The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Hallie’s Choice

John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is arguably one of the great westerns of its era. In some ways it represents the end of the John Wayne era of Westerns before the arrival of Clint Eastwood. What interests me in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is not John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart or the animalistic intensity of Lee Marvin, it is Hallie’s (Vera Miles) choice that I always felt was at the core of the film. They appeared to be asking what is it that makes a woman choose one man over another? What are the qualities that make a certain type of man more attractive? Is it his money, social status or job, or is it something primal that is beyond words? Why Hallie chose Ransom Stoddard over Tom Doniphan and whether she could have chosen better will be investigated through the works of Durkheim, Weber, Sartre, Freud and Nietzsche. If Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) offers idealism, comfort and justice, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) violent freedom and Tom Doniphan (John Wayne) just does what he has to do. Could Hallie (Vera Miles) have chosen better?

Desire and Discontent

At the opening of the film Ransom and Hallie had obviously been together for some years. The desire and passion appeared to have faded some time ago. Via flashback it can be seen that Hallie wanted a better life. She got this. She wanted to read. She was taught to read. She wanted real flowers. She got these as well. This was not quite enough. By the time we see her later in life she is longing for a simpler life.

Hallie was discontented after receiving what she claimed she wanted or at least what Ransom thought she wanted. Perhaps she did not want these materials. On the other hand maybe she lost her values as a trade off.  Such values include friendships and familial relationships to her employers and her connection to the townsfolk who depended on her as a waitress and cook. Ransom gave her these opportunities.

Ransom did not ask for anything in return. He was not looking for a wife and had no intent in possessing her as Tom Doniphan did. He could have easily lived his life in much the same manner with or without her.  Tom Doniphan on the other hand fell apart once he gave up the girl. He had a drunken tantrum and set fire to his house. This is why Ransom was the more desirable of the two. He was not dependent upon her. He did not profess his intent to marry a girl who was not even his girlfriend and did not give her flowers and trinkets like a schoolboy with a crush. Tom on the other hand gave her a cactus flower for no apparent reason other than obviously trying to win her over. This explains why she preferred Ransom but whether she could have chosen better is another matter. The reasons why people make choices or desire one person over another are not always for reasons in their best interest.

Sartre claims that ‘desire’ is the attempted incarnation of the consciousness of the other (Detmer, 2008, p. 108). Once this desire is met in the first kiss, in coitus or in the absolute certainty that you can have this person then desire is dead. Therefore by Sartre’s interpretation ‘pleasure kills desire’ (Detmer, 2008, pp. 96-98). Hallie could not be possessed and Tom could not take her freedom by steering her away from an education, without failure.

Tom’s desire for Hallie was insatiable and “insatiability is a sign of morbidity… Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture” (Durkheim, 1897, p. 208). Tom’s intentions were obvious and his attitude was too eager. This negated Hallie’s desire for Tom. Ransom on the other hand was a harder fish to catch. Not that Ransom was playing hard to get by normal standards but juxtaposed with Tom, Ransom was the greater challenge for Hallie. Her awareness of Tom’s feelings made Ransom more interesting by contrast. Even if one was to assume that Hallie was interested in Tom as the audience is supposed to accept, Tom did not make his move. He let the moment pass him by and opportunity has a tendency to step out of the way to let a man pass it by.

Take Ransom out of Shinbone and away from the excitement of Liberty Valance and there is a good chance that he was a very dull man. Once she married Ransom there is a high probability that she would eventually lose interest. This was evident in their later life scenes that bookended the film.

The Death of Liberty

When Tom shot Liberty Valance he not only killed Liberty Valance but he killed his own liberty in the process.  Tom was the counterpoint to Liberty in almost every respect. Eventually the knight has no more enemies. At the point where all enemies are defeated the knight has no purpose. This lack of purpose resulted in his self-destructive behavior just as the superego is out of balance without the id. Then the question needs to be asked; “if Tom were so heroic and magnanimous, why would Hallie choose Ransom?” This is because Ransom was noble but he could potentially move in another direction[1]. He wants to fight his own battles and he does. But not in the way that Tom fights. Ransom uses a pen and a book. Ransom was the symbol of modernity. He was the modern man and the old ways of law at the end of a gun were coming to an end. He was the grey area between Tom and Liberty. Therefore Tom’s time was coming to an end regardless.

