Fonda portrays Clay Blaisedell, a freelance marshal in the fictional town of Warlock with implacable methods of dealing with troublemakers. A subplot centers on Blaisedell's club-footed assistant, Tom Morgan, played by Quinn, who has sublimated his relationships and ambition into a warped devotion to Blaisedell, the only person Morgan thinks does not look down on him for his disability.
Warlock is a small Utah mining town of the early 1880s. Cowboys working for Abe McQuown (Tom Drake) often come into town to shoot the place up, kill on just a whim, beating or humiliating any deputy sheriff who tries to stand up to them. The Citizens' Committee decides to hire Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), a renowned gunfighter, as town marshal in spite of the misgivings of some, such as old Judge Holloway (Wallace Ford) who insists that the situation should be handled within the law (though a loophole prevents it from being done effectively).
Blaisedell, famous for his golden-handled guns, arrives in Warlock with his devoted friend, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), his club-footed, right-hand man, who is no slouch with a gun himself. Morgan has a reputation as a heavy-drinking gambler, but Blaisedell insists that Morgan is part of the package. They even take over the local saloon and rename it the "French Palace" (something they appear to have done in previous towns, since they bring the signboard with them).
Their first encounter with McQuown's men is without bloodshed. The cowboys are intimidated by Blaisedell and one, Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), stays behind. Gannon has been put off by their propensity for killing, particularly the shooting of victims in the back, for some time now and resolves to be more law-abiding.
Morgan learns that his old flame, Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), is coming to town on the stagecoach, and she is accompanied by Bob Nicholson (Sol Gorss), brother of Big Ben Nicholson, who was recently killed by Blaisedell. Lily had left Morgan for Big Ben and knows that Morgan pushed Ben into challenging Blaisedell, who killed him as a result. She wants Blaisedell dead to punish Morgan.
Morgan sets out to meet the stagecoach but it is robbed by some of McQuown's cowboys as he watches from a distance. He takes advantage of the situation to kill Bob Nicholson unseen. Lily arrives in town and sees Morgan there. She believes that he pulled the trigger, although this is based on intuition rather than evidence.
The robbers are arrested without incident by Blaisedell and a posse. Before taking them to Bright City for trial, the sheriff, who disapproves of Blaisedell, accepts Gannon's offer to become Warlock's new deputy. Gannon takes his law enforcement duties seriously.
The robbers, one of whom is Gannon's younger brother Billy (Frank Gorshin), are cleared by a jury intimidated by McQuown. The cowboys, led by Billy, immediately confront Blaisedell and Morgan in the street. The deputy asks them to leave and tells Billy, "I ain't backin' him, because you're my brother, and I ain't backin' you, because you're wrong." A cowboy tries to shoot Blaisedell in the back but is spotted by Morgan and shot. Blaisedell kills two others, including Billy, after giving him a fair chance to back down. McQuown's smooth-talking man Curley (DeForest Kelley) posts wanted notices for Blaisedell, declaring the cowboys "regulators" in mockery of his quasi-legal status. Gannon vows to stop any regulators who come to town and McQuown angrily stabs him in his gun hand.
Townspeople begin resenting the presence of Blaisedell and Morgan, exactly as Blaisedell had predicted. However, he has started a relationship with Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels) and decides to marry and settle down, much to the surprise of Morgan, who wants to move on to another town.
Despite his injured hand, Gannon must face the cowboys alone after Morgan pulls a gun on Blaisedell, who had volunteered to back the deputy. With help from the citizens and from Curley, who promised him "a fair fight," Gannon unexpectedly kills McQuown and breaks up the regulators for good. Warlock has outgrown its need for the two gunfighters, but Morgan cannot tolerate the idea that Gannon is now more of a hero than Blaisedell, and he resents Lily's attraction to the deputy, too. In the course of an argument, Blaisedell learns the truth about the deaths of the Nicholson brothers and turns his back on Morgan.
That evening, in a drunken state, Morgan shoots up the town and calls out Gannon, intending to kill him. Blaisedell locks the deputy in his own cell, insisting, "Tom Morgan's my responsibility." Initially content to seem cowed, Morgan is pleased Blaisedell is a hero again. No one else realizes that it is he, not Blaisedell, who is the unbeatable gunfighter. Townspeople jeer and mock Morgan as he walks away. Publicly proclaiming his superiority, he challenges Blaisedell to a showdown. Morgan shoots off Blaisedell's hat before being fatally wounded a split-second later. Satisfied that Blaisedell's legacy is secure, Morgan's dying words to him are: "I won, Clay, I won!"
