The year is 1868. Ethan Edwards, played to cowboy perfection by the legendary John Wayne, returns to his family’s homestead from the Civil War. Edwards is a nasty racist, who’s possibly wanted for several crimes. He returns from the war of “Northern aggression” three years after it ended. Ethan returns to his brother Aaron’s home in the wilderness of West Texas. Aaron resides in the home with his two daughters Debbie and Lucy, his son Ben, a somewhat adopted son Martin Pawley, and his loving wife, Martha, who appears to harbor deep affection for Ethan, unbeknownst to Aaron.
Shortly after Ethan arrives, trouble soon follows. Shortly after Ethan’s arrival, cattle belonging to his neighbor Lars Jorgensen are stolen, and when Captain Samuel Clayton Ethan and a group of Rangers to follow the trail, they discover that the theft was a ploy by Comanche to draw the men away from their families, so the blood thirsty savages can attack the unprotected homesteads. When they return home, they find Aaron’s homestead in flames, Aaron, Martha, and their son Ben dead. The Comanche chief, Scar, spares Debbie’s, and her older sister Lucy’s, lives, and holds them captive.
Ethan and Martin hold a quick funeral before joining a posse to go after their kidnapped kin. Beginning a search that will last five years. Along the way, the posse finds some of the Comanche buried, presumably shot by Aaron during the raid. Ethan shows his disdain for Comanche beliefs by mutilating one of the bodies of the fallen Indian warrior, shooting the bodies’ eyes out so that they can’t see where they are going in the spirit world. Eventually, they find the Comanche camp.
Ethan wants to attack them, but Clayton insists they sneak in to keep the Comanche from killing the girls. Eventually, the posse eventually enters the what they believe is the camp. It’s deserted, and the girls are still missing.
Soon after, the Rangers find themselves caught in a trap, surrounded by Comanche on both sides. The Rangers fend off the Indian attack, but with too few men to ensure victory, Clayton and the posse return home, leaving Ethan to continue his search for the girls with Lucy’s fiancé Brad Jorgensen and Martin.
Shortly afterwards, Ethan separates from Brad and Martin to check out a canyon, while the two younger men follow the trail of the main group. Soon afterwards, Ethan rides out of the canyon, visibly upset, but not telling the two men what he found. What did Ethan find in the canyon? Was the lifeless body of his niece, Lucy, there? Did several Comanche warriors rape her? Or did he find Lucy alive, but sullied by her encounter with the tribe, for which Ethan, the hater of all things Native American, especially Comanche, could think of no worse fate for her? Did Ethan kill Lucy in the canyon? That’s the viewers decision. Ethan won’t spell it out for you.
The trio eventually find the Comanche camp, and Brad believes Lucy to be alive as he sees someone in her dress down in the camp. Ethan destroys the young man’s dreams, when he reveals that Lucy died in the Canyon, but not revealing how. Angry, Brad rides wildly into the camp where the Comanche kill him.
Ethan and Martin continue on with their search until winter, when they lose the trail. When they return to the Jorgensen ranch,the Jorgensen’s’ daughter Laurie enthusiastically welcomes Martin, and Ethan finds a letter waiting for him from a man named Futterman.
Futterman writes that he has information about Debbie. Ethan, who would rather travel alone, leaves without Martin the next morning. However, Laurie provides Martin with a horse to catch up; swearing to him that she will not wait around for him to be with her.
At Futterman’s trading post, Ethan and Martin finally learn that Scar,the chief of the Nawyecka band of Comanche, has taken Debbie. The film takes an unusual approach to storytelling, by having the story told through the letter to Laurie, received a year or more later after the events have occurred. The letter describes the ongoing search and the events we have already seen.
Eventually, Ethan and Martin go to New Mexico, where a Mexican man leads them to Scar. They find Debbie after five years, now an adolescent, played by Natalie Wood, living as one of Scar’s wives. When she meets with the men outside the camp, she says she has become a Comanche and asks them to leave without her. However, Ethan would rather see her dead than living as an Indian. He tries to shoot her, but Martin shields her with his body and a Comanche shoots Ethan with an arrow. Ethan and Martin escape to safety, where Martin saves Ethan by tending to his wound. Martin is furious at Ethan for attempting to kill Debbie and wishes him dead. “That’ll be the day,” Ethan replies, all Buddy Holly like. Due to Ethan’s injury and the trial going cold, the men then return home empty handed once again.
However, life continues on during Martin and Ethan’s absence. The men return to the occasion of Laurie and Charlie McCorry’s wedding. A fistfight breaks out between Martin and Charlie before a young “Yankee” soldier, played by John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne, interrupts the proceedings with news that Ethan’s half-crazy friend Mose Harper knows where Scar is. Clayton leads his men to the Comanche camp, this time for a direct attack, but Martin is allowed to sneak in and rescue Debbie, who welcomes him. During the attack, Martin kills Scar and Ethan scalps him. When Ethan sees Debbie, Martin is unable to stop him from chasing her, but instead of killing her, Ethan carries her home.
Martin reunites with Laurie, and the film ends with one of the most iconic images in film history. Ethan walks slowly away from the cabin, alone and clutching his arm. He is forever the outcast; stuck between the civilized world and the savage, untamed frontier that has made him the man he is.
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