The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Directed by John Ford
Starring James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, & Vera Miles
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a classic film of the Western genre. It stars John Wayne as the strong, silent type rancher Tom Doniphan, James Stewart as the bookish East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard, and Lee Marvin as the ferocious criminal Liberty Valance. Vera Miles plays the love interest of both Doniphan and Stoddard.
The story plays out in the town of Shinbone in an unnamed territory of the United States which is on the cusp of gaining statehood. Shinbone is still very much the Wild West. The sheriff, played by Andy Devine, is ineffective. Ranchers rule using militias of hired gunmen. Criminals operate with impunity. Eventually, the lawyer Ransom Stoddard must face the criminal Liberty Valance in the street for a duel. Stoddard shoots Valance to death – or so we think. It turns out that Tom Doniphan has done the shooting and not taken the credit, at great personal sacrifice. Stoddard gets the girl, goes into politics, and becomes a prominent citizen and successful politician. Doniphan dies alone and his body is buried in a simple pine box – someone has even stolen his boots.
The Usual Interpretations of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
There are two clear messages in this classic by John Ford. The first message is that The Law must be backed with force. The Yankee lawyer Ransom Stoddard turns the other cheek, tries to soothe the rising tensions, and talks about civic duty and the law, but makes no headway until he appears to shoot Liberty Valance.
The second message has to do with the power of the press. Dealings with the press are interwoven throughout the story. Indeed, the plot thickens when Senator Stoddard meets with a reporter at the start of the film. The power of the Fourth Estate over politics is emphasized when The Shinbone Star’s editor Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) refuses to accept a political nomination by stating passionately:
No, no, ya don’t! No! I’m a newspaper man, not a politician. No, the politicians are my meat. I build them up, I tear them down.
John Ford shows that the press can be more powerful than an elected official. Later, after Senator Stoddard tells the entire story of the shooting of Liberty Valance to a reporter, the newspaperman ignores the truth and “prints the legend.” In the closing scene, Senator and Mrs. Ransom Stoddard ride the train out of town, a sense of uncertainty showing in their faces.
Hawaiian Statehood – Explored in a Western
All great works of art take on meaning beyond what the artist meant to say. One often unexplored idea in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the politics of statehood. The short story by Dorothy M. Johnson (1905-1984) upon which the movie was based was published in 1953. The movie premiered in 1962. Before the story was published, and just prior to the movie’s release, the Congressional debates concerning the last two states to join the Union occurred: Alaska joined on January 3, 1959 and Hawaii on August 21, 1959.
Statehood has an impact not only on the state itself but on the national scene. The 1820 Missouri Compromise famously sought to ease regional tensions by admitting free states and slave states on a one-for-one basis. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 overturned the Missouri Compromise, the fuse was lit for the Civil War. During the Civil War, and for decades afterward, admitting new states served to bolster the causes of the Union and the GOP, respectively. For example, West Virginia, which was admitted in 1863, fielded one Senator who was a Unionist and one who was a Republican. Nevada, which was admitted in 1864, supported the Lincoln Administration in the form of two more Republican Senators. Later, the Dakota Territory (which was roughly the size of Minnesota) was split into North and South to add two more GOP senators to the mix in 1889.
Despite being set in the West in the aftermath of the Civil War, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is not a story about a western continental US territory (such as Nebraska or Arizona) entering the Union. Nevertheless, three things make it a subtle exploration of Hawaiian statehood. First, it is the character of Ransom Stoddard. Second, it is the fact that it is set against the background of the non-Anglo/non-Indian demographics of Shinbone and the considerably non-Anglo/non-Indian pupils in Stoddard’s class. Third, the opponents of statehood are the “big ranchers.” All three of these factors have parallels in Hawaii.
Conversely, it is definitely not about the Territory of Alaska passing to statehood. Culturally, Alaska is not much different from any other state. It has a large population of white Americans who can trace their roots back to one of the original Thirteen Colonies. Alaskans live alongside and have displaced a large Indian population. In this sense, Alaska is no different than Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, Kentucky in the eighteenth, or Montana in the nineteenth. There is no challenge to identity taking place there.
In the movie, the character of Ransom Stoddard is an idealistic New England Yankee moving into a new territory. The Stoddard name itself is deeply New England: it comes from the Puritan religious leader Solomon Stoddard (1643-1729). Ransom Stoddard acts much like the New England missionaries who reorganized Hawaiian society; indeed, Hawaii entered the American political orbit through the efforts of those Yankee missionaries. New England missionaries such as Hiram Bingham (1789-1869) outlawed prostitution and drunkenness, and built churches in the same style as the Congregationalist churches in Connecticut. The Yankee missionary story is told in James A. Michener’s book Hawaii, as well as in the 1966 movie of the same name.
In Hawaii, these New England missionaries were not acting much differently than their cousins who were moving west across the northern United States. For example, “[B]efore setting out to found Vermontville, Michigan, ten families in Addison County, Vermont, joined their Congregational minister in drawing up and signing a written constitution loosely modeled on the Mayflower Compact.”
The Yankees who were headed to Michigan, Ohio, and Iowa were creating a white society modeled on northern American culture. In Hawaii, the missionaries were poorly applying New England’s version of white American religion, civics, and culture to a fundamentally different population. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we can see parallels to this in Ransom Stoddard’s students.
In his class, the bulk of the students in the front row are black or Hispanic. This is different from Hawaii in that the bulk of the population there is Polynesian or Asian. In both cases, however, the population is not Indian or Anglo. If the pupils in this film were Indians or white pioneers, we would be seeing the traditional demographics of the American frontier. In such a case, one would understand that we were seeing the instant when the Red Man is replaced. But Stoddard’s class implies a future of color. All the young people are Hispanic, and the old white men at the back of the class appear to be hopeless bachelors who will die without issue. Many of the townsmen of Shinbone are also Hispanics wearing traditional Mexican clothing.
