top of page

The Great American Western (or No Biz Like Showbiz) by Sal Moriarty

A great man is always willing to be little. Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a classic western called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). If you haven't seen it, you should (the same for all movies directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne).

In short, there is a town bully, Liberty Valance (played to the hilt by the great Lee Marvin). An idealistic lawyer (Ranse, played by Jimmy Stewart) moves into town. He quickly draws the ire of Valance as he attempts to bring some form of law and order to the frontier hamlet. John Wayne's character, Tom, is not cowed by the loud-mouth Valance, but he lives on the outskirts of town and is often gone. Eventually, Ranse is drawn into a gunfight with Valance, a task for which he is woefully unqualified.

Ranse and Liberty, the lawyer and the outlaw, take to the streets for the showdown. In a stunning turn of events, Ranse is victorious. He guns down Liberty Valance, bringing an end to his reign of terror over the town. He receives the adulation of the territory, and the event catapults him to political prominence (he is, after all, a lawyer).

Ranse finds this troubling as he does not want to be known as, you guessed it, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It is his belief killing a man is not a deed to build a career on, much less a life. Ranse is as different from Tom as he can possibly be but recognizes the inherent strength of his character. He trusts him because Tom is the kind of man you can trust (such men were referred to as strong, silent types – we don't grow them anymore).

So, he confides in Tom. He tells him he does not want to be famous for having killed another man. It's at this point, Tom recounts the night of the gunfight to a bewildered Ranse. You see, Ranse didn't kill Valance. Tom was standing in the shadows, and he killed Valance. Ranse's fate was clear, so Tom intervened.

Now, Tom could have ridden the event to fame and adulation. In addition, it might have served him well with a certain woman in town. The woman who, eventually, marries Ranse. But Tom is not that kind of man. So, he lives out his life with the secret, never benefiting personally from the event.

The movie begins with Ranse (years after the gunfight) coming back to town from the capitol, where he is now a big shot (he is, after all, a lawyer). He's come home for Tom's funeral. While there, he sits down with the local newspaper man and lays out the entire story. The truth, finally. The movie is presented in flashback.

The film ends with a famous quote, made by the newspaper man: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

So, the legend will continue to be the official record.

When Osama bin Laden met his end in 2011, I thought about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I wondered about the man who shot bin Laden; actually fired the fatal shot(s). We'll never know who did it, I thought. For the time being, it appears I was correct, but nothing is simple in 21st century America.

A few years after the fact, a member of SEAL Team Six claimed credit for killing bin Laden. Shortly thereafter, other members of the vaunted squad contradicted his claim. It got kind of ugly, but there were book deals and talk shows. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been revealed – by an authority who would actually know – who pulled the trigger and ended the terrorist's life. So, I was correct in that we will probably never find out who killed Osama bin Laden, but not because members of that elite company comported themselves like the man who shot Liberty Valance.

Life ain't a movie.


bottom of page