(1956 c 119')
Based on Alan Le May’s novel and directed by John Ford, a Confederate veteran returns to his brother’s family which is massacred by Comanche. He and others go after the captured girls, and he finally finds one of them.
In 1868 Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to a home in a desolate part of Texas. He thinks little Deborah is his niece Lucy, who has grown up. Young Ben asks Uncle Ethan what he is going to do with the sabre, and Ethan gives it to him. Aaron Edwards (Walter Coy) asks about California, but Ethan says he did not go there. Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) comes to dinner late and apologizes to Aunt Martha (Dorothy Jordan). Ethan wonders if Martin is a half-breed, and he says he is one-eighth Cherokee. Aaron recalls how Ethan saved Martin after his parents were massacred. Ethan tells Ben the war ended three years ago, and they wonder why he did not come home sooner. Deborah admires Lucy’s gold locket and asks Ethan for one. Ethan gives her a medal. The youngsters go to bed, and Ethan asks Aaron about the Todd place. He says they quit and went back to chopping cotton. Aunt Martha would not let him quit. Aaron tells his brother Ethan he is welcome to stay as long as he wants. Ethan says he has money, and Aaron notices it is fresh minted.
Five men on horses arrive. Aaron lets in Rev. Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen), and the others. Samuel sits at the table and swears Martin into the Texas Rangers without compensation. Samuel and Ethan discuss the end of the war. Ethan says they could be rustlers or Comanche, and Mose Harper (Hank Worden) thanks him. Samuel wants to swear in Ethan, who says it would not be legal. Samuel asks Ethan if he is wanted for a crime. Ethan asks Samuel if he has a warrant. Ethan says they both went for the Confederate States. Ethan tells Aaron to stay close. Martha gives Ethan his coat and hat, and he kisses her on the forehead.
The eight men ride off. Martin says the trail is fishy, and Ethan tells Martin not to call him uncle or sir. They find a dead bulls, and Ethan identifies the spear as Comanche. He suspects they will attack his brother’s place or Jorgensen’s. Ethan says the horses need rest and food, but Martin takes off anyway. Ethan tells Mose to break out the grain.
At dusk Aaron gets his rifle to bring in some sage hens. Martha is setting the table and is worried. Aaron sees a flash, comes in, and bolts the door. Lucy realizes danger and screams. Martha tells Deborah to go to her hiding place, and Aaron puts her out the window. Deborah goes to a grave and tells the dog to go back. An Indian sees her sitting by the tombstone and blows a horn.
Martin without a horse calls to Ethan, but he and Mose keep on riding. They find the homestead burning. Ethan keeps Martin from going in the house. Ethan finds Deborah’s doll in the cemetery.
People sing “Gather at the River” at the funeral. A woman tells Ethan not to let the boys waste their lives in vengeance, but they ride with him. Under a rock Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.) finds another dead Indian in the hole. Ethan shoots the body so that its spirit without eyes will have to wander forever. Ethan says they should jump the Comanches before daylight, but Samuel questions the wisdom of that. He suggests that they run off their pony herd so they will have to walk. Ethan says they have no chance of doing that. Samuel makes it an order. Ethan submits but warns him if he is wrong, he will not take another order.
In the fog they find evidence of their camp. Ethan says they may be jumped. They ride and see an Indian on a hill. Seven Indians follow that Indian on a parallel course. Indians are following on the other side of them too. Samuel tells them to gallop, and the Indians chase them to a river where some are killed by their gunfire. On the other side of the river they get behind a fallen tree. Ethan says they will charge soon. The Indians cross the river, and they shoot at them. Some are killed, and the others retreat. Samuel stops Ethan from shooting so that they can bury their dead. Ethan gets angry. Samuel says they need a company of rangers or one or two men. Ethan says he is going on alone, but Brad wants to look for Lucy, and Martin wants to go with Ethan too. Ethan says he will give the orders. The others take a wounded man away.
The three cross the river and then walk with their horses. Brad complains that Ethan keeps saying the girls may be dead. Ethan goes alone through a canyon and says he will meet them on the far side. When they meet, Martin gives Ethan some water. Ethan points to their trail. Martin asks Ethan if he lost his Johnny Reb coat, and Ethan says he is not going back for it.
