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Histoire, légende, imaginaire : nouvelles études sur le western

Jean-Loup Bourget
Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris
Françoise Zamour

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Convention, Subversion and Innovation

Gilles Menegaldo

Texte intégral

  • 1 Quoted in J. McBride, Searching for John Ford, 2001, p. 624-625.

1 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the most important films in Ford’s long career even though its critical reception was rather mixed at the time of its release. Some New York Times reviewers found it “creaky”, lacking in sophistication or even, as a New Yorker journalist explained, “a parody of Mr. Ford’s best work”.1 However since then, the film has acquired the status of a classic. It represents the acme of the genre deconstruction as it shows the relationships between unlawful violence and democratic law, between the individual and the community, tradition and progress or modernity signified by statehood, the train motif and new modes of communication. According to Joseph McBride:

  • 2 Ibid., p. 623.

2With its profoundly skeptical reexamination of American history and mythology, a prophetic quality in anticipating the public’s loss of faith in government, and an acknowledgment of the growing brutality in American life and the Western genre, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance now clearly stands out as the most important American film of the 1960s.2

3The film is also a reflexion on the conventions of the western genre that it celebrates (at times with nostalgia), but also deflates or challenges in various ways. I shall focus on Ford’s play with genre conventions and the links between the film and his previous westerns, then on specific aspects, such as the use of space and places, of light and darkness, the duel sequence and its transgressive quality.

From text to film

4The film is adapted from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson published in 1949 in Cosmopolitan. The story starts with a description of the funeral that is attended by a number of people including Senator Stoddard and his wife. The film opens on the long shot of a train coming into the little town of Shinbone, focusing on the arrival of Stoddard and his wife Hallie, before the funeral. While the story provides some physical details on the dead man, only Stoddard sees him and the spectator has no access (the coffin functions as an internal off screen). The Senator remarks curtly that the boots, holster and guns have been removed from the body. A major change is the shift from third person narration to first person subjective narration. The story ends on the departure of the senator after the funeral while the film ends on his departure before the funeral. The last shot, the train receding in the distance through vast cultivated fields, emphasizes the circular structure of the film. Most names are changed apart from that of Valance. Bert Barricune becomes Tom Doniphon which rings better despite the loss of the alliterative pattern. Ransome Foster becomes Ransom Stoddard, etc. The word implies a form of resilience, even stubbornness while “ransom” suggests appropriation, but also a price to pay. The shift from the banal “twotrees” to the more significant “shinbone”, a specific human bone often associated with death, may evoke the casualties demanded by the civilizing process. Two characters are added: Pompey, servant and companion to Doniphon, who plays a relatively important part (allowing a number of allusions to the condition of Black people in the context in the early sixties and the fight for Civil Rights) and the newspaper editor, Dutton Peabody, emphasizing the role played by the press, associated with democratic values and ideals. The script adds political issues that are absent in the story, especially what is at stake in choosing statehood over territory, with the two election sequences.

Playing with Western conventions

5The credits constitute a signature for the western genre with the specific typography of the title, and the use of wooden signposts typical of the West on which the names of the actors and technicians are written. In the second part of this sequence, the background is made of wooden planks that might be used for a coffin, thus adumbrating death and mourning. The name of John Wayne is also a form of signature due to his longstanding collaboration with Ford. The first shot on the train’s arrival could be the beginning of a classic western but here it marks the end of an era, emphasizing the huge gap between past and present.

  • 3 Ibid., p. 626.

6Ford refuses conventional aspects of the classic western. Wide landscapes emblematic of his previous films play no part. He gives up the wilderness and the majestic panoramas of Monument valley and its rich colours that had become his artistic signature. According to McBride: “The almost total absence of landscape from Liberty Valance is itself a statement of Ford’s loss of faith in the ideal of the American frontier; the civilization of Shinbone seems a dead end”.3 There are very few external scenes, except for the three sequences taking place at Doniphon’s ranch outside of the city and close to the desert. Most of the film takes place in interior settings and specifically at night in restaurants (the Swedish one and the Mexican cantina), saloon, schoolroom, newspaper office, funeral parlour and also at a political convention. Sets are unrealistic studio sets as in The Ox-Bow Incident contrasting with location shooting, which emphasizes the artificiality of the filmic style as a way of highlighting the subjective and reconstructed nature of the story being told. The film is shot in black and white, contrary to what could be expected at that period. Black and white may be adequate to express abstract ideas, but Ford and his cinematographer W. H. Clothier derive the best dramatic effects from his expressionistic use of light, darkness and projected shadows.

