Capt. Richard Lance (Gregory Peck) is a strict, by-the-book cavalry officer, unloved but respected by his men for his leadership and survival skills. Leading an expedition to the ironically-named Ft. Invincible, which guards a narrow pass through the mountains, Lance finds the troops there massacred by renegade Apache chief Tucsos and his men. Lance captures Tucsos and insists on bringing him back to Fort Winston to stand trial, against the advice of crusty scout Joe Harmony (Jeff Corey).
Fort Winston’s ailing commander, Col. Drumm, worried that the fort is unprepared for an assault by Tucsos men, orders a detail to escort the Apache chief further north. Lance plans to lead the (likely suicidal) escort himself, and goes to bid farewell to his intended, Cathy Eversham (Barbara Payton). Lance’s best friend Capt. Holloway (Gig Young) also loves Cathy, and following the dictum "all's fair in love and war", is also making a play for her hand. Col. Drumm orders Lance to stay and command the fort and send Holloway in his place. Of course, Tucsos’ braves free him and torture and kill Holloway. Joe and a few other men return with Holloway’s body, and soon the whole fort thinks Lance sent Holloway to his death in his place out of cowardice. Cathy thinks Lance acted out of jealousy, and calls off their engagement.
I like it when a movie opens with a helpful map.
Lance comes up with a plan to possibly delay an attack on the fort until a complement of relief troops arrive in 5 days. He picks seven men, most of whom hate his guts, all men he thinks can be best spared from guarding Fort Winston. These include an alcoholic Irish sergeant (Ward Bond); bullying Sgt. Murdoch (Neville Brand), who Lance has kept from promotion; a former Confederate who is being held for desertion of his cavalry post; a disgraced former West Point officer who has followed Lance into service looking for his best shot at revenge; a wild trooper commonly referred to as “the Arab” (Lon Chaney, Jr.); a cowardly young bugler; and a consumptive officer. Together with scout Joe Harmony, they head for the abandoned Ft. Invincible, with the hope of holding the nearby pass against Tucsos and his men until reinforcements arrive.
It’s a daring and suicidal gambit that becomes increasingly hazardous for Capt. Lance. With the fort baking under a pitiless desert sun, a dwindling water supply, and the merciless Apache threat looming, the men begrudgingly come to realize that Lance is their best hope for survival. But will his plan be enough to stave off an attack against overwhelming odds? And will the men be able to put aside their hatred of Lance to work together as a team, or will they sacrifice their own lives to fulfill their revenge?
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