Based on the novel and play by Owen Wister, a cattle foreman competes with his friend for a new schoolteacher and catches him rustling for a crook.
The Virginian (Gary Cooper) as foreman brings cattle into town. He sees his friend Steve (Richard Arlen), and they drink. Trampas (Walter Huston) comes in and tries to take a woman away. The Virginian tells him to smile before calling him a name. Schoolteacher Molly Wood (Mary Brian) gets off the train. She runs from a steer, and the Virginian picks her up onto his horse. Steve helps her get on the stage.
Ma Taylor (Helen Ware) prepares a banquet to welcome Molly, and Steve arrives with Trampas. The Virginian comes later with Judge Henry (E. H. Calvert) and implies that Trampas stole calves. Molly dances with Steve, and the Virginian asks Judge Henry to introduce him to Molly. The Virginian and Steve switch sleeping babies before they are christened. Parents try to sort them out. Molly sees the Virginian plant evidence on Steve and scolds him.
Molly teaches children to sing and goes riding with the Virginian. They talk about Romeo, and he kisses her. He wants to marry her and go west. The Virginian finds Steve branding others' calves for Trampas and says it is wrong.
Trampas tells Steve to take some cattle down the river. The Virginian advises cattle owners to look down river. He leads a posse, and they find the cattle. Trampas flees, but the posse captures four men in the camp, including Steve. In the morning Steve gives his watch to Nebrasky (Victor Potel) and his saddle to Honey Wiggin (Eugene Pallette), leaving his gun with a note for the Virginian. Steve and the other three are hanged.
The Virginian trails Trampas, who shoots at him. Molly nurses the wounded Virginian and asks Honey about Steve. The kids tell her that Steve was strung up for rustling. Ma Taylor explains western law to Molly, who says she will leave but changes her mind.
At a saloon Trampas learns that the Virginian is getting married. He goes out with a woman, and the Virginian drinks with his friends. Trampas comes back and challenges the Virginian, warning him to get out of town. The Virginian tells Molly that he has to duel Trampas. She calls it a grudge and pride and pleads with him, but he goes out. Trampas drinks in the saloon and looks for the Virginian in the streets. Trampas sees him and shoots first, but the Virginian kills Trampas with Steve's gun. Molly embraces the Virginian and says she loves him.
This archetypal western is powerful in its bold portrait
of the self-reliant violence in western justice because a sympathetic
character is hanged for a property crime.