Ransom, a recently qualified lawyer from the East, suffered a brutal introduction to his new home. His stage was ambushed by outlaws, resulting in a savage beating as he defended a female passenger. Luckily he was found by Doniphon, a hard-bitten and sharp-shooting character, and brought into the town of Shinbone. Here Ransom finds out a few facts - Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) was the man who beat him, a gun is the only law in the area and that the town is crying out for a man like him. The result is that Ransom vows to put Valance in jail, using the law not a gun, by using his education and principles. This raises some laughs, for the crazy Easterner, but we can see that the townspeople respect Ransom for his knowledge, ideals and the fact that he represents the progress which they want for their children.
Soon Ransom is teaching people to read and write (especially Hallie), showing them how to use their vote and proving that you don't need to wear a gun to be a man. However a showdown with Valance is inevitable and we can see the arena already. Shortly there is to be an election for two representatives to the state senate, although the real issue is whether the area should become a true state. On one side are the cattlemen (with a hired Valance) who want to keep the land free and on the other are the townspeople who want the protection gained from being in a state. As the vote takes place (no women and no blacks!) there is a tense standoff between Ransom and Valance as the latter tries to force his own election. Although he fails in this Valance challenges the lawyer to a gunfight, knowing that Ransom is no match for him. We know that Ransom survives, since he's telling this tale, but the path from this election to the Senate is nail-biting to the end.
The beauty of this film is just how well it works on several levels with such resonance - such as the sparring between Stoddard and Doniphon, the battle of the town-folk with the cattlemen and the triumph of good over evil (represented superbly by Liberty Valance). Each character is well-acted and fits perfectly into the life of the town - from the nervous marshal Appleyard to the reliable servant Pompey (Woody Strode). From scene to scene the tension mounts yet there are many moments of humour in an amazingly strong script. Perhaps, though, the greatest triumph of this movie is that it places James Stewart, against stereotype, in a Western and succeeds.