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The film begins with the arrival of an aging Ransom "Rance" Stoddard, a U.S. Senator to a small town called Shinbone in the company of his wife Hallie. It raises questions as to why the Senator is in that town considering it is almost obsolute and has nothing to offer to engage a U.S. Senator's visit. It is even more perplexing that the senator is there to attend the funeral of a man who lived in the town, an apparent nobody, Tom Doniphon. As ordinary citizen's it is obvious that curiousity takes its course when an important person whether a politician or celebrity comes our way in the absence of an important event taking place. It is believed that "these" kind of people only visit the places where ordinary citizen's live when there is a function fitting their status taking place. One of the journalists is curious enough to ask the U.S. Senator why really he is there. From this point on, the plot takes a flashback to decades earlier to give the viewer a reality tour of the Senator's mind thus giving an answer to the journalist's question. This is when the other characters in the film also take their positions in the whole film plot.
Sometimes the smallest and oddest encounters can lead to lifelong friendships and even form relationships that can with stand the tides of time. In the case of Senator Rance Stoddard, his unplanned encounter with a total stranger is the beginning of his flashback. The then young attorney was on a stagecoach since the rail road had not come to Shinbone yet and the region was still a Western territory with the intention of setting up a law office in the small town. The world has a funny way of bringing people together whether it is by use of acquaintances or chance encounters. The stagecoach that Rance was riding is waylaid on its way by outlaws who are out to rob the passengers. Rance being the charismatic and fearless man he is, dares the outlaws and in the process earns himself a brutal beating and is left for the dead. This unfortunate event is the start of a long term relationship with a rancher called Tom Doniphon. This man demonstrates the human virtue of pity and selflessness when he takes the badly beaten Rance to his friend's home to be taken care of. Rance gains more friends in that family, Peter and his wife Nora and their daughter Hallie. These people become his new family and even offer him a job in their restaurant once he is back to his two feet.
There is crime almost everywhere and in some cases the same criminals keep terrorizing people and nothing seems to be done to keep them in check. It is no different in the town of Shinbone. It is depicted that the people in this town know the gang that had ambushed Rance's stagecoach; the gang is led by one Liberty Valance, a criminal who uses fear as his weapon to keep people from arresting him. He is a gunfighter who wields a silver-handled whip to intimidate people thus no one dares question him or his gang. This only goes to show the level human beings can fall to when faced by fear and intimidation. There is a town Marshal who also seems to have been enveloped by the fear of the gang and is left spineless and incompetent to handle the outlaws. The town Marshal shows his incompetence when he explains that the stagecoach ambush was out of his jurisdiction since it happened outside the town limits, everyone knows that he is just as terrified of Valance and his gang as the ordinary folks.
People in a position of power, however they acquired it, can use the same to humiliate and abuse others. This point is well demonstrated in the case of Valance and Rance meeting in the restaurant where Rance works. Valance remembers Rance from their earlier encounter on the stagecoach and is out to purely humiliate him for he knows that Rance and practically everyone in the town fear him. He trips Rance who falls and spills the contents of a plate he is serving to a customer on the floor. Valance then orders him to pick the strewn piece of steak from the floor with his mouth. His friend Tom Doniphon comes to his aid again by intervening in the tense match-up though Rance brushes him off and tells him not to fight his battles.
Genuine people will always show their true selves and always stand by the good values they have aiming to better themselves and those around them. Rance is a good man and he searches for a way to repay the Erickson family for having looked after him when he was unwell and for offering him a job in their restaurant. On learning that their
daughter Hallie was illiterate, he offers to teach her how to read and write and sets up a makeshift school where even the local children and some adults could attend. He teaches them the benefits of having a democracy and lectures them on issues about the constitution. All this he does for free and with the good intention of sharing what he knows with anyone else willing to learn for their own good.
It is in this class that the aspect of race comes up. One of his students is an African-American called Woody Strode who while reciting the American Declaration for Independence stumbles on "all men are created equal" claiming he just forgot the part. Rance makes fun of it in an effort to keep the whole issue controlled for he is intelligent enough to know that racial remarks and anything touching on racism could blow out of proportion and bring on animosity and divisions among people. This only goes to show how the issue of racism had spread even to the smallest of towns like Shinbone and how the African-American community takes it personally even when there is no cause to or sign of discrimination against them, as with Pompey.
Love conquers all. This has been a saying for years and every day we encounter or read a story that proves this as true. Hallie is presented as Doniphon's true love and the two are even engaged for marriage at some point. Doniphon misjudges Hallie's tearful affection towards Rance after he is beaten again though this time he manages to kill Liberty. She had gone ahead and alerted Doniphon of a gun battle that was to take place between Rance and Liberty and knowing too well that his friend could never come out of it alive, Doniphon had gone ahead and assisted Rance, hence he had came out of it victorious and a hero in everyone's eyes. When Doniphon sees Hallie with Rance after the fight, he feels dejected and downplays his achievement by telling Rance to keep her and since he had already taught her to read and write, tells him to give her something to write about. In fact, Doniphan is the true hero but feels he is no match for Rance thus gives his love up for Hallie. In doing this, Doniphon leads a solitary and lonely life in the town till his death, since he had given up on his true love.
True friendship is a bond that can stand the test of time. In the present day we see the now Senator Ransom Stoddard attending his late friend Doniphon's funeral. He had married Hallie and had a successful career in politics. Rance then confesses to a reporter that he was not the one that had killed Liberty Valance rather it had been Doniphon who had been hiding and shot Liberty to save Ransom's face. He had fought a fight for Rance and in the process lost his one true love and made Rance look like the hero at his own expense, abandoning himself to lead a lonely and miserable life. The reporter has no intentions of publishing the story now and declares the saying that, 'what you do not know will not hurt you'. The Senator does not forget his friend and comes all those years later to attend his funeral. His friend Doniphan had sacrificed a lot for him and the world would never let him forget as witnessed in the train journey back home when the train conductor tells him that another train was waiting for him, that nothing was too good for the man that had killed Liberty Valance.