The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
A friend recently mentioned that all Westerns begin with a stranger coming to town. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance meets this criterion. The fictional, frontier town of Twotrees accepts a stranger (Ransome Foster) who had been dragged, beaten and bloody into town by a local gunslinger (Bert Barricune). Foster is left at the saloon, run by a feisty and prickly Hallie Jackson and assisted by Jim the Reverend Mosten. Bert, Hallie and Jim know that Ransome has brought books with him and know that he is not equipped to survive in the West. Nevertheless, he stays in Twotrees after having promised Hallie that he will teach Jim how to read. Part of the agreement is that Hallie will also learn to read.
The plot is more complex because Jim is Black, having been abandoned as a baby on the steps of the salon run by Hallie’s parents. He is raised as a member of the family but folk in The West, although rejecting the rule of law, accept certain social conventions as law. When Liberty Valance gets word of Ransome’s teaching of Hallie and Jim, he rides into town, engages Jim in a high-stakes game, and calls his bluff, and then has him taken outside and hanged.
Hallie is heart-sick when she and Ransome return from the theatre and hear of Jim’s death. Jim was her best friend and colleague. The confrontation between Hallie and Ransome foregrounds important issues and beliefs that represent the town of Twotrees prior to Ransome’s arrival: the place of African-Americans in the town; the disdain that folk feel for education and book learning; the privilege of those who hold power; the inability of the justice system to deal with crime and intimidation; individuals who feel responsible for Jim’s death, and finally, the man that Hallie loves.
Ransome then decides to hunt and kill Liberty Valance; Bert’s attempts to dissuade him are in vain. The inevitable meeting between Ransome and Liberty Valance takes place in Hallie’s saloon. The rather lengthy conversation between them reveals Liberty’s understanding of men like Ransome as well as areas of mutual understanding. The duel occurs; Liberty is killed and Ransome is wounded.
The play, written by the British dramatist, Jethro Compton, is based on a short story by Dorothy Johnson. That story was made into a film in 1962 starring James Stewart and John Wayne and has been selected for preservation in the U S National Film registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’ The narrator is Robert Vaughn, famous for his roles in Western films.
The ensemble worked well. Jim managed to balance a deferential manner with pride in his auditory memory and his development as a reader and thinker. Hallie softened her feisty manner and biting tongue by accepting Ransome’s invitations to learn to read and to accompany him to the theatre. Bert conveyed a quiet honesty and strength through his short utterances. Liberty’s swagger hinted at his power over the frontier territory and legal system. Ransome’s arrogance could not quite endear him to the audience. All the characters are fueled by hope. The play lets them experience their lives, their loves and their sacrifices.