom Donovan his steak, Ranse starts toward the armed Valance again (maybe to run his mouth or maybe to foolishly take a swing at the gunman) when Tom stops him. Ranse later tells Tom ” Nobody fights my battles!” Also Tom seems to take his sweet time at asking Hallie to marry as he has had no rival and he wants to have a proper home built before hand. Even nowadays, men and woman make the mistake of thinking they have extra time to reach their goal and are often sorry for it. Also, as already mentioned, Tom confesses to Ranse in order to take his guilt away and run for office – Tom claims “Cold blooded murder, but I can live with it!” Tom is obviously not the kind of man who kills people from the shadows on a regular basis. He is put in a position where he decides he will not let a good man he respects be killed by a Scumdog so he hides in the shadows with full conviction and no guilt and ‘Murders in cold blood’. The two versions of the shootout was intended to surprise the audience ! The word ‘rifle’ comes from the invention of rifling a firearm – it is what makes a bullet spin for greater accuracy. At this part of the 1800’s there were no rifled handguns so they were not nearly as accurate and the ‘rifle’ was really a shot gun. In the film’s story it is possible that Ransom’s shot did hit Valance but the story shows that Tom’s shot definitely hit Valance, IMO. And Tom does confess to give Ranse piece of mind – not to show off or emasculate him. It is unquestionable that Ranse would find the news relief because Ranse has the desire to avoid gunfighting thru his whole character make up. No part of him secretly was happy that he killed a man. When Ranse first believes he killed Valance Rance is overwhelmed and mortified that he had to kill. Also, thirty years after the event, when Tom dies, I’d say his bitterness waned quite a bit. He did not kill himself, he stopped carrying a gun. Still a painful memory but not as bitter. Thank you for this post! I watch the movie alot. saw it hours ago and probably will watch it again in a few minutes. I found you while searching to see if the film was based on a true story, which it is not.

    • Hi Brian, thank you for your input, and your even-handed manner. As it happens, I did in fact watch the movie in its entirety. I can understand the other viewpoint, in fact, I shared it for a long time. However, this new insight impressed me enough that I felt I had to explore it as well…mostly because I believed that it was important to acknowledge the possibility of other viewpoints. I realize my analysis is unpopular with many diehards, but I’ve never been afraid to put forth an unpopular idea, or be in the minority opinion.

  4. We have drastically different viewpoints on Tom. I don’t believe he was trying to hurt Ransom by revealing he was the true man who shot Liberty Valance. I believe he was trying to save him, yet again, just as he did before. Only this time he was trying to save his conscience instead of his life. Rance was having difficulty living with himself after taking a human life. Tom tried to give him peace. Tom is the films real hero. He took the sin of murder on to himself. Tom lost everything. That is what makes the final line of the film so devastating: “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.” In truth, the man who did was forgotten and forsaken. The one comfort comes in Hallie finally realizing it was truly Tom she was in love with.

    • I did not get the impression Hallie realized she really loved Tom at all. Clearly she and Rance took Tom’s word for it that he killed Liberty, but again without forensic proof, we only have Tom’s word that his was the kill shot, since both fired at the same time. Not only that, we are never told how many bullet holes Liberty had in him. And, I still maintain that the true brave heart was Rance’s because he faced Liberty publicly and alone.

      • Hi Irishgrl,

        I always appreciate other people’s views and opinions and I enjoyed reading yours. I don’t agree with yours in this case but it was an interesting read. Let me begin by saying I’m a huge John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart fan. So who played the characters has no bearing on my thoughts.

        First I don’t really understand the whole calling Tom a coward thing. He challenges Liberty multiple times and Liberty actually starts to draw on him quickly on a turnaround but stops when he realizes Tom is paying attention. Liberty is obviously scared of Tom and not vice versa. Sure Tom has Pompey on backup but in all likely Tom would go down in the restaurant fight unless he truly is fast enough to shoot down two of them before any of them can shoot once. They are all three facing Tom and would all likely shoot at him. I think it’s very obvious the reason Tom does not face Liberty in the street alone is because Liberty wouldn’t show up for such a match! Tom may be an overconfident egomaniac, but a coward he is not.

        The street fight. The possibility of two bullet holes seems highly unlikely . They would have noticed two bullet holes and said something. Would have taken the movie in a whole different direction. His buddies got to him on the street and are looking at him. There’s no way they miss two bullets not to mention the undertaker missing that. You don’t need an autopsy to see blood gushing out of bulletholes. As stated by many. With a rifle at such a short distance Tom does not miss. Left handed, injured, no shooting ability Ranse though is beyond highly unlikely to hit Liberty in the chest. liberty is actually standing at an angle where either of them could have shot him in the chest but Tom had a better chest target.

        I don’t believe Tom is ever going to tell anyone he shot Liberty. If he wanted to belittle Ranse he could of told any other time in front of everyone and made it belittling. He knows he has lost Hallie and accepts it though it obviously puts him in depression. At this point he wants her to be happy and he knows it’s not with him. He tells Ranse only when Ranse is about to leave the vote because he’s so ashamed of what he did. And if Tom doesn’t tell him he would have. After Tom tells him he is relieved. He walks back into the vote determined and even a bit of a smirk on his face to take care is business. So what did Tom steal him of? Tom gives him back his conscience and the belief that he didnt give in to fight the Western way and out of vengeance. Even though he surely tried to. If you truly analyze the characters and events I don’t see how one can come up with much to dispute any of this. I understand how people have their own opinions and see movies how they want to and that’s all fine. But just to say people have ulterior motives we don’t see or such is kind of a cop out you could say about any movie. All we have are we see and can deduce from what we see. I don’t see anything your talking about and 99% don’t. Sure some are just die hard meat heads but I’m sure plenty are not.

        Also the one thing I do think can be argued is whether she loved Tom or not. Did Ranse sweep her away with big city mysteriousness and the thought of him taking her to see all of the civilized world. Or did she genuinely love him more. I think there are two scenes key to think she at least reciprocated some feelings for Tom. 1. When he says he is leaving for a few weeks and walks out the door, she then opens the door behind him and watches him walk away for a good while. It’s hard to imagine her doing this unless she had deep feelings for him. 2. The cactus rose at the end. Maybe it was just friendly, but the look and tone when Ranse sees it and asks her about it makes us believe there’s definitely more to it. He’s not thrilled about it. Maybe she loved Tom. Maybe she loved Ranse. Maybe she loved both but Ranse could offer the life that she desires.

        Regardless of how you view it, it’s a great movie with great acting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: