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Henry Hathaway's film is based on a character from Harold Robbins' The Carpetbaggers, who, in turn, based it on cowboy actor Ken Maynard. Set in the West of the 1890s, the film opens with the torture and murder of the parents of Max Sand (Steve McQueen) by a trio of gunslingers seemingly motivated by their hostility toward the mixed nature of the marriage, since the wife is a Native American. Swearing revenge, the young cowhand enlists the help of itinerant gunsmith Jonas Cord Brian Keith, who teaches him how to shoot while counseling against revenge. Nonetheless, Sand doggedly scours one town after the other before finally running up against one of the murderers, Jesse Coe (Martin Landau). He finally kills Coe in a vicious knife fight, but is severely wounded himself and has to be nursed back to health by Neesa (Janet Margolin), a young Kiowa woman. He next heads for Louisiana where another of the murderous trio, Bill Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy), is serving a prison sentence in a remote swamp. In order to get close to the man, Sand stages a robbery, and is soon among the prison inmates.

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