Ethan Edwards, returned from the Civil War to the Texas ranch of his brother, hopes to find a home with his family and to be near the woman he obviously but secretly loves. But a Comanche raid destroys these plans, and Ethan sets out, along with his 1/8 Indian nephew Martin, on a years-long journey to find the niece kidnapped by the Indians under Chief Scar. But as the quest goes on, Martin begins to realize that his uncle’s hatred for the Indians is beginning to spill over onto his now-assimilated niece. Martin becomes uncertain whether Ethan plans to rescue Debbie…or kill her.
Three years after the end of the Civil War, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) rides onto the Texas farm owned by his brother, Aaron (Walter Coy). Aaron is a little wary of Ethan, who has not been seen since the surrender of the Confederate Army, but his children — Lucy, Ben and Debbie — are all overjoyed to see him. So is Martha (Dorothy Jordan), Aaron's wife; she and Ethan clearly are in love though they cannot act on it. Aaron and Martha's adopted quarter Cherokee son Martin arrives for dinner. He greets Ethan but Ethan is very unhappy in his presence despite the fact that he is the one who found him abandoned as an infant. Martin and everybody else can see Ethan's dislike for him. As the night draws in,Martin sits outside on the porch feeling distant from the family in Ethan's presence. He goes to off to bed as do the other kids, and Aaron and Martha soon discover that Ethan is in possession of newly minted Northern money. Aaron agrees to hide the money for Ethan and tells him he is free to stay as long as he likes. Ethan knows his welcome is tenuous, however, and after everyone else goes to bed, sits alone on the porch.The next morning, the Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), the area's minister and captain of the Texas Rangers, comes with a posse to the farm. Someone has run off Lars Jorgensen's (John Qualen) cattle. Clayton deputizes Aaron and Martin to join the Rangers' posse. Ethan tells Aaron he is not to go but instead to stay close to home in case the cattle rustling was in fact a diversionary ploy by aggressive Native Americans. Clayton is glad to see his former compatriot in the Confederate Army but also mentions that Ethan matches the description of a lot of wanted criminals. Ethan agrees to go with the Rangers to search for the cattle but refuses to swear an oath to the state of Texas, believing that his oath to the Confederacy is sufficient.They ride off and follow the trail and it isn't long before Marty tries to share his concerns about what they are following with Ethan, but Ethan is dismissive because of Marty's biracial heritage. After several hours of riding, the posse finds Jorgensen's cattle slaughtered in the desert. They realize that a band of Comanche Indians have lured them away from their farms. Because Jorgensen's farm is closest, most of the posse rides there. Ethan, Marty and the slightly demented Mose Harper (Hank Worden) decide to ride for Aaron's farm. But Marty wants to ride off straight away and Ethan knows that the horses won't make it. They need resting for a while. Martin doesn't care and angrily rides off anyway. As dusk sets in,Aaron becomes suspicious at his farm as he hears noises in the distance.Fully aware of what Mose was saying about the Comanches, he and Martha try to stay calm in front of the kids while Aaron picks up a shotgun to pretend he's going to do some hens.Martha starts to close the windows and put out the lights.Lucy realises what is going on and starts to scream in terror.Martha slaps her and tries to calm her and comfort her. They get Debbie out of the window so that she can go off to safety while they prepare for the inevitable.Debbie runs off and sits by an headstone. A shadow looms over her. it is the chief of the tribe, Scar. He blows his horn to call his tribe. Early in the morning,Ethan and Mose ride along and see Martin stood wanting a ride from them. His horse has failed to make the journey but Ethan rides along passed him and Mose follows. Ethan sees that the ranch is burned down and rides down to try to find any survivors from the attack.Aaron, Martha and Ben have been slaughtered, and Lucy and Debbie are missing.As the funeral takes place and the people sing an hymn, Ethan becomes frustrated and just what's to get on with taking revenge. He tells Clayton to cut the prayer short so that they can go searching for Debbie and Lucy. They find a partially buried Indian corpse,who has died apparently from from been wounded during the attack. Ethan shoots the warrior's eyes out to further mutilate the corpse and prevent it from reaching the afterlife. Soon Ethan finds the Comanches setting up camp near a river 20 miles away from where the rest of the posse are.He returns to them and tells them they'll wait until nightfall and attack them. Clayton doesn't think it's a good idea because it could result in Lucy and Debbie been killed. Instead they slowly sneak in but find that they are gone.As they travel along the desert,the Comanches try to get the posse into a trap. They manage to make it to the other side of the river and fend them off in a gun battle,which results in one of them been wounded. As the Comnahces try to collect their dead and injured members,Ethan tries to shoot more of them but Clayton stops him. Full of rage, Ethan angrily tells them that he's going on alone to pursue them.Marty and Lucy's boyfriend Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) want to join him.Ethan agrees on the condition that he's in charge.The three of them separate from the rest of them,who return home with the wounded member of the group.Soon Brad the Indians encampment one night, he believes he sees Lucy's distinctive dress. Ethan tells him that he found Lucy's defiled corpse in a canyon when the three men had split up to follow different trails. Insane with rage, Brad rides wildly into the Indian camp on his own.Marty tries to stop him but Ethan grabs him to prevent him following.Gunshots are heard in the distance and Brad is soon killed.Ethan and Marty continue on their search but as winter sets in, they lose their trail. They return to the Jorgensens' ranch. Marty has a tenuous romantic relationship with the Jorgensens' daughter, Laurie (Vera Miles). Mrs. Jorgensen gives Ethan a letter from a trader named Futterman who says he might have information about Debbie. Ethan arranges for Marty to stay with the Jorgensens but Marty wants to go with him. However in the morning, he discovers that Ethan has taken off on his own. Fearing that Ethan will kill Debbie if he finds her, he still takes off after him much to Laurie's displeasure.At Futterman's trading post he tells them that he purchased a swatch of calico print dress from an Indian band led by a war chief named Scar. Marty recognises it as Debbie's. Futterman tells them that she was taken by Scar,the chief of the Nawyecka tribe.Ethan pays Futterman part of the reward. He tells him he'll get the rest when and if they find Debbie.Futterman asks them if they want to stay the night but Ethan refuses. He knows Futterman is after his money.Later that night, Futterman and two accomplices follow Ethan and Marty for the rest of the money. But Ethan knows what they are up to. He leaves Marty by the camp fire to sleep while he goes to hide with a rifle,ready to take the men out. He shoots all three men in the back and retrieves his money from the dead body.Marty is angry that Ethan just left him for bait but Ethan just calmly tells him to get ready to move on.By now, the search for Debbie has continued for a year or more. Marty writes a letter to Laurie detailing his and Ethan's attempts to find Debbie.Charlie McCory delivers the letter and she reads it out loud to the family and narrates the next part of their journey.Ethan and Marty have traveled out of Texas into Colorado and parts north. Laurie is outraged to learn that Marty accidentally acquired an Indian bride, Look (Beulah Archuletta) while trying to trade for blankets with a different band of Comanche. Marty tried to drive her away but Ethan finds the situation amusing. When Look learned they were tracking Scar, she abandoned them in the night. They later found her in a Comanche camp that had been slaughtered by the American calvary. Marty and Ethan visited a local fort where white women who had been with the Comanche are, having been rescued by the cavalry. Ethan and Martin tell them that they are looking for a girl who was taken and will be around the age of 14 now. They are taken to three girls of that age,who appear to be deranged from their experiences but none of them are Debbie. One of the girls snatches Debbie's doll from Marty's hands and as she rocks with it back and forth, Ethan looks her horrified,thinking of what Debbie will be like if they find her.Laurie finshes reading the letter by telling everyone that Ethan and Marty are heading for the new territory. Laurie swears she will give up on Marty, which delights Charlie, who begins to serenade her.Five years later, Ethan and Marty are in New Mexico territory, where they find Mose in a cantina. He has met Figueroa, a merchant who trades with Scar's tribe. Figueroa takes them to meet Scar (Henry Brandon). Scar and Ethan are both annoyed to learn each speaks the other's language. In Scar's tent, Ethan and Marty see Debbie (Natalie Wood), now a teenager. They return to their own camp by a creek. Marty asks Ethan if Scar wants to kill them.Ethan reckons so and explains that the only reason he has let them escape with their lives for now is because of the Comanche code of honour. In the distance Debbie comes running down the sand dune to Marty. He begs her to try and remember him. She says she does but the Comanche are her people now and they must leave her. Ethan pulls out his gun and orders Marty to move away from her so that he can kill her but Marty blocks him. Just then, Scar's warriors attack and Ethan is wounded by a poisoned arrow. He and Marty ride off with the Indians in pursuit.They take cover in a cave and fend them off with their pistols.Ethan rests up,while Marty tends to him. Later,Ethan gives him a letter to read. He wants Marty to take all his possessions should he die but Marty isn't happy about it,as Debbie's his next of kin. But Ethan just considers her an indian now and not a relation.Marty refuses to accept it and tells him he hopes he dies.A while later, they return to the Jorgensens just as Laurie and Charlie are about to be married. They are just about to enter the house when Lars tries to stop them and tells them they are wanted for Futterson's death.He tells them to hide but Ethan walks in anyway to greet everyone.His return is met with silence. Marty is upset to find out that Laurie was going to marry someone else and shocked when he finds out it's Charlie.They end up having a fight and although neither man wins, the wedding is called off. Just as Clayton is about to arrest Ethan and Marty, a young calvary officer called Lt.Greenhill (Patrick Wayne) arrives with Mose who had been captured by Scar's tribe but managed to escape once they came close to the Jorgensens' farm. Clayton organizes his Rangers again and, with Ethan and Marty, they ride out to confront Scar.Ethan wants to charge into Scar's camp, hoping that Scar will kill Debbie so he doesn't have to. Marty persuades Clayton (who is in charge) to let him sneak into camp and rescue Debbie before the charge. When he does so, he has to keep her from screaming for help. Scar enters the tent but Marty beats him to the draw, killing him. Clayton, Ethan and the Rangers charge into the camp, killing or scattering the Comanche. Ethan finds Scar's body and scalps it.As he rides out of the tent holding the scalp, he sees Debbie in the distance.Fearing for her life she runs away and Ethan rides after her.Knocking Marty aside, he pursues near a cave. As she cowers, he reaches down and picks her up. Cradling her in his arms, he says, "Let's go home, Debbie."Ethan and Marty take Debbie back to the Jorgensens' ranch, where Lars, Mrs. Jorgensen, and Mose (sitting on the porch on a rocking chair) are waiting. They take her inside, followed by Marty and Laurie. Ethan stands outside, then turns and walks away as the door closes on him.