Set in Arizona, US Army Scout Sam Varner (Gregory Peck) is all set to retire to New Mexico. They have been rounding up Apaches to bring to reservations. On one of their roundups they find Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint) who has been a captive for ten years. She has her half Indian son with her. When Verner leaves for his New Mexico ranch he is persuaded by the desperate mother to take her and her son along with him.
Verner takes Sarah and her son to a stage depot, so they can catch the stage back east. When the boy runs away to return to his people. Varner and Sarah go out and get him and bring him back, but when they get back to the depot everyone id dead. Varner can tell that the people have been killed by legendary and silent killer, Salvaje. Then Sarah tells him that "He came for his son. He will back for his son." Varner is angry with Sarah. He thinks she should have waited with the troops.
Varner puts Sarah and her son on the stage but rides along with them. At the next depot, he is going to leave them but then he offers Sarah the option of coming back to his farm and cooking for him. She accepts and off they go on the train. The music, which is a major component of the film, since there is very little dialogue, turns light and cheerful. When they get back to the farm Varner's partner, an old man, is there.
The calm before the storm are the slow paced days on the ranch. Then Varner's scout friend Nick Tana, who Varner helped raise, arrives at the ranch to warn that Salvaje is on his way, and is leaving a path of death all across Arizona. All of a sudden the light, bright music is gone. An hour in to the movie and we still haven't seen Salvaje. Then while Sarah is folding clothes, we see a hand on the door and then a glimpse of an Apache hitting Sarah. When Varner finds his neighbors dead he rides home quickly but Sarah is gone. Varner and Nick goes after her, and find her beaten and unconscious.
Then Salvaje shows himself and begins his one man attack on the ranch.
I think the movie works as a Hitchcockian thriller. We never really see the threat until the end, but it is hanging over out head the whole time. It was also very much like Jaws, where we knew the monster was there, but we didn't get to see it until the end.
As far as American Indian movies go, I think this one is a throw back to the older movies like Stagecoach and Drums along the Mohawk where the Indians weren't really viewed as humans, but more as objects to be feared. Why this kind of movie was made in 1968 is kind of baffling to me.
But, we can look at it from a different point of view too. If a foreign army was gathering up your people and putting them in prison camps and then someone kidnapped your wife and son, maybe you would go after them too. And maybe you would be brutal too. And maybe your own people would look on you as being more heroic, than demonic. Maybe Salvaje, like the Vietnamese who in 1968 were defending their own lands across the sea, would be looked at as heroic patriots by their own people. In any case, I thought it was an interesting, intelligent, and thought provoking movie.