We first meet Senator Ransom Stoddard, white-haired and dignified, a man who is hinted at being someone who could become the vice president if he particularly wanted to be. He's in a small western town for a funeral, but other than that, we know little about him, other than his legendary status as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. So we start off the film with a lot of questions.
Luckily, we have the editor from the local podunk newspaper to get to the bottom of things for us. He busts into a private wake all, "I am a journalist I have a right to pry into all of your private affairs and for some reason you are required to tell me everything now!" and the senator's just like, "Yeah ok fair enough."
If the Washington Post had their heads in the game and they knew about this super secret journalistic clause maybe they would be able to get some straight answers from our politicians today. But that will have to wait, because we're about to embark on an epic flashback to Ransom's youth (even though James Stewart was in his 50s when they made this and he's playing a twenty-something right out of law school just don't look too closely ok).
Ransom is doing the 19th century version of voluntourism, travelling from the safety of his eastern city to the wild west, out to Make a Difference and help the poor savages that live out on the range. Westerns tend to have a massive preoccupation with the whole East vs West thing, like the NBA or the rap industry in the 1990s. There's a major contrast between civilization and barbarism, femininity and masculinity, and domesticity and wildness. Naturally, the human representation of this epic battle is Jimmy Stewart vs John Wayne.
On his way out west, Stoddard finds his stagecoach robbed by the requisite moustache-twirler, Liberty Valance, and is left for dead after being beaten severely. Don't worry, he lives, but he basically spends half the movie shocked and appalled that anyone could be so mean.
There's this trope in westerns that goes back pretty much as far as the actual Old West of the effete city slicker who has to be taught the wild ways of the frontier by a cowboy or rancher or outlaw or basically anyone from Texas. The beauty of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is that it takes that old familiar trope and turns it on its head.
When you're watching this movie, you think that you're going to see John Wayne train Jimmy Stewart how to fight and rustle cattle and drink whiskey and spit like a man. He'll learn how to shoot a gun and take care of Liberty Valance the old-fashioned way. But that's the thing...he doesn't.
Well, ok, he does cold cock John Wayne at one point, which is about as Western as you get. And yeah, he tries to learn how to shoot, but he's never very good at it, and even after all the humiliation he's suffered at the hands of Liberty Valance, his tendency is still to cling to his education and Eastern ideals. In the end, the twist is that no one changes and everyone stays the same in all the ways that really matter. Jimmy Stewart is the high-minded idealist, John Wayne is the rough and tumble cowboy. Surprise!
Honestly the biggest shock in the film is that it takes almost two hours of screen time before someone kills Liberty Valance, because he is just awful. I have a hard time accepting an entire town full of rugged frontiersmen tolerating his behavior for that long.
At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter who shot Liberty Valance. (Although, granted, forensic ballistics work was not as advanced as it is today, you'd think that they would at least be able to tell the difference between a bullet fired from an itty bitty pistol versus one from a rifle. Like, it doesn't need to be a mystery.) What matters is what people believe.
Senator Ransom Stoddard built an entire political career around being "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", while Tom Doniphon (Wayne) died in obscurity, known only in the small town where he had lived. So what's more real, the facts that almost no one know, or the legend that has developed over the years?