  • 4 R. Wood, “Shall we gather at the river? The Late Films of John Ford”, in J. Caughie (ed.), Theories (...)

7Contrary to Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine, Ford dispenses with collective scenes expressing a sense of shared community values (at times also stressing conflicting values) like meals, official ceremonies, dance rituals etc. The sense of community is there in Liberty Valance, in the restaurant, the schoolroom scene, the political meeting in the saloon, but as Robin Wood points out it is “sketched rather than lovingly created”.4 There is no equivalent of the Sunday morning sequence in My Darling Clementine where Wyatt Earp and Clementine join in the dance on the dedicated floor of the still unbuilt church. Wood also objects to the one sided and grotesque treatment of some characters, in particular that of Link Appleyard, the cowardly, obese buffoon.

  • 5 J.-L. Leutrat, L’Homme qui tua Liberty Valance, 1995.

8However, Ford plays with a lot of western themes and motifs that he at times disrupts or subverts. He pairs and opposes, as has been pointed out by Jean-Louis Leutrat,5 a number of stereotypes: among them the opposition between the train and the stagecoach, representing two stages of western history, the image of the desert as wilderness (also a form of authenticity) and the image of the garden, both used by Hallie at the end of the film: “Look at it. It was once a wilderness, now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?” Interestingly, the Senator does not answer, only asking: “who did put the cactus rose on the coffin?” According to James Stewart, this silence is one of the keys to the meaning of the film.

  • 6 J. McBride, Searching for John Ford, p. 627.

9Ford contrasts various types of western characters: the tough cowboy, the archetypal hero of the West embodied by Tom as opposed to the intellectual from the East, the tenderfoot called semi ironically “pilgrim” by Tom or more cruelly “dude” by Valance. Both actors carry the weight or aura of their previous parts. Wayne as the archetypal tough, individualistic western hero and Stewart as an apparently fragile individual, which is typified by his hectic delivery of speech and his clumsy gestures. This opposition is misleading and Doniphon proves more fragile and lost without Hallie while Stoddard would probably have made the same career had he not married her. Wayne objected to his part, complaining as McBride recalls, that Ford “[h] ad Jimmy Stewart for the shit-kicker hero. He had Edmond O’Brien for the quick-witted humor. Add Lee Marvin for a flamboyant heavy, and, shit, I’ve got to walk through the goddam picture”.6

  • 7 T. Gallagher, John Ford. The Man and His Films, 1986, p. 487.

10Valance is another stereotype, the vicious brute with his two sidekicks, giggling Floyd (Strother Martin) and Reese, Lee van Cleef who will soon star in Leone’s westerns. According to Tag Gallagher, Valance, superbly interpreted by Lee Marvin (a sadistic killer in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) with props like the whip and some mannerisms such as his way of putting his hand on the table or his deep laugh), “is a singular example of an absolutely one-dimensional character: pure unadulterated violence and chaos without hint of redeeming feature”.7 Valance also stands for the image of the rugged individual setting up his own law and enjoying his full freedom, at the expense of other people’s wellbeing, even though he is the hired killer of the “big ranchers” opposing statehood and denounced by Peabody at the risk of his own life. The film foregrounds another couple of oppositions: the homesteaders and the cattle barons. The Marshall (here a municipal agent) is played by Andy Devine, one of Ford’s familiar actors, is a coward trying to avoid at all costs a confrontation with Valance (he sneaks out when he sees him or hides behind doorways), and taking advantage of free meals (crosses on the blackboard in the kitchen). The character is partly redeemed when he dares ask Valance to spare Stoddard. He is also one of the few characters (with Pompey) who feature both in the flashback and the frame narrative where he is more sedate, almost melancholy, at odds with the character he embodies in the flashback. Among many conventional sets and scenes, one may note the stagecoach attack, the shooting lesson and the gunfight.

11Ford subverts some of these stereotypes, using ironic inversion. Rather than a woman, it is Stoddard himself who acts as a “schoolmarm”. He is even more feminized when he performs as a dishwasher wearing an apron, a typical female attribute, and even as a waiter, serving the meals, which leads to Valance’s sarcastic remark: “Look here the new waitress”. In the same way, the shooting lesson is not a real one and is mainly used by Tom to get his revenge on Stoddard who he believes is trying to seduce Hallie away from him. As to the duel, it looks more like a form of prolonged humiliation (after the incident at the restaurant) and potential execution, ultimately avoided by means of Tom’s initiative (at Hallie’s request), sacrificing his own expectations. There is also a rich network of allusions and visual echoes to Ford’s westerns.

Intertextual links

12When Stoddard discovers the old stagecoach, pulls off the dust and deciphers the name of the company underneath: “Overland stage Lines,” the name of the first transcontinental transport line by coach in the USA, we are reminded of Stagecoach. The disused coach has a triple function. It refers to Stoddard’s personal history (and trauma) since the coach is the same as the one on which he first travelled Westward a long time ago, it refers to the history of the West, standing in opposition with the train which brought Stoddard and whose advent led to the end of the frontier, lastly it refers to the history of cinema and to Ford’s career as a maker of westerns. The coach introduces one of the stereotypical scenes of the western, the attack of the stagecoach, here by bandits, elsewhere by Indians.

13Liberty Valance also takes up Fordian protagonists from previous westerns. Wayne, 25 years after Stagecoach, is both sublimated as a sacrificial figure, and degraded. He does not respect the codes of the West and he disappears from the screen, having lost everything, unable to adapt to new circumstances. He is also, far away from the legend, forgotten (no one remembers him, not even the present editor of the Shinbone Star). The former editor, Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien, a Shakespearian actor for Orson Welles’ Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre) partly takes up the character of the drunken doctor, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) in Stagecoach. They share the same vice (alcohol), the same culture (Peabody quotes Hamlet and Henry V, Doc Boone, other classics) and ultimately the same courage and authenticity. Peabody also resembles Thorndyke (Alan Mowbray), the drunken Shakespearian actor delivering Hamlet’s soliloquy in My Darling Clementine. They both enjoy language and play on words, but Peabody delivers a serious political discourse on the necessity of statehood, sometimes looking directly at the camera and the spectator.

14In Liberty Valance, Andy Devine plays the kind of character that he used to play in Stagecoach, that of the cowardly and slightly grotesque yet endearing fellow, each time married to a Mexican woman and having many children. John Carradine, the professional gambler, Southern gentleman and Ladies’ man (an expression used by Tom to laugh at Stoddard when he sees him taking Hallie’s arm), finds a memorable part with his impersonation of Cassius Starbuckle, a caricatured, shrewd and eloquent politician who stands for the ranchers and opposes Peabody at the political meeting in Capitol city, also accusing Stoddard of murdering an “honest citizen” and “bearing the mark of Cain.” Lastly, Woody Strode playing Pompey in a dignified rather than submissive way, had a far more important part in Sergeant Rutledge. The whip used by Valance recalls the way in which the old man Clanton (Walter Brennan) used it against his own sons in My Darling Clementine. The cards with which Liberty wins his game, composed of an ace and a black eight are also similar to those played by Luke Plummer at the end of Stagecoach, before his fatal fight with Ringo kid. The “Deadman’s hand” functions as a sign of death. Wild Bill Hickock was killed in Deadwood in 1876, with that hand. The last sequence of Stagecoach takes place at night in Lordsburg in an atmosphere similar to that of the nocturnal scenes of Liberty Valance. Lastly the question of the relation between fact and legend is present as well at the end of Fort Apache indirectly which stages the story of Custer. At the end of the film, after Colonel Thursday’s disastrous defeat and heroic death, York is visited by journalists but hides the truth (his blindness and blunders) to them. He thus has to bear the responsibility of the act and carry out his task. Liberty Valance reverses that configuration, long after the fact, not just afterward. The fake hero does testify, deflating his own legend. He has first to claim publicly his use of violence despite his disagreement and then he must secretly assume the falsehood on which he has built his own career.

  • 8 W. Darby, “Musical Links in Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty V (...)

