Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) is a Mestiza (half-white, half-Native American) girl who is orphaned after her father kills her mother after he caught her with a lover. Before he is executed as a punishment, he arranges for his daughter Pearl to live with his second cousin and old sweetheart, Laura Belle (Lillian Gish).
When she arrives, the gentle and gracious Laura Belle is happy to welcome her to their home, but not so her husband, the wheelchair-bound Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), who calls her a "half-breed" and jealously despises Pearl's father. Pearl also meets their sons, the McCanles brothers: Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and Lewt (Gregory Peck), the latter being a ladies man with a personality quite unlike that of his gentlemanly brother Jesse. He expresses his interest in Pearl in direct terms and she takes a strong dislike to him, and when she eventually submits to Lewt's aggressive advances one night, Pearl is angry with him and ashamed of her own behavior; however, she also cannot help but be flattered by his lust and attentions. This starts a downward spiral that draws them both.
This was Selznick's attempt to outdo Gone with the Wind, and he was personally crushed when it ended up being a critical and commercial disappointment. The film's sensual nature managed to pass the notoriously prudish standards of The Hays Code but some religious groups, notably the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the film, and any attempts to boycott the film only encouraged audiences to see it and may have played a part in the movie breaking even at the box office.
This film contains examples of:
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Pearl spends most of the movie chasing after bad boy Lewt.
- Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: The cold Senator McCanles admits his love for his wife Laura Belle before she dies.
- Ax-Crazy: Lewt is established from the start to be violent, but once he guns down Sam Pierce and becomes a wanted man, it becomes clear that he's an imminent threat to others.
- Badass Preacher: Jubal Crabbe (Walter Huston), a gun-toting preacher nicknamed the "Sinkiller", that Laura Belle calls in to counsel Pearl on how to avoid the evils of temptation.
- Betrayal by Offspring: The Senator considers Jesse to have done this when he supports the railroad in a land dispute.
- Betty and Veronica: The gentlemanly Jesse and bad boy Lewt are the Betty and Veronica respectively to Pearl's Archie.
- Brownface: Jennifer Jones wears a brown tan (pretty obvious at some points◊) to play the Mestiza Pearl.
- Cain and Abel: Lewt and Jesse eventually end up in a showdown. Lewt ends up shooting Jesse, but it isn't fatal.
- Dark Shepherd: Jubal Crabbe. When you're a preacher and your idea of discouraging bad behavior is to carry a gun (to the point you're nicknamed "Sinkiller"), you're this.
- Death by Adaptation: In the film, Pearl dies at the end as opposed to the book where the character survives and marries Jesse.
- Half-Breed Discrimination: Senator McCanles coldly shows contempt to Pearl due to being half-Native American, calling her a "half-breed."
- Hot-Blooded: Lewt gets riled up pretty easily.
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Lewt flies into a rage at the slightest provocation.
- I Have No Son!: Jesse's backing of the railroad in a land dispute results in his disownment and banishment from the family home by the Senator.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Lewt ends up gunning down Sam, the man who proposes to Pearl. He also shoots his own brother Jesse, but he isn't killed.
- Romantic False Lead: Sam Pierce, a neighboring rancher who is smitten with Pearl. She does not love him but says yes to his proposal. Before they can be married, however, Lewt picks a fight with Pierce in a saloon and guns him down.
- Sibling Triangle: Brothers Jesse and Lewt compete for the affections of Pearl.
- Slowly Slipping Into Evil: At the beginning of the movie, Lewt is loutish but not without charm. By the film's end, however, he has crossed the line into full-blown villainy.