Directed by John Ford in 1962, the film opens with the return of Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), to the small frontier town of Shinbone. Stoddard is an influential and well-liked political figure, but nowhere is he more revered than in Shinbone, the place where his career started. On this sad day, however, Ransom has returned to pay tribute to an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who has died. Initially, he intends to slip in and out of Shinbone with little fanfare, but, when a newspaper reporter corners him, he decides to reveal the true story about how his life in politics began.We see in flashback when years earlier, Ransom arrives in Shinbone broken, bruised, and bloodied after being robbed and beaten by the notorious outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, dripping malice and paranoia). With the help of Hallie and her parents, he recovers his health and vows to bring Valance to justice. For Ransom, a book-learned attorney with little knowledge of the real world, "justice" means "arrest and jail." But in Shinbone, where the marshal (Andy Devine) is completely spineless and almost everyone else is afraid of Liberty, justice is a bullet. This is the lesson that Tom tries to impress upon Ransom, that in Shinbone, enforcing the Law requires a gun, not a book. Tom is one of the most respected men in Shinbone because of his prowess with a gun and because he is the only one who can, and will, stand up to Liberty and make him back down. The two become rivals for Hallie's affections, but each earns the other's grudging respect.By the way, this is the film responsible for introducing John Wayne's famous Catch Phrase of calling someone "pilgrim".Spoiers ahead! Tread carefully.
Adaptation Expansion: Understandable, since it's based on a short story. The movie adds Pompey and Link Appleyard as major characters, and it expands Ranse's efforts to start a school into a major subplot. The territory becoming a state (which was only alluded to in the short story) also becomes a pivotal plot point.
Adaptation Name Change: Ransom Stoddard and Tom Doniphon were named Ransome Foster and Bert Barricune in the original short story.
Adaptational Heroism: Ranse is far more sympathetic than in the original short story. His literary counterpart is a naive, arrogant, somewhat weaselly man who goes West for lack of anything better to do with his life, and the story largely focuses on how his pointless quest for revenge against Valance ends up consuming him. In the movie, he's a mild-mannered lawyer-turned-schoolteacher who's dedicated to bringing education and progress to the West, and his showdown with Valance is presented in a much more sympathetic light (since Valance is actually shown to be a menace to the town, instead of just a random thug that Ranse has a grudge against).
Being Good Sucks: Ransom gets this in the start: being an upstanding paragon of civilization gets him beat, threatened, and ridiculed in The Wild West. Tom gets it in the end. By secretly helping Ransom and letting him take the credit, Tom loses his girlfriend, turns into a drunk, and ultimately winds up forgotten, broke, and buried in a simple pine box.
An even more powerful example with Tom. In the brief flashback scene before he kills Liberty, the anguish on his face when he steps out of the shadows is incredibly palpable. He knows he's about to kill a man, save the life of someone he doesn't particularly care for, and lose the woman he loves. Everything in his life is about to change, and not for the better. Also, what is overlooked in this scene is that Pompey had already gotten there before Tom and was standing there with his rifle, and given how much Pompey clearly respected Ransom, Pompey may have been about to kill Liberty himself. Tom would not have wanted Pompey to be punished if the truth ever came out, which was another reason for him to kill Liberty himself.
Bittersweet Ending: Tom, just as much a hero as Ransom (in his own way), dies drunk and alone. Ransom hasn't gotten over his guilt that Tom never got his credit, and that he took Tom's happiness away when Hallie fell for him. Worse, the legend that Ransom killed Liberty Valance - a total lie - remains. The only good thing at the end is that Ransom lived up to Tom's hopes of using that lie to give Hallie - and the residents of Shinbone and the West - a better life.
The Cameo: John Carradine shows up as an ex-Confederate orator representing the cattle barons during the convention for statehood.
Eagleland: Played with. The movie suggests that our Manifest Destiny of moving Westward was not as clean and heroic as the school books want us to think.
End of an Age: A major theme of the film. It opens with a funeral for Tom Doniphon, one of the last true cowboys in the West. The climax comes when Doniphon is ultimately overshadowed by Stoddard, the meek politician who helps "civilize" Shinbone by spearheading the Territory's efforts to gain statehood.
Even Evil Has Standards: Valance's flunkies Reese and Floyd occasionally seem shocked by their boss's bloodlust. Floyd tries (unsuccessfully) to diffuse the confrontation between Liberty and Tom in the restaurant, and both men prevent Valance from actually killing Ranse and Peabody.
Foreshadowing: Liberty is playing poker when Ransom calls him out for his lynching of the newspaper editor Peabody. He tosses down Aces and Eights - The infamous "Dead Man's Hand". John Ford uses this often.
Framed for Heroism: Former Trope Namer, Ransom gets a heroic reputation for killing a man, and that reputation can propel him into the White House if he wants. He didn't commit the killing in the first place. He gets rewarded for something he didn't do. On the other hand, his real heroism is being willing to make a stand and face Valance rather than fleeing.
The Gunslinger: Both Liberty and Tom are feared gunmen. Tom is the only one Liberty fears.
Ham-to-Ham Combat: Every major character is chewing the scenery like nobody's business. And the one-scene cameo by John Carradine tops them all in the Large Ham category. It's amazing by film's end that the soundstage they filmed on is left standing.
Heroic BSOD: Played straight, both ways. Ransom feels guilty enough about shooting a man, even if it was a monster like Liberty Valance. Tom doesn't feel guilty about really shooting Liberty, but his life falls apart anyway when Hallie switches her affection to Ransom, whom Tom despises AND respects.
Heroic Sacrifice: Tom refuses to take credit for killing Liberty Valance because Hallie loves Ransom now, and because Tom knows that Ransom can do better - and provide for Hallie better - with that reputation than Tom can.
Hypocritical Humor: The orator arguing for the cattle barons' desire that the territory remains a territory (that they can control) denounces the settlers' attempt to promote Ransom as the Congressional representative to get them statehood. He argues - while wearing the Confederate officer's uniform no less - they shouldn't send the man who killed Liberty Valance to the same place where Abraham Lincoln died like a saint.
I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Tom Doniphon shoots Liberty Valance and saves Rance because Hallie would have been sad if he had died. He also bows out when he finds that Hallie has fallen deeply in love with Rance and not with him, and ends up miserable and alone as a result.
Ironic Echo: "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!"
Meaningful Name: Liberty Valance embodies the dark side of the freedom offered by the Old West, where the strongest always emerge on top. Ransom Stoddard embodies the trade-off of freedom for education and progress (to "ransom" something means to exchange it for something else).
Never Live It Down: In-universe; Ransom's life is forever defined by the demise of Valance, and years later people keep bringing it up cheerfully. However, deep down he's haunted by this association.
The Obi-Wan: Peabody, to Ransom. Although Peabody is too drunk too often, he helps Ransom start a law office and eventually grows enough of a spine denouncing Liberty Valance in print. Liberty's violent reprisal is what drives Ransom to get his gun...
Politically Correct History: Averted. When Pompey (Doniphon's black farmhand) enters the town saloon, he is bluntly told that he can't come in.
Rancher: Tom Doniphon had a small ranch. He was going to marry his sweetheart and grow roses cactus blossoms. She falls in love with Ransom instead.
Retcon: In-universe. "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Shadow Archetype: Liberty to Tom, oh so very much. A great deal of the film's conflict comes from that fact that, in Ranse's eyes, they're really Not So Different: they're both cynical, tough-as-nails Western gunfighters who love the freedom of the Old West above all else, and believe that justice can only be dealt out with a gun. The only difference is that Tom has a Code Of Honor that compels him to defend the innocent, whereas Liberty is an amoral thug who simply lives to take what he wants.
Smug Snake: Liberty Valance knows enough of the law to figure out how to get away with murder, even though everyone in Shinbone knows he and his pack are involved.
Tempting Fate: When Doc Willoughby works up the nerve to denounce Liberty for all the harm he's done, and notes how happy he'll be when the day comes for him to perform his physician's duty of declaring the gunman dead, Valance laughs and tosses a stolen gold coin at the doctor. "Payment in advance!"
Throwing Out The Script: Subverted. The pro-rancher candidate claims to do this. However, when the "notes" he so dramatically screwed up and threw away are examined they turn out to be blank paper. The "words from his heart" was the speech he had memorised all along.
Which is actually misleading, because when the scene comes, and Rance shoots him, we find out that Tom was standing in an alley across the street and he fired the fatal shot. Although, to be fair, it looks like they both nailed him. So really, the title should be "The Men Who Shot Liberty Valance"...
Tranquil Fury: A powerful example after Ransom lifts up the lid of Tom's coffin and sees that the undertaker has stolen the boots from his corpse. His face barely changes expression but there's no doubt whatsoever that he's seriously pissed. The undertaker only digs himself in deeper by trying to make excuses.
The So-Called Coward: Its not that Ransom isn't brave, he just doesn't think a steak is worth dying for.
The Western: Deconstructed. A man's heroic deeds in taming the West, which involve killing a killer, prove to be a sham, and worst of all when he finally tells the truth about how it happened, the people he tells it to refuse to accept the truth.
Where the Hell Is Springfield?: It's never actually said which US territory is fighting for statehood in this movie, making Shinbone's location simply "The West".