15The musical echoes, an issue that has been dealt with by William Darby, are also central.8 Thus, the nostalgic Ann Rutledge melody from Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) is quoted five times. While in the previous film, the tune was associated with Lincoln’s eternal love and mourning of the beloved woman, in the later film, it is linked with Hallie’s ambivalent feelings for the two men, Tom she was once in love with and the newcomer Ransom. We first hear the tune when Hallie goes with Link to Tom’s former house in order to see the cactus blossoms. While they look at the ruined house, the music starts with the solo violin, suggesting a sense of loss and melancholy. Hallie holds the horses but keeps close to the hatbox where she will later enclose the cactus rose associated with her former love. The theme reappears at the very end of the film when she leaves the flower on Tom’s coffin. Other occurrences concern the evolution of her feelings towards Stoddard she is hardly aware of at first. The tune is heard when Hallie asks Ransom if he can really teach her to read, and again when as they look at Tom’s gift of a cactus rose, Stoddard asks her if she has ever seen a real rose (denying implicitly that the cactus blossom is a true rose). It sanctions Hallie’s assertion of her love after the duel, briefly interrupted by the martial tune associated with Tom’s entrance, witnessing the embrace. We start from a close two-shot of the couple, Hallie in tears kissing Stoddard’s forehead. The sound from a door opening draws Hallie’s look off screen. The camera cuts to a long shot of Tom, framed in the doorway. In full shot, he moves forward, expresses his regrets, realizing he has lost Hallie, and leaves on the spot. The consistency of the association of the Ann Rutledge tune with Hallie emphasizes her role and the fact that she is often a focalizer of events, which implies a form of subjectivity. Stoddard is the narrator, but we also experience the events through the emotional reactions of Hallie, her gestures, her facial expressions, and her looks conveying a whole range of emotions: compassion anger, fear, shame, regret, loss, longing and love.

The treatment of space

  • 9 R. Wood, “Shall we gather at the river? The Late Films of John Ford”, p. 85

16The modern Shinbone is quite different from the old one as is pointed out by Hallie in her dialogue with Link: “Place has sure changed, churches, highschool, shops.” However rather than visiting the town as suggested by her husband, Hallie prefers to ride out to the desert where “the cactus rose may be in blossom” as she wonders nostalgically. Link asserts the perennial character of wild untamed nature: “the desert is still there.” While they pass through the city, we notice the telephone poles, the white houses, but we can’t help being struck by the orderliness but also the relative emptiness of the streets and general coldness, almost the dehumanized mood. As Robin Wood states: “All vitality has drained away, leaving only the shallow energy of the news-hounds, and a weary, elegiac feeling of loss.”9

  • 10 B. Langford, “Revisiting the Revisionist Western”, 2003.

17Contrary to this, the past Shinbone, mostly seen at night is a lively place, full of people, noises and music, where two cultures coexist pacifically. We can see a number of Mexicans and a cantina close to the saloon as well as hear American and Mexican music. After Valance’s death, Mexican women express their joy by dancing in the streets. A form of solidarity exists we don’t find in the modern version of Shinbone. This energy is expressed by Ford’s sweeping rear tracking shot in the Saturday night saloon sequence, starting from the band playing a song that anticipates the event: “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town To-night” and gliding along the bar, showing all the customers gathered around, a noisy, crowded, very lively place. The drunken man forcefully booted out of the bar, under the eyes of approving “respectable women,” immediately gets back in as if propelled mechanically. This discrepancy between the two visions of the town is commented on by Barry Langford: “The jarring stylistic dissonance between the concrete materiality of present-tense Shinbone and the make-believe environment of memory undermines from the outset Stoddard’s stated intention to set the historical record straight” and he adds: “This sense of creeping unreality is compounded, as has been frequently noted, by the absence of any serious effort to make either Stewart or Wayne look their supposedly decades-younger age in the flashback sequences.”10 The contrast in lighting may also be noted. The frame story takes place in the daytime and is brightly, evenly lit while most of the flashback emphasises darkness and the expressionistic and symbolic use of shadows.

  • 11 See J.-L. Leutrat, L’Homme qui tua Liberty Valance, p. 66-67.

