In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) return to the small western town of Shinbone for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). A local reporter and the owner and editor of the local newspaper want to know why an important politician like Senator Stoddard would come to the funeral of someone they had never even heard of. Stoddard decides to tell them who Doniphon was.
Most of the story the reporters already know. Stoddard came out West with nothing but his law books, and he was immediately made aware that the law counts for nothing in the territory when his stage is held up and he is beaten with a silver-handled whip by a vicious bandit named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He would have beaten Stoddard to death had Reese (Lee Van Cleef) not stopped him. Later in the movie, Valance does the same thing to a newspaper man, Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brian), and again Reese has to stop him before he kills him. Now, when a bandit played by Lee Van Cleef is the one who has to restrain the leader of a gang from being excessively brutal, you know that gang leader must really be evil.
The town marshal, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is afraid Valance, so he is worthless. Doniphon is a match for Valance, but he basically just minds his own business. All he cares about is Hallie, whom he hopes to marry. The tension between Valance and Stoddard finally reaches the breaking point, and Stoddard picks up a gun he barely knows how to shoot and decides to meet Valance out on the street. Things look pretty one-sided, but amazingly enough, Stoddard shoots Valance and kills him. As a result, he becomes known as the man who shot Liberty Valance, propelling him into his political career. He ends up marrying Hallie to boot. Doniphon angrily goes home and burns up the house he was building for him and Hallie.
But then Stoddard tells the reporters something they did not know. It turns out that it was Doniphon who killed Valance with a rifle from the other side of the street. In fact, we see that when Stoddard fired his pistol, he shot way too high. The thing that made Stoddard famous, then, is basically a fraud. (We even have to wonder if Hallie would have married Stoddard had she known the truth.) The owner of the newspaper wads up his notes and throws them in the furnace. “When the legend becomes fact,” he says, “print the legend.”
This ending is reminiscent of Fort Apache (1948). However, in this earlier film, we get the sense the people, especially children, need heroes, and so that is why the legend is made to prevail over the truth. In this movie, however, we get the sense that the legend simply makes better copy. But if that were true, we would not care for the movie. That is, if Stoddard had been the one who killed Liberty Valance, the movie would have been just one more Western in which good triumphs over evil, and the hero gets the girl. But just as this movie is far more interesting for having a twist ending, so too would the readers of the newspaper have found the truth to be more fascinating than the story they had previously been led to believe. The local paper would have become nationally known as the one that broke the story about what really happened.
In many cases, the legend is more interesting than the facts. Anyone who has ever read a paragraph or two about the real King Arthur knows that. It is the story of the Round Table, of Excalibur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and the Holy Grail that matters to us. Not so in this movie, however. Here, the truth is more interesting than the legend. That’s why it’s a good movie.