Taw Jackson (John Wayne) arrives in his hometown fresh from a three year prison sentence after been framed by a corrupt businessman called Pierce (Bruce Cabot),so that he could take Taw's ranch after discovering gold on the land.When the sheriff tells Pierce that he's back,Pierce tells two of his men to find gunslinger Lomax (Kirk Douglas) for a price offer to kill him.Lomax had shot Taw for Pierce some time earlier but Taw had survived the shooting,leading to Pierce framing him instead.
Taw looks for Lomax at the oriental palace saloon.Lomax appears with a gun at his back but Taw tells him he wants to offer him a deal.He found out in prison that Lomax was a safe cracker and he wants him to help him rob the war wagon - an armour plated stagecoach,which Pierce uses to transfer his gold.Once he tells him the plan and his share of the gold,Lomax agrees.Pierce's two men arrive to ask Lomax about the offer to kill Taw and are surprised to see them with each other.They attempt to kill him themselves but Taw and Lomax are ready and gun them down.
Taw and Lomax track down indian,Levi walking bear (Howard Keel) and find him in trouble with some Mexican bandits who have him tied up after cheating them at cards.They help him escape and tell him about the job.They need Levi to ask his people to help them out.Taw also recruits Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker), an explosives expert,who also happens to be an alcoholic much to Lomax's worry, and Wes (Keenan Wynn) a greedy old man who works for Pierce and who immedietly dislikes Billy after he sees him trying to get friendly with his much younger wife,Kate (Valora Noland).
Pierce meets Lomax at the saloon wanting an answer as to whether or not he will kill Taw.Billy walks in drunk and starts shouting about becoming rich soon.Lomax knocks him out to prevent him from mentioning anything about the robbery and accepts Pierce's offer of 12'000 dollars to kill Taw.
At Wes' ranch,Wes gets angry and threatens Billy when he sees him having a friendly conversation with Kate.Taw arrives in time to protect Billy and asks him if he's checked out the bridge that they need to blow up in order to pull off the crime.Because of the short time frame that they have to do the job,Billy wants to use nitroglycerine instead of dynamite and Wes tells them that Pierce stores some in a safe at the ranch.
Taw arrives at the saloon looking for Lomax.Lomax walks over to him for a chat but Pierce and his men enter, hoping to see Taw gunned down.Lomax sees them and starts to goad Taw into a fight.As the two prepare to face off,Levi walks in and starts a fight with Taw to cause a diversion.A bar fight breaks out during which,Lomax knocks out one of Pierce's men who he sees trying to shoot Taw.Lomax follows Taw and Levi out of town.Taw tells him he needs him to crack open the safe to get the nitro out.They wait until dark and sneak in to get the stuff.
The next morning,Pierce unveils the newly fixed gatling gun on the war wagon and tries it out,while Taw and his accomplices prepare for the robbery.The warrior indian tribe pursue the wagon while the wagon guards fall behind to try and protect it from them.The wagon crosses the bridge,the horses trip the rope that Billy has placed and the nitro explodes preventing the guards from crossing and leaving the wagon isolated with only Pierce and his two men inside to defend it.Taw and Lomax jump on the wagon and Pierce's men decide to bail out.He shoots them both for trying to betray him and dies himself as one of the men fires back.Unable to stop the wagon,Taw and Lomax jump to safety as it crashes into a ravine.They manage to get the gold out and haul it onto the back of Wes' wagon,in the barrels which are filled with flour.However a tribe of Indians surround them and try to take the gold.One of them kills Wes.Billy pulls out a bottle of nitro to pretend it's alcohol,knowing that the Indians will take it from him.After taking a sip,the leader throws it and it explodes.The horses run off with the gold with Taw in pursuit,while Lomax takes cover in the war wagon from the Indians and Billy protects Kate.By the time Taw catches up with the wagon he finds that most of the gold has fallen into the possession of the peaceful Indians,who have assumed it was all flour.Levi joins them and Lomax angrily takes Taw's horse as part of his down payment from the money he owes him.But unknown to him,Taw has recovered some gold and he gives Billy a small amount to start a new life with Kate,until they divide it up properly after the robbery has died down.He tells him to tell Lomax where he got it from if he sees him.
Lomax confronts Taw and wants his share of the gold.Taw tells him they'll divide it up in six months and in the meantime he better makes sure nothing happens to him or he'll never see it.