A grief-stricken Blaisedell carries his friend's body into the saloon, which, to the sound of thunder in the sky, he burns down. Doing his duty, Gannon tells Blaisedell that he will arrest him in the morning if he does not leave town. After what has happened, Blaisedell can't face staying in Warlock and decides to leave anyway. Jessie refuses to accompany him. She insists that she is no Tom Morgan, to which he replies that the time might have come to "find another Morgan." The next day, Gannon and Blaisedell face one another, the latter wearing his famous golden-handled guns. Blaisedell outdraws Gannon, but then throws his guns into the sand, smiles at Gannon, mounts his horse and rides away.
Released by Twentieth Century Fox and shot in DeLuxe Color and CinemaScope, the film was adapted from Hall's novel for the screen by Robert Alan Aurthur. The supporting cast includes DeForest Kelley, Frank Gorshin, and Tom Drake.Richard Widmark as Johnny Gannon
Henry Fonda as Clay Blaisedell
Anthony Quinn as Tom Morgan
Dorothy Malone as Lily Dollar
Dolores Michaels as Jessie Marlow
Wallace Ford as Judge Holloway
Tom Drake as Abe McQuown
Richard Arlen as Bacon
DeForest Kelley as Curley Burne
Regis Toomey as Skinner
Vaughn Taylor as Henry Richardson
Don Beddoe as Dr. Wagner
Whit Bissell as Petrix
Bartlett Robinson as Buck Slavin
Frank Gorshin as Billy Gannon
June Blair as Dance hall girl
Robert Adler as Foss (uncredited)
Joel Ashley as Murch (uncredited)
Don 'Red' Barry as Edward Calhoun (uncredited)
Wally Campo as Barber (uncredited)
Harry Carter as Bartender (uncredited)
Paul Comi as Luke Friendly (uncredited)
Walter Coy as Deputy Sheriff Roy Tompson (uncredited)
Sheryl Deauville as Dance hall girl (uncredited)
Ann Doran as Mrs. Richardson (uncredited)
David Garcia as George 'Pony' Benner (uncredited)
Sol Gorss as Bob Nicholson (uncredited)
J. Anthony Hughes as Shaw (uncredited)
Roy Jenson as Hasty (uncredited)
L.Q. Jones as Fen Jiggs (uncredited)
Stan Kamber as Hutchinson (uncredited)
Gary Lockwood as Gang member (uncredited)
Ian MacDonald as MacDonald (uncredited)
Robert Osterloh as Professor (uncredited)
James Philbrook as Cade (uncredited)
Hugh Sanders as Sheriff Keller (uncredited)
Roy N. Sickner as Bush (uncredited)
Mickey Simpson as Fitzsimmons (uncredited)
Bert Stevens as Townsman (uncredited)
Joe Turkel as Chet Haggin (uncredited)
Tom Wilson as Townsman (uncredited)
Harry Worth as (uncredited)
Henry Worth as Burbage (uncredited)
The inspiration for Blaisedell, Morgan and Lily Dollar probably comes from one of the West's most (in)famous trios: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Kate Fisher. Morgan's club foot suggests a reference to Clay Allison.Like Blaisedell, Earp had a reputation as a wanderer (Ellsworth, Dodge City, Tombstone) who took up law enforcement for short periods of time. He would clean the place up in an often dubious way and earned far more than the average lawman's pay. Some critics have likened his methods to "protection".
While Morgan walks with a limp, Doc Holliday suffered from tuberculosis, but that did not make him any less a gunman or a killer. He was also a heavy drinker and notorious gambler. He was very close to Earp; Bat Masterson, who knew them well, is quoted as saying that "Doc idolized him".
The name Lily Dollar implies that it is a pseudonym with obvious implications, and indeed it is revealed that she "worked" whenever Morgan was short of money. "Kate Fisher" was also an assumed name, and she was also allegedly a prostitute. Blaisedell tells how Lily once set fire to a house to help him and Morgan escape some enemies; Fisher is said to have done the same thing for Earp and Holliday. On the other hand, there does not seem to be a record of Fisher eventually turning against her two friends.
L'homme aux colts d'or - French title - (translation: The Man with the Golden Colts)
Ultima notte a Warlock - Italian title - (translation: Last Night in Warlock)
El hombre de las pistolas de oro - Spanish title - (translation: The Man with the Golden Guns)