This editorial spoils both Life of Pi and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
At the end of Life of Pi, after the fanciful version of events has been extravagantly woven, Pi Patel explains the true story of his time lost at sea - a story of brutality, ugliness and cannibalism - and asks his interviewer, ‘Which story do you like better?’ You could almost expect the answer to be ‘Print the legend,’ the famous line from the end of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Both films deal with big questions about the nature of truth. Both films feature men living with a lie, one that they confess to an interviewer. But one film has mature, intelligent ideas about truth and lies, and the other is Life of Pi.
At the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard has been pushed too far and takes an action he never believed he could take. A lawyer who has travled west, Stoddard ends up in the small town of Shinbone and immediately encounters the local villain, Liberty Valance (a delightfully horrible Lee Marvin), who savagely beats him when Ransom sticks up for a woman being robbed. In town he is cared for by Hallie Stoddard (the glowing Vera Miles); Hallie is being courted by Tom Doniphon, played by a swaggering John Wayne. While Ransom wants to deal with Liberty Valance through the law, Doniphon believes only his superior gunmanship keeps Valance at bay. Over the course of the movie the two men spar intellectually about how to best deal with the ruffian, while also competing for Hallie’s affections.
But eventually Valance brings Ransom to the snapping point, and the two men meet for a duel in the street. Valance is one of the best guns in the territory, while Ransom couldn’t hit a stationary tin can. Valance toys with the other man, shooting his gun arm and then takes aim at his head; Ransom and Valance fire at once and Valance falls dead in the street.
The people of Shinbone think Ransom is a hero. He feels dirtied, having abandoned law and order to partake in the justice of the West. But his fame goes before him, and when he shows up at a territorial meeting about the question of statehood, he finds himself nominated to be the delegate sent to Washington for the big vote - largely because he’s the man who shot Liberty Valance. And his heroism has won the heart of Hallie. But it’s all ashes in his mouth; Ransom wants to just leave, to quit it all, to go back east. At the last minute Doniphan, angry and bitter, shows up and tells Ransom the true story - he was off to the side of the street that night, and the bullet that killed Valance came from his gun. Doniphan saved his friend, created a legend and lost the girl, all in one moment of unsung heroism.
This story is told in a framing device: old Ransom has returned to Shinbone, wife Hallie in tow. The dusty, lawless town has been transformed by statehood and the railroad, and Ransom has gone on to a successful career in politics - one where the next step seems to be the presidency. The local newspaperman hounds Ransom, demanding to know what brought the senator back to his humble root, and it turns out he’s there for a funeral - that of Tom Doniphon. Overcome by grief and decades of guilt, Ransom finally tells the full, real story of the man who shot Liberty Valance... and the newspaperman won’t print it. “When the legend becomes fact,” he says. “Print the legend.”
Life of Pi is also structured around an interview. In this case an unnamed writer (Rafe Spall) has been told he must interview a man named Pi Patel, an Indian living in Canada (played in the present day by a serene and mesmerizing Irrfan Khan). It seems that Pi is a legend in the sailing community because he spent an unprecedented number of days lost at sea. His survival - and the strange circumstances surrounding it - has taken on the stature of myth. His story, the writer is told, will make him believe in God.
Pi begins weaving the tale of his life, a story at first filled with tangents and colorful asides. He tells the writer the story of how he got his unusual name, and how his family came to own a zoo in India. He tells of his spiritual journey as a young boy, how he started as a Hindu but soon added Catholic and Muslim and Buddhist to the mix, becoming something of an omnitheist.
Then his story takes a dark turn; his family has to move to Canada, and many of the animals from the zoo make the trans-Pacific trip with them. Along the way there is a terrible storm and the freighter is swamped, sinking to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Pi’s family and most of the animals are killed; our young storyteller (now played by the extraordinary Suraj Sharma, who spends most of his screen time with a CGI tiger) survives on a life raft with only a few animals for company. But one by one his companions - a wounded zebra, an orangutan who lost her family, a hyena - die off, leaving Pi alone with an enormous Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Through storm and starvation, fear and loneliness, stopping by a man-eating island along the way, these two float across the whole Pacific. They’re locked in a tense duel - companions, but also enemies. They rely on each other while being wary of each other. The journey is beautiful and strange and uplifting, and it finally comes to an end on a Mexican beach. Richard Parker wanders into the jungle, leaving Pi alone in the sand.
The story, it seems, is too strange to be true. And in fact that’s the case; Pi explains to the writer that representative of the freighter’s company interviewed him in the hospital and didn’t believe his wild tale. And so he told them another story, one where each of the animals was a metaphor for another survivor from the boat. One where the zebra was a wounded Japanese sailor who was killed and cannibalized by the hyena/ship’s cook. One where that cook killed the orangutan/Pi’s mother. One where Pi/Richard Parker murdered the cook in response. There were no animals, no tiger. Pi spent the final weeks of his voyage alone, possibly cannibalizing the cook.
“Which story,” Pi asks the writer, “do you prefer?”
