powered by AFI
In 1875 in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, which has been ceded by a treaty to its original owners, the Sioux Nation, the discovery of gold brings "rushers," who develop a hatred for the U.S. Cavalry soldiers assigned to enforce the treaty and keep them off Sioux land. After a company of misfits commanded by Capt. Web Calhoun comes across a dead dog with an arrow through its throat, they chase a family of rushers, the Ledbetters, in a wagon nearby. After telling them that Indians killed their dog as a warning, Calhoun orders them to leave. At the town of Dawson, frustrated rushers taunt the cavalry with calls of "Indian lover." Calhoun finds his ex-sweetheart, Lia Wilson, in the company of his commanding officer, Col. Lloyd Unger. Disdainful of Calhoun's West Point training, Unger kisses Lia in front of him. Angered by their rivalry, Lia, who works as a "hostess" for saloon owner Ira Jordan, says she is no one's personal property. Lia followed Calhoun from the South to the frontier after he volunteered for duty there so he would not have to fight his own people in the Civil War. Unger, Calhoun believes, received his commission as commander of the fort because he did favors for politicians who are against the treaty, believing it stops the "progress" of the nation on its way to acquire all the land to the Pacific Ocean. At the saloon, Calhoun finds that Jordan has a cache of Henry repeating rifles and warns him that some have gotten to the Sioux. Jordan admits that he would like to see an Indian war, because after the Sioux are defeated, his business will increase with more rushers swarming into the area. The next day, Sgt. Barhydt finds the body of ex-scout Charlie Grass, who was three-fourths Indian, hanging upside-down in a tree. The alcoholic Grass, who criticized Calhoun's policy of protecting Sioux lands, was killed, Barhydt surmises, because he betrayed his own people. When Unger learns about the murder, he orders a combat patrol to be readied. Calhoun, however, contends that the Sioux have not violated the treaty because Grass had resigned the previous night, so was no longer working for the government, and Unger angrily rescinds his order. Men whom Calhoun believes to be connected with Jordan pursue and shoot at his troop in the hills. In town, he accuses Jordan of attempted murder, but has no proof. At a dance for newly arrived Lt. Cutter, Jordan tells Unger that the Sioux have begun to attack isolated ranchers east of the boundary line, claiming that Pactola, the Sioux chief, is retaliating for settlers coming into the hills. He suggests, though, that Unger wait before attacking the Sioux. When the women at the dance begin to leave, offended by Lia's presence, Unger takes her back to her tent, where she slaps him when he suggests they have a drink together, saying he can have the drink with her only at Jordan's. After he leaves, she finds Calhoun in the tent, and although they kiss, he tells her he doesn't want to see her again. When the patrol finds a ranch burned down and Unger learns that the rancher's family was massacred, he vows to track down the "Redsticks" responsible. Calhoun says that he has seen smoke signals indicating that the Sioux are gathering inside the hills, not outside, and believes the attack is a decoy devised by Jordan. Unger, however, orders Calhoun to guard the fort while he attacks the Sioux. After the cavalry leave, Lia tells Calhoun that a wagon train loaded with supplies and repeating rifles was sent out by Jordan, who is trying to provoke a war. Lia promises to be there for him if he is court-martialled for disobeying orders, and Calhoun leaves the fort and rides off with his troop for the hills. They hear the sound of repeating rifles and chase down the Ledbetters, who admit that they fired on the Indians first. Meanwhile, Unger and Cutter find that an "Indian" wounded by the Ledbetters is really a white man sent by Jordan, and Unger realizes that Calhoun was right. Back at the fort, as the Sioux battle those left inside, Calhoun and his men charge through and enter. He castigates Jordan and has Lia lead the women and children to the magazine where the gunpowder is kept. When the women refuse to follow her, she convinces them by saying that whatever she has been through will seem "delicate" compared to their treatment if they are captured by "savages." When the Indians are about to break through the gates, Calhoun gives orders to blast the magazine, but the Sioux stop, and he rides out to meet with Pactola, who recognizes him as the one white who has not forgotten the treaty. Pactola allows the people in the fort to leave for the East. The Indians take over the fort, while Calhoun leads the people past the scene of the massacre of Unger and his men. Unger, barely alive, tells Calhoun to keep fighting "your way" before he dies. Subsequently, Calhoun becomes a colonel, fighting at Powder River, Warbonnet, Wounded Knee and White Clay Creek. If he had been listened to, however, the deaths of one thousand men would have been prevented.