Plot: Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife arrive in the town of Shinbone to go to the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon. Some newspaper men harass the senator about his visit until he sits down and tells them the story of his very first visit to Shinbone, a visit which starts with being beaten and robbed by a bully of a rancher named Liberty Valance. This treatment inspires Stoddard, an up-and-coming lawyer, to introduce a little law and order to the Western town and its surrounding ranches. He also opens up a school to teach the children and illiterate adults to read. But Stoddard's reasoning and the information in his law books doesn't change the ways of Valance and his posse, and inevitably, Stoddard will have to stand up to him. Doniphon, local tough guy who says "Pilgrim" far more than the average cowboy, doesn't think Stoddard's got what it takes. Doniphon also doesn't like that Stoddard seems to be interested in the girl he plans to marry.
This is great Western drama that often looks like a parody because of far too many gigantic personalities--an overacting Jimmy Stewart, at times almost seeming like somebody else doing a really poor and over-the-top Jimmy Stewart impression instead of an actual Jimmy Stewart; burly John Wayne being all John Wayne-y; Vera Miles hyper-playing her stock female Western character; Lee Marvin as the titular bad guy, ugly and mean and a little too hammy; Andy Devine squealing his lines as the sheepish sheriff with the great name Link Appleyard; Bobcat Goldthwait as one of Valance's men; a stutterer; the newspaper editor Dutton Peabody played theatrically by Edmund O'Brien, a guy who apparently is trying to prove here that he is classically trained or something; and finally, an overly-grandiose orator at the convention late in the film. It's personality overload, and it all adds up to something completely unrealistic and unintentionally comical. I do really like the story and its conflicts though. The Hallie-Tom-Ransom love triangle could have been developed better. The Liberty-Tom-Ransom hate triangle is great though. Nothing needs to be said by any of the characters to show the audience that Tom and Liberty don't like each other and maybe have a bit of a history. And Jimmy Stewart's anger, anger that I'm would please any diehard Stewart fan, contrasts so well with the cool and cocky Marvin. I really like some individual scenes, my favorites being scenes that I think a lot of directors might have reshot. There's a scene where Jimmy bumps his head and then continues on with his lines. He drops or knocks over things, and messes up his lines more than once, but, even if it's not intentional or written into the script, it really adds to the character, this geeky lawyer who you are positive won't be able to kill the tough bully in the end. Ultimately, I like what this movie has to say about Wild West myth-making, the "printing of legends," and the clash between the Wild West philosophies and the big city ideas that Stoddard brings to Shinbone. But come on. Watch the "pick up my steak" scene over again, and try to convince me that it's not funny.