As they are resting, Brad comes back and says he saw Lucy. Ethan says he saw a buck wearing Lucy’s dress. He found Lucy in the canyon and buried her in his coat, and he tells Brad not to ask him any more about her. Brad is upset and rides off. They hear gunshots.
Ethan and Martin ride in the snow. Martin says they are beat; but Ethan says she is alive, and they will raise her. Ethan says they will find them in the end.
Ethan and Martin arrive at the home of the Jorgensens. Lars says he got Ethan’s letter about Brad a year ago. Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) kisses Martin and puts her arms around him. He says he forgot how pretty she was. Mrs. Jorgensen (Olive Carey) asks Ethan about Debbie, and he shakes his head.
Martin is taking a bath, and Laurie wants to mend his clothes. He does not want her to see him naked, and she sneaks back in to make him mad. Mrs. Jorgensen tells Ethan they are Texicans. Laurie asks her mother if they can give Martin some of Brad’s clothes. Lars remembers a letter for Ethan that Charlie McCorry brought. He finds it and gives it to him. Ethan reads it and shows some calico to Mrs. Jorgensen. He asks her if Debbie wore it. He says they have not found her yet. Laurie kisses Martin goodnight. Ethan tells Martin that Jorgensen has been running his herd and that he will keep Martin on. Ethan says he is leaving. Martin wants to keep looking for Debbie too. Ethan says Martin is not related to her.
In the morning Martin kisses Laurie, who kisses him back. Martin asks her to go steady, and she says they have been going steady since they were three years old. She says Ethan left an hour ago. Martin is afraid of Ethan finding Debbie because he could go crazy. Laurie wishes she could keep him but hands him the letter from Jerem Futterman. Martin says he needs a horse. She gives him her own horse; but she may not be there when he gets back because she does not want to be an old maid. Martin says he has to catch up with Ethan, and he rides off.
Ethan and Martin come into the trading post of Jerem Futterman, who asks for the $1,000 reward. Ethan says he gets it when he finds her if she is still alive. Ethan pays him $25. Futterman says she is the captive of Chief Scar with the Comanche. They leave.
By a campfire Martin asks Ethan if they are being followed because the horses are nervous. Ethan says they are roundabout Comanche. Martin objects to Ethan putting more wood on the fire. Ethan says goodnight and sneaks off. Futterman shoots at Ethan’s bedroll, and Ethan kills Futterman. Those with him flee, and Ethan takes his money back.
Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis) brings another letter to Lars, who welcomes him. He hands the letter to Laurie, and they ask her to read it. She reads the letter from Martin who wrote they are looking for Chief Scar. They traded with the Indians, and hats sell the best.
Ethan tells Martin to move on, and on the way he says the Indians got suspicious when he asked about a white girl. A squaw follows them, and Ethan tells Martin that he bought a wife. Ethan invites Mrs. Pawley to join them. Laurie reads how he got a wife. She gets angry and throws the letter at the fire, but Lars retrieves it.
The squaw serves coffee to Martin and Ethan. Martin says, “Look,” and she takes that as the name he calls her. She sleeps next to Martin, and he kicks her down the hill. Martin mentions Scar, and Ethan says she heard him. They question her; but she becomes afraid and leaves. She left an arrow made of rocks.
In the snow Martin and Ethan approach a herd of buffalo and shoot one. Ethan keeps shooting, and Martin tries to stop him. They hear a bugle, and some cavalry cross a stream.
Ethan and Martin ride in heavy snow to an Indian camp, where they find some dead Comanche. Look is dead too.
The cavalry herd some Indian women. Ethan and Martin go into the building and ask about a girl. They show them a woman who screams and whimpers. They see two girls, but they are not Debbie. Ethan says they are not white anymore because they are Comanches. Ethan cannot identify the dead white girl. Laurie finishes reading the letter, and Lars says they will never find that girl. Laurie is upset, and Mrs. Jorgensen invites Charlie for dinner. He plays guitar and sings to her.
Ethan and Martin go into a cantina and find Mose. They greet each other and drink tequila. Mose says he found a man who has seen her. Emilio says he is the man, and Ethan offers him money. Emilio buys them cigars. Ethan talks business while Martin is eating. Ethan tells Martin they are going to see Scar.