18Lastly, most places are de-doubled,11 made of a main public space and of a secondary, more private or hidden space, but essential for the unrolling of action. The funeral parlour including the room where Stoddard speaks to the press people is paired with the backroom where Hallie, Pompey and Link sit and pray before the coffin. The restaurant links the main room where customers are served and which is used as a stage for the confrontation between Doniphon and Valance, and the kitchen, a private place where Stoddard is first looked after by Hallie and where their love relationship develops, culminating in their embrace after the shoot-out while she again tends to his wounded arm. The premises of the Shinbone Star where Peabody’s savage beating by Valance occurs, is coupled with the adjacent room used by Stoddard as a school-room, where the teaching lesson takes place. Doniphon’s house is also divided: the older part where he lives with Pompey and the newer part under construction that should be devoted to Hallie and himself when they get married. Another pairing is significant, again contrasting the open and the hidden. The main street where the face-off duel is set and the dark alley from which Doniphon emerges, unseen, to shoot at Valance. Lastly the building in Capitol City holds a large election room where the meeting is held, confronting the two parties, the ranchers favourable to keeping up the open range and hostile to statehood and the homesteaders defended by Peabody, and the office where Doniphon reveals the truth about the killing, leading Stoddard to accept his nomination. Thus there is a form of correspondence between the embedding of narratives, questioning the very conditions of the narration and the embedding of spaces that offers a mise en abyme of the filmic set-up.

Symmetries, echoes and inversions

19Apart from the duplication of the duel scene, we may note the connection between some other scenes. The two election scenes are crucial for the political discourse of the film. Both stage the part played by Doniphon, overt in the first, more secretive in the second. The first scene aims at sending two delegates to the territorial convention. The second concerns the election of a delegate at the Washington Congress. Both scenes share some features: the use of banners and posters bearing political slogans, an atmosphere of excitement, the presence of antagonistic groups. But they are also quite different and clearly mark an evolution in the establishment of the democratic process. The first takes place in a saloon, the second in a large hall. The first has a limited scope and concerns only the inhabitants of Shinbone. The scale changes with the scene at Capitol City, more theatrical and also better organized. In the saloon, the crowd has to be controlled and this succeeds thanks to Tom’s authority. The session in Capitol City is more formally organized and controlled by the chairman who is situated on a stage, in a dominant position, even if he is sometimes at pains to re-establish order. The two sides are neatly separated by a central alley, contrary to the relative chaos in Shinbone. The democratic rules are clearer. A major difference is that in the first scene, potential physical violence is used by Valance who tries to impose his candidacy despite the fact that he should not even vote for, as he says, “I live where I hang my hat.” His whip becomes an object of intimidation and his strategy fails only because of Doniphon, with the help of Pompey as a cover.

  • 12 F. Ferreira, livret Lycéens au cinéma, 2015. (...)

20In Capitol City, language is a weapon as when used in a manipulative way by Major Starbuckle. Here again, while Stoddard is giving up, Doniphon is instrumental in allowing his election. Peabody’s discourse is also a seminal moment. While he was reluctant to even accept his nomination in the saloon scene, protesting loudly and comically, here he takes his mission at heart, describing the gradual civilizing process. His rhetoric is based upon the opposition between two visions of the conquest: the past embodied by the cattle barons and the future materialized by the farmers and their families who will develop the country. The second approach is of course associated with the idea of a necessary progress. The scene of the shooting lesson should also be compared to the duel sequence, one being a form of rehearsal of the other as Doniphon states warningly, after having humiliated Stoddard by shooting on a paint box which explodes and splashes painting on Ransom’s costume and hair: “I hate tricks but that’s what you are up to with Valance. He is almost as fast as I am.” Tom obviously wants to get revenge on Stoddard for seducing Hallie just as Liberty is seeking revenge for his defeat in the election. After beating Peabody and shattering his office, he intends to get rid of Stoddard while he never considers Tom as a true adversary (Doniphon never really challenges him on behalf the community). The first version of the duel scene illustrates this as Valance jeers at Ransom, calling him “gunslinger” (as Doniphon had) and “dishwasher” and shooting in a jug which splashes water on him, then more seriously wounding his right arm. The shots are very similar, so are the reactions of Tom and Liberty, laughing out at the humiliated man. Stoddard’s reaction is in a way similar too as he punches Doniphon hard, making him fall down and shoots at Valance, casing him to fall dead this time. As Francisco Ferreira points out in his analysis of the film for Lycéens au cinéma: “Le duel reconfigure la leçon de tir en assimilant les deux rivaux de Stoddard, la cause politique et la cause amoureuse se confondant ainsi, tandis que les motivations et le portrait de Doniphon s’obscurcissent.”12 These two scenes must also be connected to the first confrontation at the restaurant where the conflict between Stoddard and Valance starts again with another humiliating gesture as Tom intrudes upon the scene, preventing an unbalanced fight. In both scenes, Pompey is instrumental in controlling the situation since he holds the shotgun as he will in the second version of the duel scene. There are many repetitive patterns with variations like this: for instance, it is interesting to compare as Leutrat does the three sequences taking place at Doniphon’s house, expressing various moods: loss and melancholy, even sadness, anger and revenge still combined with the hope of happiness as the house is being built (we see workers on the roof), lastly, despair and self-destruction. Pompey plays a capital part, saving his master and carrying him in the cart. There are echoes of other scenes: Pompey carrying Stoddard’s body from the cart into the Ericson’s restaurant, but also Valance’s corpse being carried away on a cart off-screen.


