The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a classic Western movie made in 1962, directed by John Ford and starring James Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin. The screenplay is adapted from a short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson.
In 2007, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
The film opens on preparations for a funeral. A U.S. Senator and his wife have come back to the small town of Shinbone, in an unnamed Western state. The senator is prevailed upon by a newspaper editor to explain why he has come to bury an apparent nobody. The senator explains and the film unfolds in flashback, to a time before the railroad came to Shinbone, to when the region was a western territory and statehood was the pressing issue.
Ransom "Rance" Stoddard (James Stewart) is an attorney who believes in law and order, but refuses to carry a gun. Robbed and violently attacked on his way to town by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), an outlaw with a silver-handled whip, Stoddard is brought to town by a man named Tom Doniphon, who brings the injured stranger to the care of friends in town.
Doniphon (John Wayne) is a rancher, who believes there is no law and one "needs a gun in these parts." Doniphon feels that Stoddard is a hopeless tenderfoot who is unable to handle himself in the kind of fights that are common in the West. Stoddard in return cannot understand Doniphon's thinking, which is exactly like Liberty Valance's -- might makes right. Caught in between is Hallie (Vera Miles), a woman widely regarded to be the love of Doniphon's life.
Valance comes to town and causes disturbances in saloons and restaurants. Local law enforcement in the person of the slovenly and spineless Town Marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is helpless to stop him; he excuses his inaction since Valance's crimes were committed outside the city limits. Valance takes particular delight in humiliating Stoddard upon seeing him a second time. Doniphon intervenes, over the objections of Stoddard: "Nobody fights my battles." Doniphon: "Well, that was my steak that he ruined."
When Hallie tells Stoddard she can't read or write, he decides to set up a makeshift school. Local children and a number of adults, including Doniphon's hired hand Pompey (Woody Strode), attend. Doniphon is disdainful of the school and interrupts a class to tell Stoddard how Valance and his men have killed two homesteaders.
Valance works for cattle land barons who wish to keep the territory as is and prevent it from becoming a state. When a convention is held to select two delegates to the territorial capital city, Valance wishes to be voted one himself and attempts to bully the townspeople. Stoddard himself, along with the publisher of the Shinbone Star, Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien), is selected. After being thwarted in the meeting, Valance challenges Stoddard to a gunfight.
Valance continues to terrorize the town. He nearly beats Peabody to death (after an unflattering article in the newspaper). In response, Stoddard decides that he must go through with the Valance gunfight. Unfortunately, Stoddard is completely unskilled with a gun and no match for the infamous gunfighter. But when the shootout occurs, Stoddard miraculously kills Valance, a shock to everyone.
Stunned and wounded, Stoddard goes to Hallie, who responds with tearful adoration. Doniphon sees this, assumes that he has lost Hallie's affection and goes on a drunken rampage, burning down the house he was building in anticipation of marrying her.
Stoddard becomes legendary as "the man who shot Liberty Valance," a hero. At a convention to pick the delegate to Washington to lobby for statehood, Stoddard is nominated. But he has guilt pangs about being a killer and capitalizing on an act of violence. It is only then that Doniphon tells him the "true" story, illustrated in a flashback sequence: Doniphon, fetched by Pompey on the pleadings of Hallie, sure that Valance would kill Stoddard, had stood where a side-street opened on to the scene of the shooting and shot Valance with a rifle. It happened that his shot coincided with Stoddard's and Valance's. When Stoddard asks why, Doniphon bitterly replies he'd done it to please Hallie, which he now regrets because "she's your girl now."
Stoddard returns to the convention and is chosen as representative. He eventually becomes a congressman, then governor and senator, with wife Hallie by his side.
Years later, Tom Doniphon has died, having led a lonely, secluded life. Ransom and Hallie return for the funeral. Stoddard confesses the whole story for the first time, but the newspaper editor refuses to publish it and burns the notes his reporter took. "When the legend becomes fact," the editor says, "print the legend."
The movie ends with Senator Stoddard and Hallie returning to Washington by train, melancholy about the lie that led to their prosperous life. Stoddard asks a conductor how long it will take to get to Washington. The conductor tells them that the train is traveling at high speed and that at an upcoming junction they are holding the express train for him. "Nothing's too good," he says, "for the man who shot Liberty Valance."
Sergio Leone, the director of such classic Westerns as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and one of the directors Ford influenced the most, said it was his favorite John Ford film because ‘it was the only film where [Ford] learned about something called pessimism.’