The Abdication

It could be argued that Tom was a tragic Abraham-figure in that he gave Hallie up. Or so it seemed. This may have been an act of love or perhaps Tom finally saw the reality of the situation. Despite what Tom may have thought, giving up Hallie was not his decision. He never had her to begin with and he was certainly no relation. This assumption was Tom’s greatest flaw. Although it was alluded to that Tom and Hallie would marry, Hallie did not show a romantic interest in Tom. There were no signifiers of romantic interest and no physical contact on her part such as touching his arm or laughing at his jokes. She was certainly not impressed when he told her she’s pretty. The only times when she did communicate with Tom was when she wanted a favor. Such as needing him to save Ransom.

There was no visible connection between Hallie and the living Tom. This did not seem to matter to Tom. It also did not occur to Tom that he could not lose something he never had. Tom’s old-fashioned ideals towards women and his insecurity towards himself held him back.  By that logic Tom did not give Hallie up, he gave up his pursuit of Hallie.

To give something away as Tom claimed to be doing with Hallie and giving up on something are two very different processes. If Tom had been the master, his loss would have been his own choosing in giving up Hallie. People don’t usually kill themselves or self-destruct over things they consciously choose. If Tom actually lost hope and therefore gave up pursuit, then he had the most common motivation for self-destruction/suicide – ‘reaction by spitting the dummy against not getting one’s own way’.

If Tom was truly magnanimous and had given Hallie away as he claimed then he would not have self-destructed. The real tragedy of Tom is that he lost the girl to a tenderfoot, a pilgrim, the only man without a gun. This was a blow to his masculine and his egoist sensibilities.

The Grey

Shinbone was black and white, and Ransom remained in the grey in his acceptance of the falsity of his life and in the doubt he had in Hallie’s love for him. It is the legend that sells papers and truth becomes an irrelevancy in the modern world. By accepting this Ransom becomes disenchanted himself and liberty in Ransom dies when the choice between good and evil is removed. Tom and Liberty were like the devil and angel on his shoulder in a battle for his soul. This is perhaps why he was called Ransom. His dignity and self worth were being held to ransom.

The town of Shinbone was not accustomed to the ways of the modern world. Ransom had the best intent for the community by not carrying a gun and paving the way for the modern world. Ransom was in a sense the mediator. In Freudian terms Ransom could be considered the ego[2]. He fits right in between Liberty’s id[3] and Tom’s superego[4]. Ransom as the ego works in that he is the connection to the world outside of Shinbone. Tom on the other hand just did what he thought was right. He was a man who enjoyed his reputation as the white knight. He had to make the moral choices. Up until the death of Liberty Tom behaved in a socially acceptable manner.

Tom was the one who stood between Liberty and Ransom during Liberty’s moments of aggression. Liberty on the other hand was driven by instinct and self-gratification. Therefore they could not exist independently of each other. Tom faded away into obscurity before dying with no children to carry on his bloodline. Ransom gets the girl and the good job with the prestige but there was no family.  Ransom and Hallie did not have children and thus never moved into a totality in their love. Perhaps the sterility of the story implies the sterility of their relationship. Ransom is also dead in this regard in that his genes will not be carried forward.

The Bells

Liberty Valance of course gets shot. This death was the symbolic death of the community. Liberty had the freedom that Tom and the townsfolk only desired. After removing Liberty from their lives they lost a part of themselves. The bells stopped ringing and the townsfolk were not dancing any longer. The party was over in shinbone. They were no longer in fear and without this fear there was less to value. There was lawlessness in Liberty Valances time. There was anomie[5]. This anomie appeared to be a bad thing but once civil laws were in place freedom was subjugated. Thus there was the fear of Liberty Valance that was then replaced by Social Justice. Simplified in that the gun was traded for a law book. In the new world the pen is mightier than the sword. This was also symbolized by Tom apparently not using his gun in his remaining years and Ransom insisting that Tom be buried with his gun belt and boots.