21The flashback structure is relatively unusual in westerns even though there are other examples, for instance Raoul Walsh’s Pursued. This structure was more typical of film noir at the time. The subjectivity of the account—a kind of confessional narrative but with no use of voice over—also raises the question of the reliability of the narrator since we have no other point of view on the events. The length of the retrospection is extreme, over 100 minutes of the whole film, with no return to the time of narration, except at the very end. More original of course as has been pointed out is the use of the flashback within a flashback, revealing an unexpected truth that changes the orientation and meaning of the story.

22Valance’s death is shown twice—first as it appeared to Stoddard and the people of Shinbone at the time, and then how it really happened, as explained to Ransom by Tom. The first time it is presented as a conventional (if unbalanced) confrontation, the second time as a concealed, premeditated killing more like that of Pat Wheeler in Rio Bravo, shot in the back. The difference is represented spatially. In the first version where Ransom appears to kill Valance, a narrow space of action is established. This is achieved by staging the gunfight on the veranda of Shinbone’s General Store, rather than in the street itself. The sequence is made of 32 shots. The first part of the fight consists of a repeated and very classical shot/reverse shot pattern that builds up tension, alternating long and medium shots along a clear line on one side of the street. The almost farcical, grotesque confrontation departs from the seriousness expected and the scene may appear as limited in scope and artificial. The second shorter part, the killing of Valance, is quite unexpected. The fact that he falls under the election poster adumbrates Stoddard’s future career, also suggesting the victory of democratic values, with an obvious irony. Valance has been killed with a gun, not by law books. He will not be sent to jail as Stoddard wished.

23In the second version, we see the gunfight from the other side of the street, which had previously been excluded from our view. This scene duplicates the previous one, but shifts the point of view, adding another spatial dimension. From an alleyway, Tom catches a rifle thrown to him by Pompey, aims it at Valance and shoots him dead. The authenticity of this version is emphasised by its foregrounding of a three-dimensional space. We see the two men on the veranda sideways, at the back of a deep focus shot across the street. The gunfight is situated in a larger spatial context. This second version is composed of two close shots of Doniphon and three long shots with deep focus, showing the two fighting men in the background across the street and Tom and Pompey in the foreground. Short camera movements from left to right and right to left follow Pompey’s gesture throwing the gun at Doniphon and getting it back. Clearly Stoddard, by choosing to fight has transgressed his refusal of violence expressed in the restaurant scene (because of Peabody’s beating and because he does not wish to appear as a coward in the eyes of Hallie. However he is also true to his words when he claimed that “no one fought [his] battles,” but reality denies him as his personal battle is actually fought by someone else.

  • 13 Wayne did not like ambiguity, which Ford wanted to build up with his character. As the actor stated (...)

