The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Movie: Directed by John Ford.

Inciting Event: The idealistic young lawyer Rance is waylaid by the psychotic outlaw Liberty Valance. Rance defends a female passenger on the stage, demanding of Valance, “What kind of man are you?” It is the question that launches the entire conflict—and which is mirrored back to Rance throughout. The movie is really more a question of: “What kind of man is he?”

Valance beats Rance nearly to death, and rough-and-tumble local homesteader Tom Doniphon brings Rance into town and puts him in the care of his girl Hallie—launching the story’s other main conflict, the rivalry for Hallie’s affections.

First Plot Point: Rance meets Valance again, while waiting tables in the restaurant where he works. When Tom initiates a standoff with Valance, Rance interjects, refusing to let Tom fight his battles for him. He decides to go to work for the local newspaperman Dutton Peabody and hang out his lawyering shingle where everyone—including Valance—can see it.

Up to this point, Rance could have just walked away from the conflict. But now, he’s essentially thrown down the gauntlet to Valance, invested himself in the town’s struggle for statehood, and made a personal enemy out of Valance.

First Pinch Point: Tom arrives home from a journey to announce that Valance has been acting as a hired gun for the ranchers across the picket wire who are opposed to statehood. Valance has killed several farmers. This prompts Rance to doubt his insistence that law and order can be achieved without a gun. Hallie goes to Tom for help, prompting Tom to warn Rance to stay away from Hallie.

Midpoint: Rance and Peabody are nominated as the town’s delegates to the state convention to debate statehood. This occurs in the face of Valance’s threats. Now Rance begins to take an active and irrevocable role in opposing Valance.

Second Pinch Point: That night, Valance attacks Peabody, beating him senseless, and calls Rance out for a gunfight—which everyone knows Rance can’t win, since he isn’t a good shot.

Third Plot Point: Rance goes out to meet Valance anyway. Valance toys with him, shooting him in the arm. And then, to everyone’s shock, Rance pulls off a lucky shot and kills Valance.

In most stories, this would be the Climax, not the Third Plot Point. But in this story, the death of the antagonist isn’t actually the point. Rance’s grief over having to kill a man keeps the moment suitably low-key, even though it is undeniably a victory.

The mood is reinforced when Tom walks in to discover Hallie kissing Rance. He realizes she’s chosen Rance over him, and he leaves, getting drunk and burning down the house he built for her.

Climax: Rance and Peabody attend the convention, where Peabody nominates Rance to appeal for statehood in Washington. When Rance’s reputation is attacked by people who insist his only claim to fame is having killed a man, Rance falters. He agrees with them and leaves, only to run into Tom.

Climactic Moment: Tom tells Rance he isn’t the one responsible for killing Valance. Tom killed him, from the shadows across the street. Renewed, Rance returns to the convention and accepts the nomination.

Resolution: The story returns to its “real-time” framing device, in which a now-aged Senator Ransom Stoddard tells the true story, for the first time, to a newspaperman. The newspaper editor tears up the story, refusing to print it. He declares, “When the legend become fact, print the legend.”

Comments: This classic western might almost be called a fable, were it not for the fact that it is deliberately an “anti-fable.” It takes all the respected heroic archetypes and neatly and beautifully turns them all on their heads in the end. Arguably John Ford’s greatest film.

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