Firefly and Western Literature
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The Woman Who Shot Liberty Valance

In the Firefly episode “Heart of Gold,” bad guy Ranse Burgess attacks Nandi’s brothel in order to capture and claim as his son the child that brothel worker Petaline has just given birth to. As Neil noted in an earlier post, the name “Ranse” is a direct reference to John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and to the character Ransom Stoddard (also shortened to Ranse) in that film.

At first glance, this is an odd allusion, as Jimmy Stewart’s good guy lawyer Ranse Stoddard seems an unusual namesake for Firefly‘s Ranse Burgess, who has more in common with Ford’s bad guy Liberty Valance–the man who Ranse Stoddard shoots and kills (or, rather, whose death in an gunfight Ranse is given credit for, although John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon is really the man who shot Liberty Valance, saving Stoddard’s life and giving him the heroic story that makes his political career).

The allusion, however, seems appropriate, as Ford’s revisionist western revisits the genre in a way that will inform later westerns that question and trouble the genre’s premises and conventions, and, as such, provides an early template for genre excursions such as Firefly. In particular, Ford’s emphasis on a multicultural western town and his inclusion of African American actor Woody Strode in a central role in the film prefigure the sort of “corrections” to the absences in Hollywood’s more monolithic and monochromatic vision of the history of the American West that we get in Firefly (and in films like Posse and television series like Deadwood).

In early western films, African American characters tend to fall into the categories of servants, cooks, and especially, comic relief. While there are stereotypical elements to Woody Strode’s Pompey, there is also some interesting ambiguity surrounding him. His relationship to John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon is not entirely clear. At times, he seems to be Wayne’s servant or hired hand, but they seem to share a living space on Tom’s ranch, and, at times, the film suggests that the two men are partners in that enterprise, and that Pompey’s public displays of subservience may be in part an act for the sake of appearances to hide a more egalitarian friendship between the two men. Certainly, when action is necessary, Pompey drops any hint of subservience, saving Tom from a fire, backing up Tom with rifle at the ready during a confrontation with Valance.

That confrontation revolves around Ranse Stoddard, who Valance has severely beaten and whipped in an earlier scene, and who is working as a waiter to help Hallie (Vera Miles, the center of a love triangle between Ranse and Tom) in her restaurant. Tom acts to protect Ranse in this scene, as he confronts Valance and his two men. Valance comments, “Three against one,” to which Tom replies, “My boy Pompey. Kitchen door.” The camera pans to show Pompey, rifle held in the crook of his arm, framed by the kitchen doorway. This is a fabulous and fairly short scene from a classic revisionist western.

It strikes me that we see variations on this scene in Firefly, although with Zoe as the African American presence backing up Mal’s play. In “Safe,” when a hidden Zoe fires a rifle to protect Mal and Jayne during the gunfight, and particularly at the beginning of “Our Mrs. Reynolds” where Zoe appears framed in the door of the coach/barge to fire at the outlaws, the framing even recalls this moment in Liberty Valance. Of course, in the Firefly universe, a black man or woman holding a gun on a white man is not necessarily a cause for surprise (as it would have been in 1962), and Zoe goes much further than Pompey ever does by firing at and killing the bad guys. Also, Jayne and Zoe often switch places, with Jayne taking the role of hidden backup and Zoe accompanying Mal as one of the “big damn heroes” at the forefront of the action rather than behind the scenes. The positioning of Zoe and Jayne depends on strategy rather than the contingencies of racial politics. There may be examples of which I’m unaware, but I doubt if in 1962 we would see an African American character in a western do more than Pompey does here, certainly not firing at or killing a white man.

So, the allusion to Liberty Valance seems an appropriate nod to a precursor text, but it also strikes me that giving the good guy’s name to Firefly‘s bad guy also points to the possibility of other ironic reversals. One of the central scenes in Liberty Valance involves a frontier classroom, with Ranse (aided by Hallie) as the teacher of an ethnically and racially diverse group of students. “Education” reads a carefully chalk-written sentence on the blackboard, “is the basis of law and order.” In addition to the children, at least half the class are adults, including Pompey, who, while standing in front of a portrait of Lincoln, stumbles over reciting the Declaration of Independence. Some film historians have pointed out, with some validity, that the characterization of Pompey in this scene is condescending, although I would suggest that part of the impact of this scene of an integrated classroom presented as an American ideal is specific to the context of 1962, during a time in which such integration was a hotly contested political issue.

The parallel to this scene in Firefly is the religious service (like the school, an example of civilization imported to the frontier) that Shepherd Book agrees to perform at the request of two of the women. The “education” is religious rather than political, and the black man, rather than stumbling over the words, is the eloquent speaker (is, indeed, the Book itself), the figure of authority and literacy rather than the fumbling student.

The romantic triangle of Hallie, Tom, and Ranse is played out with the male figure at the center, with Mal as the uneasy object of both Nandi’s and Inara’s (uneasy) affection. And the man who shot “Liberty Valance” is a woman, as it is Petaline who executes Ranse Burgess, her enactment of “rough justice” a signal of her ability to take over as the head of the frontier enterprise that the murdered Nandi died to protect.


One Response to “The Woman Who Shot Liberty Valance”

  1. Very good analysis!

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