The residents of Shinbone are about to choose delegates to a territorial convention where they will vote on statehood. The farmers support statehood, which would close the frontier by creating private property rights in the ranchers’ open range north of the Picketwire River that borders Shinbone. The ranchers oppose them and hire gunslinger Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) to force the farmers to elect anti-statehood delegates.
Into this maelstrom comes Jimmy Stewart as Ransom Stoddard, a freshly minted lawyer. Valance holds up the stage and beats Stoddard to within an inch of his life. Left at the side of the road, Stoddard is found by Tom Donophon (John Wayne) and carried to Shinbone and safety. Donophon is everything that Stoddard is not: rugged, self-reliant, and handy with a gun. By contrast, Stoddard is hysterical and ineffectual. After his recovery, he is put to work as a dishwasher and schoolteacher. Although he owes his life to Donophon, Stoddard tells him that he’s no different from Liberty Valance: Both rely on guns. But Donophon is very different from Valance. Donophon is a rancher, but he lives south of the Picketwire and is allied to the townsfolk of Shinbone, whom he serves as protector. He is also in love with Hallie (Vera Miles), a waitress in the restaurant where Stoddard works.
The film is centered on Stoddard’s courtship of Hallie and betrayal of Donophon. When Donophon, in a rare show of affection, brings Hallie a cactus rose, Stoddard asks her whether she has ever seen a real rose. Stoddard also teaches Hallie how to read and, unlike Donophon, is given to hugging her. Donophon is the very type of the American hero: hard on the outside, soft on the inside. Stoddard is the American antihero: soft on the outside, hard on the inside. In the competition for Hallie, Donophon doesn’t stand a chance.
Liberty Valance is a tragedy, perhaps the greatest American tragedy. What makes it a tragedy is that Donophon brings on his own fall -- by killing Valance and saving Stoddard’s life. From this, everything will follow, under a grim law of necessity: Hallie will marry Stoddard, who will go on to bring statehood to the territory and close the frontier, destroying the only life Donophon knows. Donophon sees all this but cannot prevent it because he is incapable of baseness. Necessity is the special feature of tragedy, where human choices have already been made and we wait for God’s choice.
One further act of nobility is required of Donophon. He had let Stoddard think that he killed Valance, but when Stoddard is incapable of accepting the moral responsibility for this, Donophon confesses the truth. Donophon can shoulder the responsibility that Stoddard cannot bear.
ShareThe film begins with a flash-forward to Donophon’s funeral, many years later, which Stoddard (now a senator) and Hallie attend, arriving by train rather than stagecoach. Donophon has been entirely forgotten and is given a pauper’s coffin. But Hallie returns to Donophon’s deserted ranch to bring him a cactus rose, as he once brought one to her. She leaves the rose on the coffin, where it will die, but not before Stoddard notices it. On the train back to Washington, Stoddard asks Hallie who placed the rose on the coffin, and she tells him. Stoddard realizes that his wife has always been in love with another man. Just then the train conductor stops by to tell Stoddard that they’ll get him back to Washington in two days: "Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance."