Liberty Valance is the main antagonist in the short story and feature film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He was a sadistic and violent Old West outlaw, a holy terror to the town of Shinbone, and the ruthless leader of an outlaw gang. Played by Lee Marvin in the film version, the only man he feared was rancher Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne. Liberty began to torment newcomer and lawyer Ransom Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart. This conflict drives Stoddard to seek to confront Liberty, which Doniphon knows is a fool's quest for the shaky Easterner. Liberty is portrayed as being an almost mystically good shot.
A memorable song, composed by songwriting legends Hal David and Burt Bacharach, and originally sung by Gene Pitney, was made for but not used in the film itself, though it followed closely enough that it is associated with the story.
In an unnamed Western US territory moving towards statehood in the late 1800s, the stagecoach carrying Eastern lawyer Ransome Stoddard was robbed by a delinquent gang of troublesome hoodlums led by Liberty Valance, who also beat Stoddard within an inch of his life. Nursed back to health by a restaurateur and his family, Stoddard finds twin dilemmas: Shinbone, with an ineffectual marshal and large ranchers in effect making their own law, needs his services desperately, yet a man like Liberty Valance can only be taken down by the same sort of violence that is the outlaw's stock and trade. Small rancher Tom Doniphon tries to convince a disgusted Stoddard of this hard fact of their existence, a lesson made all the harder by the rivalry between Stoddard and Doniphon for Hallie, the daughter of the restaurant owner. In the meantime, Liberty's sadism grows, as does his ambition, proposing to the large ranchers that they make him their representative for seeking statehood, so that it will occur under their terms, with a governor as ineffectual as Shinbone's Marshal. Stoddard and Doniphon gradually learn a grudging respect for each other, and for each other's ways. Doniphon is repulsed by what he sees (sometimes rightfully) as Stoddard's weak-kneed naivete, but also sees that the freedom of the Old West that he so loves has also bred men like Liberty and by extension, the large ranchers who are almost as much outlaw as Valance.
Stoddard's efforts to get the townspeople to stand up to Liberty end in violent disaster for those few willing to do so, forcing Stoddard to take up arms and call Liberty out for a showdown he cannot possibly win. Yet, as Liberty openly mocks Stoddard and his ham-handed efforts to use a weapon, it seems that the wounded Stoddard gets off a shot that kills Liberty. The townspeople proclaim him a hero, and Valance's outlaw gang is hunted down and dispersed. Despite the efforts of the ranchers to make a defamatory statement about Stoddard's feat and make Liberty some kind of martyr, statehood is pursued on favorable terms to the common people of the area. Stoddard is immensely remorseful for having killed a man, so he almost refuses to join in the fight he started, until he is pulled aside by Doniphon. He reveals to Stoddard that all of his shaky shots at the showdown went wild, and never even touched Liberty. It was Doniphon, aided by his employee Pompey, who stood in the shadows with a rifle and timed a shot to match Stoddard's shots, and that it was Doniphon who shot Liberty. When Stoddard asks why Doniphon let him have the credit, Doniphon tells him that the people need him, and so does Hallie. Doniphon lives the rest of his life bitter and alone, while Stoddard goes on to be governor of the new state, Senator, and later Ambassador to Britain. Still haunted by the lie that set him up, Stoddard decades later attempts to tell the truth to a newspaper in Shinbone, but the editor and reporter refuse to disrupt the legend that effectively made that area what it now was.
Just as the story depicts a dying Old West, the feature film was really the last of the great Westerns, with Director John Ford overseeing an at times savage deconstruction of the genre that had done so much for himself, Wayne, and to a lesser extent, Stewart. Tom Doniphon actually has much more in common with Liberty than he ever would with Stoddard, but sees that the way of life they love is going away no matter what they do, and that Stoddard, who he mostly cannot stand, is the way of the future. Liberty is always a dishonorable outlaw villain, and he is taken down by a method that was often the true way outlaws were dealt with. His alleged killer is a man who must rise to that legend, while his real killer is no saint, merely an immensely practical man. At times, Liberty seems almost mentally ill, with some of his gang trying to hold him back from some of his wilder and rambunctious antics. In the original short story, he is less of an outlaw icon, his importance growing in the mind of the humiliated Stoddard, who in both versions, shows signs of settling a grudge more than seeking justice. Stewart here is neither George Bailey nor Mister Smith; Wayne is extremely gruff and sometimes unlovable; Lee Marvin is very nearly a conscienceless psychopath and not a hard-living funster. Liberty Valance's last victim was the classic screen Western, and the modern type is the child he left behind.