A mysterious stranger on a horse arrives at the farm owned by Joe Starrett. Joe’s young son, Bob, is the first person to notice the stranger and it is through Bob’s eyes that the story of Shane’s arrival and departure will be seen. That stranger is Shane and right from the start Bob recognizes a quality of greatness in the stranger. Shane asks for Joe if he could bother him for a drink of water for himself and his horse and from this simple act of mutual respect and sympathy is formed a powerful bond that will impact everyone who comes into contact with the two men, but especially impacted will be the impressionable young boy. Joe introduces Shane to his wife Marian who is not as immediately sure of the stranger’s benevolence as Bob, but nevertheless serves him pancakes for breakfast the next morning. As the rain starts to fall, Joe convinces Shane that to leave now would be a futile exercise due to the thick mud. Instead, Shane will join with Joe in his continuing effort to get rid of an enormous tree stump that stubbornly refuses to yield to the farmer’s will and desire for disposal. But first, a minor but key event occurs: when a peddler attempts to sell Joe a cultivator at a ridiculously inflated price, Shane intervenes and gets the price lowered. This act of benevolent interference and Shane’s eagerness to help remove the stump become his way of repaying the debt of kindness he owes Joe. Beneath that debt, however, seems to lie a much greater debt which Shane is attempting to make good on.
Marian observes to Bob that is a something a bit strange about the manner in which Joe and Shane are directing their energies toward removing the stump. What the strangeness is becomes apparent when after finally getting to the point where the stump could be moved by tethering it to a horse, they insist upon completing the jobs themselves. The stump is a ritual of manhood and bonding. Removing the stump represents a victory of determination over a seemingly immovable obstruction. In that sense, the stump becomes the central symbol of the upcoming showdown between “squatters” and the land barons who have managed to convince themselves they actually own and entitled to the land of the frontier taken by bloody force from the indigenous tribes. What is often overlooked regarding the symbolism of the stump is that another small event that looms thematically large takes place: Marian burns an apple pie she was baking. She, too, refuses offers of help and remains determined to bake a brand new pie, thus revealing that womanhood has its own rituals of isolation from the bonding that seems so necessary to men.
The next morning Bob wakes up in a tizzy thinking that Shane has left without warning. Shane soothes Bob by letting him he would never leave without saying good-bye. Later, Joe makes some hesitant inquiries about Shane’s past, but is not rewarded with any details. It is at this point that the offer is extended for Shane to stick around and help Joe with the farm. At dinner, Shane takes Joe’s place at the table, but the symbolic meaning is misplaced: it becomes apparent to both Bob and Marian that Shane merely does not want to sit with his back to the door.
The end of summer is looming, Bob has never been happier and Shane is convinced he has taken to a life of farming like he never believed possible. Shane teaches Bob how to handle a gun which will increase in significance as the farmers begin to face greater pressure from the land barons who want them off the farms. Bob sneaks along when Shane takes the wagon into town to get a pitchfork repaired. Bob witnesses a confrontation in the town’s tavern between Shane and one of the landowners’ muscle men, Chris. Bob cannot understand why Shane merely stands there and takes the taunts and jibes of Chris and when they return home he tells his dad all about the humiliating occurrence.
The tension between the farmers and the landowners grows more heated and things begin to reach a head when more of the thugs ride by Joe’s farm and begin taunting him the way that Chris taunted Shane. When the farmers hold a meeting to discuss what to do, Shane leaves. Later they learn that he rode into town where he was once again confronted by Chris. This time, however. Shane doesn’t hold back and they get into a fight which ends with Chris breaking an arm. Worry grows that that retribution will be visited upon all the farmers for revenge against Shane. Marian begs Shane to stay and help because she knows that Joe and the other farmers cannot fight against the landowners on their own. Shane promises that Joe and Marian will never lose their farm.
The confrontation between farmers and landowners is about to boil over. On what promised to be a visit into town eventful only for a meeting with Bob’s teacher because Bob has been having trouble in school, everything suddenly explodes. Shane is provoked into a fight and soon finds himself outnumbered by an entire gang of hired goons. He proves capable of holding his own for awhile, but soon tires and is about to be subdued by the entire gang when Joe appears and joins in the scuffle. The result of the heated exchange is the death of the right-hand man of the Fletcher—the leader of the landowners—at the hand of Shane. Bloodied and beaten, Shane returns back to the farm with Joe and Marian where she tends to his wounds. When they are alone, Joe admits that he knows Marian has fallen for Shane, but that he is not angry or jealous because he recognizes that Shane is the better man.
A crisp, crackling energy of expectation fills the air in anticipation of Fletcher getting even with Shane for breaking Chris’ arm and killing his right-hand man even though no overt action seems ready to take place. Then one day, a new stranger shows up in town: Stark Wilson, a hired gun. Wilson goads one of the other farmers—Ernie Wright—into an impossibly unfair showdown and Wrights winds up not the quicker man but the deader man. With Wright now technically the perpetrator because he moved to draw first, Shane recognizes that Fletcher will utilize the hired gun for the same purpose until he has knocked off all competition. Before it gets to that point, however, Fletcher makes a play for avoiding more bloodshed by trying to convince Shane to join his side of the land war. Not only does Fletcher make an offer for Shane, he even offers Joe a thousand dollars to switch teams. Both men steadfastly refuse. Shane, Joe and Wilson all later engage in a series of taunts having to do with both Marian and the state of Wilson’s manhood in the absence of his guns. Unfortunately for Wilson, Shane is not armed and so he realizes he must hold back on drawing or face the possibility of murder charges. The family and Shane leave town amidst universal recognition that a deadly showdown between Shane and Wilson is inevitable.
Bob fears that Joe is going back into town to confront Fletcher and will face either certain death or giving in and accepting his offer. The next time he sees Shane, he is wearing the same clothing he wore when he first appeared as a stranger atop a horse. Bob realizes now that Shane is giving up his life as a farmer and that he, too, has been a gunfighter. Joe insists that Marian is better off with Shane, but Shane keeps Joe from making the mistake of heading back into town by striking him unconscious with the butt of his gun. Bob follows Shane all the way into town and bears witness to the climactic showdown between the two gunfighters. Shane proves too quick for Wilson and kills him. As he is shooting Wilson, Fletcher ambushes Shane from the balcony of the saloon, but Shane is too quick and accurate for him as well. Shane mounts his horse as Bob recognizes that a stain of blood is spreading across the gunfighter’s shirt. Shane leaves as he arrived: a mysterious loner astride a horse like a knight from the days of chivalry. Later, Chris shows up and asks to work with Joe on the farm. Joe wants to leave the farm forever, but Marian convinces them that the only right thing to do after the sacrifice Shane made for them is to put down roots where they are and become as much an immovable part of the earth as that stump.