Of course Life of Pi and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are approaching lies from very different angles. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance the lie is being told to the world in order to do good; Ransom is the best man for the job (proven in the framing scenes, where we see Shinbone is booming), and if the killing of Liberty Valance will get him that job, then he’ll perpetuate the lie. It's also a lie that Ransom first believes, but maintains after he learns the truth. In Life of Pi the lie is more inward; it’s the story that Pi Patel tells the insurance investigators, but it’s also a lie he tells himself.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance the lie is protecting society. In Life of Pi it’s protecting Pi; essentially it’s delusion. The film celebrates the idea of denial, the concept of taking bad things in your life and essentially forgetting them. Pi lives a happy life now, with a wife and children, seemingly unaffected by his travails at sea. Ransom is not so jolly; he returns to Shinbone and feels the weight of years of guilt on him, and he takes the opportunity to confess. Pi isn’t confessing. If anything it’s the opposite - by spinning an elaborate and beautiful falsehood and then following it up with a blunt, short and ugly truth, he’s putting the writer into a place where he’ll absolve Pi of his lies. Of course the writer prefers the fantasy story - it’s better told.
The two films come to the same basic conclusion: sometimes a story is worth more than a truth. So why is the ending of Life of Pi so infuriating? Partially it’s because of the horrible high school way it’s delivered, where the writer explains how each animal in the story relates to a human in the reality. It’s delivered like a seventh grader first figuring out subtext exists (“Wow, Dawn of the Dead is actually a satire about consumerism!”). Partially it’s because it’s a cheat - if Patel had told the real story as well as he told the fantasy maybe the writer would have chosen differently. The film’s argument here is that ugly things are just ugly, and teach us nothing - they must be sprayed with narrative Febreze to work.
What rankles most of all, though, is the way the film’s thesis operates as an apologia for religion - all religion. Early in the film Pi’s dad tells him that if he believes in everything, he really believes in nothing... but the film essentially argues that believing in everything is just fine, even if you know what you believe is false. Life of Pi sees religion as inherently silly, but welcomes it as a nice crutch - setting aside the fact that religion has been, for most of civilized history, one of the great dividers and killers of humans. The idea that irrational, unsupported belief is what empowers tyrants and genocides never seems to cross the film’s mind.
Life of Pi is making the same argument people make when they want to watch a brainless romcom instead of a smart, challenging movie: life is tough, so let’s focus on stories that make us feel good, even if they’re not true. Life of Pi is a movie for the people who spread banal platitudes on Facebook, people who jump right to meaningless phrases like ‘When God closes a door He opens another one’ in the face of adversity.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is more nuanced. Like Life of Pi, it accepts the fact that sometimes a tale replaces a truth, but it doesn’t find freedom in the tale. Ransom’s greatest moment of heroism isn’t when he goes into the street to face Liberty Valance, it’s when he decides to embrace the lie and use that to forge a political career that will benefit the people. But to do that he has to live with the lie, and the fact that he takes the chance to out himself to a newspaperman shows how much it’s been eating at him.
Unlike Life of Pi, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a complicated and layered film. It can be read on a surface level, as a morality tale. It can be read on a meta level, as John Ford commenting on the Westerns that had brought him fame and fortune. But most intriguingly it can be read as an examination of our own history with our own past. There’s a great scene where Ransom, teaching most of the residents of Shinbone how to read, calls on Doniphon’s black servant, Pompey (the iconic Woody Strode) to recite the Declaration of Independence. Pompey stumbles and is unable to remember the opening of the document, the part where it’s held as self-evident that all men are created equal. Ford is reminding us of the deep inequalities upon which this nation was founded (something becoming quite relevant in 1962, as the Civil Rights Movement blazed). The legend is a nation born of freedom for all, while the truth is something uglier.
But the idea of America is just as important as the reality of America; the dream of the Founding Fathers is what we chase every day, even if the reality behind that dream is thornier and more difficult than how it’s presented. The film argues for a nuanced world view that can hold both of these things at once, where you can be inspired by tall tales but also meet reality head on. Ransom spends the whole film trying to maintain his peaceful principals, but it’s when he lets go of them that he finds himself able to work for the greater peace.
It’s worth noting that Life of Pi is adapted from a novel; while the movie takes many liberties, the basic themes remain the same, as does the general shape of the ending (Liberty Valance is an adaptation too, if we’re counting parallels). It’s unclear if Ang Lee fully embraces the morals of Yann Martell’s novel, but there’s obviously something in there he loves. For a little while I thought Lee could rescue the story from Martell’s heavy handedness; the way Lee focused on storytelling in the beginning (there’s a wonderful sequence where Pi explains how the Hindu gods were his superheroes) gave me hope. The film is gloriously visual, so what a disappointment when Lee neglects to visualize the true version of events, or to make the reveals about the allegorical nature of the animals with images, instead of exposition.
All of that is nothing compared to how heavily Lee lands on the novel’s theme. The idea that we should choose to believe whatever makes us feel better is physically repellent to me, as a member of the reality-based community. The true triumph in life isn’t to lie to ourselves, but to live with the truth. I'd always prefer to be Ransom Stoddard, filled with self-knowledge, than Pi Patel, filled with self-delusion.