24Doniphon’s transgression goes however much further as he transgresses one of the most fundamental codes of the western, the idea that the gunfight should take place in the open, in front of public eyes and with fairness (values which Valance also denies). Shot down by an outsider, Valance dies unaware of the cause of his death. The action takes place from an invisible, private, dark place, without the knowledge of the people around (the street is deserted). The idea of a dark deed is conveyed by the very use of the black colour (and interplay between light and darkness) linked with Tom and associated with concealment and secrecy (in contrast with the open public figure of the cowboy). The scene is introduced by a dissolve, which blends with the smoke from Tom’s cigarette to form an obscuring cloud the scene emerges from. At first, we see nothing. The view of the street is revealed when black-clad Tom steps out of the extreme foreground. His body functions formally as a black screen before he moves forward, revealing the scene to us, almost as if opening a curtain on a stage. This shift, inverted, from light to darkness is repeated after the shooting, when Tom and Pompey walk back into the alley, darkening the image again. Ironically Tom embodies darkness13 at the very moment he reveals the truth. The sequence plays with the visible and the invisible, concealment and disclosure. Tom is revealing the part he played in the dark. He makes himself and his action visible. At the same time, the revelation consists of secrecy and a transgression of rules, even if it is done for the welfare of the community at large and in order to save Stoddard with whom, Tom senses, Hallie has fallen in love. The consequences of this action are important, but the subsequent revelation of the deed has an even deeper impact on the events and the characters. First this act saves Stoddard as Hallie wished and rids the community of a dangerous criminal. Second, it paves the way for Stoddard’s conquest of Hallie. Compelled to secrecy, Tom loses her as well as his self-respect and almost his life. However he does care enough for democracy to make the trip to Capitol City and convince Ransom, by means of his revelation, to accept his nomination. Conversely, for Ransom, this revelation frees him from his guilt, but instead of revealing the truth openly as could be expected, he keeps the truth for himself, asserting his image of the Man who killed Liberty Valance, which does not prevent his nomination even if the vote remains off screen. The loud applause that accompanies his entrance back into the room is already a telling sign of the result. However, what is also revealed is that his successful political career was based on a lie, that democracy is consequently based on a fraud.

  • 14 R. B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980, 1985, p. 233.

25The flashback within the flashback contradicts the heroic legend and its mythologized version of events (dealt with in a subdued way as no one comes to Stoddard to congratulate him apart from Hallie), but it also subverts the classic form of the gunshot duel and its formal expression, the shot reverse shot, a cinematic trope expressing open conflict, according to set rules: face off, light (Valance asks Stoddard to come forward into the light), direct confrontation, no external intrusion. Tom transgresses these codes and Ford expresses that narrative paralipsis in cinematic and symbolic terms, also disclosing the falsity of the shot reverse shot which does not allow an external point of view. Robert Ray states: “Liberty Valance’s crucial revelation of Tom’s role in Valance’s death discredited the most basic figure in Classic Hollywood’s formal paradigm—the shot reverse shot […] Doniphon’s confession undermined the invisible style itself, exposing the guarantee on which its fundamental figure rested as mere cinematic convention.”14


1 Quoted in J. McBride, Searching for John Ford, 2001, p. 624-625.

2 Ibid., p. 623.

3 Ibid., p. 626.

4 R. Wood, “Shall we gather at the river? The Late Films of John Ford”, in J. Caughie (ed.), Theories of Authorship, 1981, p. 84.

5 J.-L. Leutrat, L’Homme qui tua Liberty Valance, 1995.

6 J. McBride, Searching for John Ford, p. 627.

7 T. Gallagher, John Ford. The Man and His Films, 1986, p. 487.

8 W. Darby, “Musical Links in Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, 1991.

9 R. Wood, “Shall we gather at the river? The Late Films of John Ford”, p. 85

10 B. Langford, “Revisiting the Revisionist Western”, 2003.

11 See J.-L. Leutrat, L’Homme qui tua Liberty Valance, p. 66-67.

12 F. Ferreira, livret Lycéens au cinéma, 2015.

13 Wayne did not like ambiguity, which Ford wanted to build up with his character. As the actor stated: “Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don’t like ambiguity. I don’t trust ambiguity.” Quoted in J. McBride, Searching for John Ford, p. 630.

14 R. B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980, 1985, p. 233.


Professeur émérite de littérature et cinéma à l’Université de Poitiers, fondateur et ancien directeur du département Arts du spectacle. Il est également auteur de Dracula, la noirceur et la grâce (avec Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris, Atlande, 2006) et de nombreux articles sur la littérature fantastique et de science-fiction anglo-saxonne et le cinéma hollywoodien. Éditeur ou coéditeur de trente ouvrages collectifs, ses dernières parutions sont : avec J.-M. Lecomte, King Vidor, Odyssée des inconnus (Corlet, 2014) ; avec L. Guillaud, Le Western et les mythes de l’Ouest (PUR, 2015) ; avec H. Machinal et J.-P. Naugrette, Sherlock Holmes, un limier pour le xxie siècle (PUR, 2016) ; avec C. Gelly, Lovecraft au prisme de l’image (Le Visage Vert, 2017) ; et Tim Burton. A Cinema of Transformations (PULM, 2018).

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