A cavalry officer is about to retire, but his last patrol includes escorting women and facing hostile Indians.
In 1876 Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) tells Sergeant Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) he is six days from retirement; Quincannon has only three weeks. Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson) brings in a stagecoach that was robbed by Cheyenne. Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) argues with Lt. Flint Cohill (John Agar), who won't let Lt. Ross Penell (Harry Carey Jr.) go on a picnic with her.
Brittles learns of Custer's defeat and visits the cemetery. Olivia gives him flowers. Major Mac Allshard (George O'Brien) orders Brittles to take his wife Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) and Olivia in a wagon to a stagecoach on the patrol, and Brittles files a protest. Olivia wears a yellow ribbon for Cohill, Penell, and Brittles. The cavalry leaves singing.
Sgt. Tyree sees Arapaho moving, and Brittles orders a detour. They see a herd of buffalo. Four soldiers flee Indians, but Brittles' men force the Indians to stop and go back. Tyree is chased by Indians but gets away. Brittles finds him in an outpost that has been burned out by Indians. Olivia blames herself, but Brittles tells her not to apologize. A former confederate general dies and is buried with two others. Cohill and Penell want to fight over Olivia, but Brittles stops them. Brittles, Tyree, and Penell see men selling guns to Indians get shot with arrows.
Brittles orders Cohill to stay at the ford with two squads to stop the Indians. Brittles leads the others back to the fort and reports that his mission was a failure. Major Allshard tells him he can't go back because he is retiring. The next day Brittles gives Quincannon a drink and his civilian suit. Captain Brittles says farewell to the men, and they give him a silver watch. He orders Quincannon put in the guardhouse, but he fights the five men sent to arrest him. Abby escorts Quincannon, and Brittles makes sure he will be in the guardhouse for his last two weeks.
Brittles joins Penell's patrol and says he has four hours left. Brittles and Tyree ride into an Indian camp. Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) welcomes his old friend but says it is too late to stop the war. Brittles leads a charge on the Indian camp, and they drive off their horses without any casualties. Brittles orders Cohill and Penell to follow the hostiles a mile behind to the reservation.
Brittles retires and heads west. Tyree catches up and gives him his orders as chief of scouts. In the final scene Brittles is welcomed back, and Olivia dances with Cohill.
This classic western glamorizes the US cavalry that used
military force to conquer the Indians in the western territories.
The hero advising people not to admit any wrong because it is
a sign of weakness reflects the unwillingness to recognize one's
own blindness and folly.