In one scene, Stoddard teaches an interesting civics lesson to his class that serves to push the cause of “civil rights.” During that lesson, Stoddard calls on Tom Doniphan’s Negro servant, Pompey (Woody Strode), to discuss the founding laws of the United States. In doing so, Stoddard mixes the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence. Pompey correctly reads out the famous preamble to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence war propaganda, and then forgets the part about all men being created equal.
Pompey apologizes for forgetting it, saying, “I knew that, Mr. Ranse, but I just plumb forgot it.”
Mr. Stoddard answers, “That’s all right, Pompey. A lotta people forget that part of it.”
The meaning is clear: John Ford is supporting “civil rights.” Indeed, Hawaii was brought into the Union to help defeat the Southern segregationists in the Senate. Later, Hawaii’s Oriental senators Hiram Fong and Daniel Inouye helped break the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The big ranchers that resist statehood in the movie also have parallels in Hawaii. Resistance to statehood didn’t come from the vast majority of the Hawaiian population, but rather from the Hawaiian land barons.
One such landowner was Alice Kamokilaikawai Campbell (1884-1971). This extraordinary Native Hawaiian woman was heir to the Campbell estate and was a prominent member of the community, serving as a territorial Senator and committeewoman in the Democratic Party. A self-governing state meant that the Asian plantation workers could easily vote to dispossess the landowners. In the 1950s, “land reform” was a major Leftist metapolitical idea, and was taking place all over the areas controlled by the Soviet Union. Breaking up the big plantations was also a major goal of the Latin American political Left throughout the 1950s. The Territory of Hawaii itself had some seriously Leftist politicians; in fact one of them, Governor John A. Burns (1909-1975), was feared to be a Communist. So it’s no surprise that Campbell was concerned about giving the Asians control of the economy. Additionally, Asian voters meant Asian governors, politicians, and judges. Foreseeing this, she wrote:
. . . [W]e must be careful. I don’t want to have a Japanese judge tell me how to act in my own country, no more than you Americans over on the other side would want an Indian to overrule you, or a Negro, which are among your American people.
The Problems of Hawaii as a State
In the final scene, Senator and Mrs. Stoddard are very uncomfortable, knowing that Stoddard’s career is built upon a false legend. This movie predicted the way in which the national media would make a legend out of John F. Kennedy following his assassination, despite the fact that JFK had had a reckless personal life and that his policies in South Vietnam had left a difficult war behind for his successor. Likewise, compared to later scandals, the Nixon Administration’s Watergate affair was pretty mild, but it was blown up by the press and a disgruntled FBI official. Indeed, when the truth becomes legend, one prints the legend.
Similarly, we can also be uncomfortable with the realities of Hawaiian statehood. The Hawaiians’ identification with their fellow white citizens on the mainland needs to be examined. In reality, the state is filled with tensions between Native Hawaiians, Asians, and whites. For example, in Hawaiian public schools, there is Kill Haole Day. This tradition, which is officially denied by educators but is practiced nonetheless, encourages non-whites to beat up white students. Hawaii also has a sharp Native Hawaiian ethnostate movement which has gained ground via the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2009, and there is even a no-go zone at Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo. Every judge, politician, and official raised on the island is affected by this tension. Indeed, anyone from Hawaii has been influenced by its simmering racial problems.
With that in mind, it must be pointed out that many disastrous racial problems have had a Hawaiian connection. The first time these problems emerged was right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when several Japanese residents assisted a downed Japanese pilot on Niihau Island. That failure of loyalty helped to bring about the internment of the Japanese population across the mainland United States, and led to the declaration of martial law in Hawaii, where severe restrictions were placed upon the Japanese residents.
Another incident was when the Hawaiian Oriental Lon Horiuchi, who was working as an FBI sniper, shot Vicki Weaver on August 22, 1992 during the Ruby Ridge incident. Agent Horiuchi went on to serve at the even more controversial Waco siege in 1993. The Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents were a moral gray area. Citizens have the duty to surrender to law enforcement when presented a legitimate warrant. Citizens are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and the government’s case in both situations was pretty weak. With the racial angle, however, the situation becomes far trickier. Was Horiuchi motivated to shoot Vicki Weaver and those at Waco because of racial animus? Was Kill Haole Day on Horiuchi’s mind when he pulled the trigger? The truth doesn’t matter; perception does. The Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents were a social disaster and directly inspired a misfit, anti-government Gulf War vet named Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
President Obama was also the first President to come from Hawaii. Much of Obama’s appeal came from his self-appointed role as a racial reconciler. However, his presidency was filled with one racial debacle after another. And Hawaii was again at the center of an anti-white racial attack in the form of Judge Derrick Watson, a Native Hawaiian, who was the judge who struck down President Trump’s second attempt at a “travel ban.” The case had been brought to court by Hawaii’s Oriental Attorney General, Doug Chin. Thus, Alice Kamokilaikawai Campbell’s warnings about alien judges ruling against the interests of white Americans have now come to pass.
It seems that Asians with American citizenship have the ability to defend their own place in America, but not America as a whole. The next Muslim terror attack will be a disaster for white/Asian and US-Hawaii relations. Like Senator and Mrs. Stoddard, a look of consternation is called for.
1. Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Viking Press, 2011), Kindle Loc 2855.
2. Even in the 1950s, the whole of the political class was already all in for “civil rights.” Furthermore, the creative class was supporting race-mixing through a Romanization of Polynesia and Hawaii. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific premiered in 1949, ran for years on Broadway, and was made into a movie in 1958. There was also the 1963 film Diamond Head, in which Charlton Heston plays a bigoted land baron who must deal with the consequences of his own race-mixing.