The Family

The absence of family does not just go for Ransom and Hallie but for the town in general this was the decomposition of community. In fact, family as we know it and family values to a lesser extent were absent from Shinbone. The family structure and the respect developed from parental guidance that is transcended to authority were absent. In these cases social values remain undeveloped (Durkheim, 1897, p. 159). In the later years It was almost as if Shinbone was sterile or impotent. ‘Without the duration of families no society can be stable’ (Durkheim, 1897, p. 160). Therefore without family the community dies. Social norms and interactions break down leading into Durkheim’s concept of anomie.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote in response to what women want. “They want more people to talk to. They want a large extended family to gossip to at family barbecues while their men tell silly jokes to one another”(Vonnegut, 2007). When there is no one else in the life of a married couple they eventually get bored with one another. Imagine knowing every little detail about the person you will spend the rest of your life with. Boredom creeps in and ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. This is where Hallie and Ransom were by the later stages of their life. Hallie was longing to go back to the community. For perhaps the first time in years, Hallie appeared joyful  when Ransom suggested moving back to Shinbone. The Shinbone that once was, is no more.

The Lie

Hallie would have had a fair idea that Ransom was not the man who shot Liberty Valance. Not unlike the journalists, she probably preferred the fantasy that is easier to live with. One form of self-deception is to embrace opinions of others in avoiding your own opinions (Audi, 2006, p. 70).  The community had a high opinion of Ransom and he went along with it, until he blew out the match.

The character that did not betray his ideals, and was authentic in and of himself, was Liberty Valance. Liberty was the only free man. Therefore, why would Hallie not choose Liberty if he could offer freedom? Perhaps Ransom was somewhat unavailable, yet Liberty was completely unavailable. Hallie would have been smart enough to see Liberty was psychotic.

Liberty was truthful to himself and there was no internalised deception. Liberty will act in his own vested interest. There is truth in this. Lenny Bruce once stated, “the truth is, what is; and what should be is a fantasy. A terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago”. The lie was everywhere but in Liberty. Even Tom betrayed his beliefs by killing a man, Ransom betrayed himself by accepting the lie and the journalists refused to let truth get in the way of a good story. Liberty would only kill Ransom in self-defense, by this reasoning it was unlikely that Liberty would have killed Ransom in cold blood. By Liberty dying Ransom still loses to Liberty in that the Ransom that once was is no more. The old Ransom disappeared when he accepted the lie.

The Coffin

This brings us back to Hallie. If Hallie had no interest in Tom, why did she put the cactus flowers on his coffin? Perhaps this was out of guilt or a platonic love. In the closing scene when Ransom asked who put the cactus flower on the coffin Hallie replied, “I did”. In this statement Hallie was protesting against the life Ransom gave her and finally become her own person in her own right in a modern world.

Hallie may have asked herself, “what if I chose the wrong man?” or “did I make a mistake?” The reality was, for better or worse Hallie was with Ransom. If Hallie and Tom attended Ransom’s funeral there is a chance she would have behaved in a similar way. This does not lead to the conclusion that she had romantic interest or that Tom was a viable option.

It could be argued that Hallie’s interests were irrelevant in the old west. Women did not have equal rights in the old world symbolized by Tom and Liberty. If this is a valid argument then “choice” in and of itself becomes a moot point. Perhaps Hallie did not get a choice. After all it was Tom that allegedly gave her away to Ransom after revealing he killed Liberty. If women had no rights, Tom giving her away like a piece of property left her with no choice regardless of the man she wanted. Taking this into account she could not have chosen better because there was no choice for her to make other than not choosing Ransom.

By Tom telling Ransom he could have her was telling Ransom that he could never get her on his own. This relates to the earlier scene where Ransom picked up the steak and demanded, no one fights his battles for him.

Tom was fighting the battle for Ransom in giving Hallie away. Therefore Ransom did not earn her. Tom ends up giving up all livelihoods. Even in death Liberty Valance triumphs.

The modern world as represented by Ransom, women do have choice. Therefore assuming that she did have choices twenty years later and reflect upon the life choices she may have made if given the choice to make choices.

Hallie was given a new choice at the end of the film in the prospect of moving back to Shinbone. Hallie chose her old life in Shinbone and put the cactus flower on the coffin. Perhaps she would have chosen Tom if given the choice. On the other hand, perhaps it was safer for Hallie that Tom made the choice for her. This is not to say that Hallie would not have made the choice to go with Ransom, but once Tom gave up there was no need for her to worry or feel guilty. When Tom is gone Hallie has no protector and now has freedom to choose, but is condemned to be free with Ransom.

