Based on Jack Schaefer’s novel, a retired gunslinger helps a farming family survive despite pressure from ranchers to make them leave.
Shane (Alan Ladd) arrives on horseback at the farm of Joe Starett (Van Heflin), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur), and their boy Joey (Brandon De Wilde). Seven cowboys ride up, and Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) warns Joe that he must leave the valley. They see Shane, and Joe tells them to leave. At dinner Joe says he won’t leave, and he wants to hire a worker.
Shane starts working there. In the morning Joey sees a deer but has no bullets for his rifle. He hopes Shane will stay. Joe sends Shane to town with his wagon to get things. Ernie Wright stops by and tells Joe he is leaving because of the threats. Joe asks him to come to a meeting there that night.
Shane goes into a store and buys work clothes for $2.25. Shane goes in the bar to buy soda pop to take to Joey, and Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson) insults him and splashes a drink on him.
On a rainy evening several men meet with Joe, and Shane comes in. They all agree to hold their ground, and Fred Lewis (Edgar Buchanan) says how Shane was insulted. Marian tells Joey not to like Shane too much.
They all go into town together with their families. Shane takes the empty bottle into the bar. Calloway tells Shane to get out, and Shane splashes two drinks on him. They have a fist fight that Shane wins. Ryker offers to pay Shane twice as much as Starett. Shane declines, and Ryker threatens to force him out. Shane fights several men. Joey comes out, and Joe goes in with an ax handle. The owner Sam Grafton (Paul McVey) stops the fight, and Joe offers to pay for the damage. At home Marian treats their bruises and sends Joey to bed. Joey tells her he loves Shane.
Gunslinger Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) arrives in town looking for Ryker. On his farm Ernie tells Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) that Ryker killed his sow, and he is running cattle through his field. Shane repairs the barbed wire fence. Joey asks Shane to show him how to shoot. Shane shoots a little rock with skill, and Marian interrupts the lesson. Joe says they will celebrate July 4.
Frank goes in the bar for a whiskey and drinks to Ryker for running Ernie off his claim. Frank says he will not be scared away. At the farmers’ dance Axel Shipstead (Douglas Spencer) says the Staretts are celebrating their anniversary. Shane dances with Marian. Mrs. Liz Torrey (Ellen Corby) is worried about Frank, who describes a gunslinger in town. Shane says that Wilson is fast on the draw. When the Staretts get home, they find Ryker and his men there. Ryker offers to buy his place. Joe says he is in the right. Ryker tells of the hard times he has had there. Joe says no, and Ryker leaves with Wilson.
Frank accompanies Axel into town, and Wilson calls to Frank. Wilson baits Frank. Wilson beats him to the draw, pauses, and then shoots him. Axel agrees that Frank reached for his gun and retrieves his body. Joe and Shane finish their farming work. Axel tells them that Frank is dead. Marian asks Joe not to go to town alone. Joe goes to Fred Lewis and his wife Martha (Helen Brown). They are packing to leave, but Joe insists they go to Frank’s funeral. Axel leads the prayer, and men bury the coffin. Fred says goodbye, and Joe asks them to stay. They see smoke; the Lewis place is burning. The others offer to rebuild his place. Fred says maybe they can save part of it. Joe says he will take on Ryker.
At night Joe saddles his horse, and Marian asks him not to go. At the bar Ryker sends three men to get Starett there. Joe loads the rifle. They tell Joe that Ryker is a reasonable man. Calloway tells Shane that Starett is going against a stacked deck. Joey plays with a gun and makes Marian nervous. Joe says he has to go, and he trusts that she could carry on. Joey says Shane has his gun on. Marian says they can move. Shane stops Joe from going, and they fight. Shane hits Joe with his gun, knocking him out. Joey says he hates Shane. He tells Marian to hide Joe’s gun. She says she thought Shane was through with gunfighting. They shake hands, and Shane goes. Shane rides his horse, and Joey runs after him.
Shane walks into the bar, and Joey watches from the door. Shane asks Ryker what his offer is, but Ryker says it is not for him. Shane faces Wilson. They draw, and Shane kills Wilson and then Ryker, who also drew his gun. Joey warns of another man, and Shane kills him. Shane tells Joey that he is going on because he can’t go back. Joey sees that Shane is bleeding. As Shane rides off, Joey says that his mother wants him and calls for him to come back.
This classic western portrays the conflict of farmers homesteading in cattle country. A reluctant gunslinger who defends the farmers is contrasted to the ruthless gunslinger who is hired by the ranchers. Yet violence is pervasive, as even the good guys fight each other to a knock-out to see who will face their adversary. An ominous future is implied as the boy idolizes the heroic gunslinger.