Emilio leads them, and others follow. They go to an Indian camp. Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) comes out of a tent, and he calls Ethan “Big Shoulders.” Ethan wants to trade, and they go in the tent. Scar says he had two sons killed and takes many scalps for them. Deborah (Natalie Wood) holds a spear with scalps hanging from it. Scar shows him the medal. Ethan says they will talk tomorrow and walks out. Emilio says he knows who Ethan is. He gives the money back to Ethan because it is blood money. Martin asks why he did not kill him back there. Ethan says it was hospitality. Martin speaks to Debbie and says he is her brother. He asks her to remember. She says she remembers and that she prayed to him. She says these are her people. Ethan pulls his gun and tells Martin to stand aside. Martin stands in front of her. Martin pulls his gun. An Indian on a horse shoots an arrow that hits Ethan. Martin shoots the Indian, and other Indians attack on horses. Martin and Ethan get on their horses and ride away, chased by the Indians. They dismount and hide by a cave and shoot. Chief Scar and others charge them, and they kill some of them.
Martin fills his canteen from water trickling down. Ethan has his left arm in a sling, and Martin says he will have to open his shoulder again. Ethan asks him to read his will, leaving all his property to Martin, who says Debbie is his blood kin, but Ethan says she is no longer.
People square dance, and Samuel comes in with Charlie. Samuel dresses up, and they sing “Gather at the River.” Samuel stands before the altar. Martin and Ethan arrive, but Lars tells them to stay out. He says the Rangers are in there, and Ethan has been posted for murder. Laurie comes down the outside stairs in a wedding dress and sees Martin. Ethan goes inside and asks if the bar is open. Ethan tells Mrs. Jorgensen that he saw her, and she is not little anymore.
By a fire Laurie complains that Martin only sent her one letter in five years. Martin says he always loved her. She says it is not fair, and she cries. She embraces him, and Charlie comes in and tells Martin to unhand his fiancée. Martin is surprised, and they confront each other. Martin starts to fight, and Charlie knocks him down. They go out to fight, and Charlie takes off his coat. They put a piece of firewood down and begin to fight. Samuel comes out and tells them to stop. Laurie asks Ethan to make them stop, but he says she started it. Samuel has them shake hands. Charlie says there will be no wedding until things are cleared up. Samuel asks Ethan to go with him to the state capital. Samuel wants to know about Futterman, and he asks Ethan for his gun. Ethan gives it to him. Martin says he is not going to Austin. A soldier comes in and asks for Captain Clayton. He says that Col. Greenhill wants him to put together a company of men to go after Chief Scar. Ethan goes out and gets Mose and brings him in. Ethan asks Mose where Scar is. Martin asks where Debbie is. Mose tells Marty seven fingers. Martin and Samuel figure out where he means. Samuel tells the boy soldier they are going in the morning. Laurie tells Martin he is not going this time. Martin says he has to fetch her home. Laurie says Ethan will kill her, but Martin intends to stop him.
Ethan and Samuel decide how to approach the Indians. Samuel tells the men they are charging in at sunup. Martin says they would kill her. Ethan tells Martin that one of the scalps was his mother’s. Martin says that does not change anything. Martin asks to go in first, and Samuel gives him a chance. Ethan says it is his funeral. Martin goes down the cliff. In the Indian camp Scar comes out of his tent. The young soldier arrives, and Samuel lets him stay. He draws his sword, and Samuel calls it a knife; they walk together. Samuel orders his men to mount. Martin is in the camp without a shirt and wakes up Debbie. She screams, and he keeps her quiet. He say he will get her out of there. An Indian enters the tent, and Martin shoots him. Samuel orders the charge, and they attack the camp. Ethan finds the dead Indian in the tent. Ethan on his horse sees Debbie, and Martin tries to stop him but is cast aside. She runs to a cave, and Ethan picks her up and tells her they are going home. Samuel is being treated for a wound in the rear.
Ethan carries Debbie on his horse and returns to the Jorgensens. Mose is sitting in his rocking-chair. Debbie embraces Mrs. Jorgensen, and they go in the house. Martin and Laurie go in too, but Ethan walks outside.
This classic western portrays Texans in conflict with Comanche. When a veteran loses most of his family to a Comanche raid, he and the man, whom he saved from Indians when his parents were killed, go after his remaining niece. Thus two men devote themselves with mixed motives of revenge and rescue even though the young one delays marriage five years to do so.