Notorious gunslinger Quirt Evans (Wayne) is badly wounded in a gunfight. Fleeing, he arrives on a farm owned by a Quaker family, and falls in love with their adult daughter Penny Worth (Russell). He begins to get used to living on the Worth farm, solving some local problems for them, but then his old enemy Laredo Stevens (Cabot) comes calling.
The film inspired the Johnny Cash song of same name, as well as the later films Witness and The Outsider. It was remade in 2009 as a Made-for-TV Movie by the Hallmark Channel, with Lou Diamond Phillips as Evans.
This film provides examples of the following tropes:
- It Works Better with Bullets: Subverted at the first encounter with Laredo Stevens. When told Stevens is on his way, Quirt goes for his gun and is dismayed to find that Thomas Worth emptied it earlier (when he used it as a pacifier to stop Quirt from thrashing about long enough for the doc to treat him). Quirt is still able to use the gun to keep Stevens at bay while they talk, since Stevens doesn't know the gun is empty.
- Parental Abandonment/Parental Substitute: Quirt was adopted and named by a rancher named Walt Ennis after his birth parents were killed in an Indian attack. Ennis himself was later murdered.
- Perfect Pacifist People: The Quaker community abhors violence and lauds compassion, and is initially suspicious of Quirt Evans due to his reputation as a gunslinger and killer of men. They begin to come around after Quirt uses his fearsome reputation, but not actual violence, to talk Frederick Carson into giving the Quakers irrigation water.
- Punny Name: Penny Worth? That seriously sounds like something out of a James Bond piece.
- Reckless Gun Usage: Defied. Early in the film, a delirious Quirt won't hold still long enough for the doctor to treat him. Thomas Worth tries giving Quirt his gun back (to the disbelief of his wife and the doc), but he emptied it of bullets first. Quirt immediately goes limp.
- The Sheriff: Marshal Wistful McClintock is a Friendly Enemy to Quirt, whom he regards as That One Case and says he'll use a new rope when he hangs him. He acts as something of a Greek Chorus, reacting with disbelief at how comfortable Quirt's becoming living with the Worths. He finally kills Laredo Stevens and Hondo Jeffries when they draw on Quirt in a Showdown at High Noon at the end of the film, and is disappointed not to have caught Quirt red-handed. When Quirt announces to him that he's becoming a farmer and drops his gun in the dirt, McClintock says to his deputy he'll hang it in his office, with a new rope.
- Threatening Mediator: The Quaker settlement had built a community dam to provide irrigation water, but the family whose property it was located on went bankrupt and sold it to rancher Frederick Carson, who refused to continue supplying water. The Quakers prayed for Carson, but Quirt's solution is to ride over to Carson's ranch and use veiled threats, backed up by his notoriety, to talk Carson down. He then brings Carson over to meet the Worths and they hit it off, with Mrs. Worth even treating a nasty boil on Carson's neck.
- Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Penny at one point asks where Quirt got "such an odd name". Quirt explains he was named by the rancher who adopted him after a kind of riding whip.