The Weight

Shinbone needed Liberty. Ransom and Tom both needed an enemy. This ties in with Nietzsche’s master morality. The Nietzsche master is separate from the herd by the ability to decide for themselves a course of direction in their lives. This is what Ransom and Tom were able to do with Liberty Valance in their lives.  ‘The master will be able to move on from the misdeeds of his enemies’ (Nietzsche, 173, p. 451), Ransom was able to do this by picking up the steak. To be nonchalant in this manner is a sign of strength and richness.

Without the enemy (in this case Liberty Valance) the master has nothing to challenge or be challenged by. A good example was Tom’s outburst and his descent into obscurity and eventual death after losing his enemy.  Ransom without Liberty on the other hand lives his life as a falsehood. He had his job handed to him based on something he had not done and he had a woman that he believed he did not earn.

The Absence of Fear

Everyone has a calling. They have a job. Even the town sheriff had the job of sheriff but he also had the purpose to make Ransom look smarter, to make Liberty Valance look cool and to make Tom look brave. Labor has come to be seen as an end in itself. This does not change, even for the wealthy. It was this asceticism that neutered the spontaneous nature of life in Shinbone. This was and still is ‘The fate of the times’ to live in a society characterized by ‘mechanized petrification’ (Giddens, 1971, p. 216). Therefore with Liberty gone there was no known or comprehendible fear, or an emotional threat. Predictability began seeping through the cracks. As stated above, familiarity breeds contempt. The bells no longer ring and the honeymoon was over.

Hallie’s Choice

Hallie may have been happier if she spent her life in Shinbone never knowing what was outside the walls. If she had never learnt to read or write and had never met Ransom then she most likely would have either married Tom or gotten old waiting for him to make his move.  In this respect there was not really a choice there.  It was Ransom or wait for Tom to grow up.  Based on Tom’s behaviour in the final act it was unlikely that he would be able to maintain an adult relationship. However the idealistic lawyer that Hallie first met was a different Ransom to the political Ransom that she married.

The Ransom of Shinbone existed within the trinity of Tom and Liberty. Remove Liberty and remove Tom and there is not a lot there to hold Hallie’s interest. Therefore she could have chosen better if given the choice. She may have had children with Tom but it is still unlikely that she would have chosen Tom.  This was due to the fact that Tom was too eager to please. Tom may have made a more loving husband and provider.  On the other hand Tom’s world was coming to an end. Men like Tom and Liberty were becoming extinct. Ransom was the future therefore Ransom was the best choice that she could have made.

Regardless of whom Hallie chose she would have ended up marrying one and forever wondering “What if?” about the other.

Bibliography

Audi, R. (2006). The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. New York, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Detmer, D. (2008). Sartre Explained: From Bad Faith to Authenticity. USA: Carus Publishing Company.

Durkheim, E. (1897). Suicide. London: Routledge.

Giddens, A. (1971). Capitalism and Modern Social Theory; An analysis of the writing of Durkheim, Marx $ Weber. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Haase, U. (2008). Starting with Nietzsche. Bungay, Suffolk, Great Britain: Continuum.

Nietzsche, F. (173). Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil. (R. Hollingdale, Trans.) Harmmondswaorth: Penguin.

Vonnegut, K. (2007). A Man Without A Country. Random House Publishing.


[1] He was a lawyer after all.

[2] The ego is based on the reality principle.  The ego understands that other people have needs and desires. Sometimes being impulsive or selfish can cause harm in the long run.  The ego’s job is to meet the needs of the id, while taking into consideration the reality of the situation.

[3] Freud believed that the id is based on our pleasure principle.  In other words, the id wants whatever feels good at the time, with no consideration for the reality of the situation.

[4] Superego is the moral part that develops due to the moral and ethical restraints placed on us by our caregivers.  Similar to the conscience as it dictates our belief of right and wrong.

[5] Anomie is a social condition characterized by the breakdown of norms governing social interactions.

[6] Bad Faith is Sartre’s concept that self-deception or denial is a way to avoid comprehending or taking responsibility for ones own life and or choices.

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About Soylent GreenScreen Podcast

Australian podcaster, writer, teacher and film reviewer.

Posted on May 4, 2012, in Essays, Great Films and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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