Directed by Ed Harris
Runtime: 115 minutes
Starring: Ed Harris (Virgil Cole, Viggo Mortensen (Everett Hitch), Jeremy Irons (Randall Bragg), Renée Zellweger (Allison French), Lance Henriksen (Ring Shelton, Adam Nelson (Mackie Shelton), James Gammon (Earl May)
New Mexico Territory 1882. Three riders approach a ranch house over a sandy, scrubby landscape. Marshall Jack Bell and his two deputies have come for two men who murdered a man from Chicago and raped and killed his wife. The owner of the ranch, Randall Bragg, refuses to let the Marshall take the men, and shoots them when they move to try.
In the next scene two men ride, accompanied by a voiceover. The narrator, one of the men, is Everett Hitch. Hitch was a soldier, but after the Civil War and a year of the Indian Wars, he went west to try new things. There he met Virgil Cole and joined him in his "peacekeeping" mission across the west (Cole acted as a traveling lawman-for-hire to clean up troubled towns). The two had been together for twelve years when they rode into the town of Appaloosa.
A group of men in Appaloosa sent for Cole and Hitch because Randall Bragg and his men had been terrorizing the town and killing people. The men sign over the running of the town to Cole and Hitch, making Cole the Marshal and Hitch his deputy.
Cole and Hitch begin their roles immediately by killing three of Bragg's men in a saloon. When Bragg comes to see them about his men, Cole lays down the new laws: there will be no guns in the city limits, and if any men resist this law, they'll be shot.
A train arrives in Appaloosa and Mrs. Allison (Allie) French, a widow, steps into town. Cole and Hitch both take notice, but it is Cole who is most taken with her. During a bantering interaction in a saloon, Cole is embarrassed by Allie's directness. To ease his discomfort, he beats up a patron who was causing no real trouble; Hitch needs to hold Cole back from causing further damage to this man. It becomes apparent that Cole has a bit of a wild streak that Hitch keeps in check. It also becomes clear that Hitch is very loyal to his partner, and perhaps knows Cole better than Cole knows himself. When his partner at times struggles to communicate with the townspeople, Hitch uses his superior vocabulary and skill with words to help Cole word his sentences, easing awkward moments. The two have clearly relied on each other and have trusted one another for some time.
When Cole and Allie become romantically involved, Cole's mood brightens markedly and he begins to relax his guard somewhat. The two decide to buy a house in town together-- a move that surprises Hitch, though he masks his concerns.
A hand from Bragg's ranch comes to town to inform Cole that he witnessed Bragg shoot the former Marshall and his deputies. The hand agrees to testify in court, so Cole and Hitch ride up to the ranch to bring in Bragg. Though his men try to stop them, they manage to bring Bragg back to town to await a judge's arrival and trial.
While the days pass waiting for the judge, Cole requests that Hitch check in on Allie at the site of their new home. While Hitch visits, Allie makes a pass at him with a kiss. Hitch recoils and declares his loyalty to Cole; Allie angrily asks him to leave.
Two gunmen, the Shelton boys, ride into town. Cole knows them and realizes the two have probably been hired by Bragg. Upon talking to Cole and Hitch, the Sheltons are surprised to see Virgil has settled down with a "respectable woman."
The trial goes on as planned, and Bragg's hand testifies against him. Bragg is found guilty and is sentenced to hang. He is placed on a train with Cole and Hitch to be taken to prison. While the train is stopped for water, the Shelton boys appear-- they have taken Allie as a prisoner, offering her as an exchange for Bragg. Cole makes the trade, and the brothers promise they will cut Allie loose once Bragg is away to safety.
Cole follows the men on foot, while Hitch returns to town to get horses and supplies. As they track the brothers, Cole and Hitch can see from a distance that Allie is bathing with and enjoying the company of her captors. Cole grows more troubled by this as they catch up with the men.
When they do reach the outlaws, the entire group has been surrounded by a band of Indians. The men have to temporarily team up to escape. As tempers flare, Hitch rides to the ridge to see what the Indians want; they want Allie.
Allie tries to apologize to Cole for sleeping with one of the Shelton brothers. Cole asks Hitch if he should trust Allie. When Hitch replies that he should not, Allie declares that Hitch "put his hands on her" that day at the house. When Hitch denies this claim, Cole announces that he believes his friend over Allie.
The group manages to get to the next town without losing anyone to the Indians. Hitch explains to Cole what really happened at the house, and explains her current behavior as her wanting to be with the "boss stallion" in whatever herd she happens to be in. Cole declares that he likes being with her and still wants to provide for her.
The two partners are then due for a showdown with the Shelton brothers. As the shootout ensues, all of the gunfighters hit one another, but Bragg manages to escape. Cole is wounded badly in the knee, and the brothers are killed. Cole, Hitch, and Allie return to Appaloosa.
Time passes, and a telegram arrives stating that Bragg, who has some connections in government, has been granted a full pardon by President Chester Arthur. Bragg eventually returns to Appaloosa with a great deal of money, declaring that he is a changed man who wants to let bygones by bygones. He begins to invest money into the town, and eventually owns the hotel/saloon.
As Bragg's investments in the town grow, the townspeople's opinions begin to sway toward him and away from Cole. Bragg even goes so far as to tell Cole that if he doesn't come to the "right side" of things, that he and Hitch will not keep their jobs.
Hitch tries to convince Cole to leave Appaloosa. Allie does not want to leave, so Cole will not leave. As Bragg's influence in the town grows, he begins to move in on Allie, and both Hitch and Cole recognize it.
Hitch decides to quit his job and leave town as a sacrifice for his friend's happiness. As Hitch turns in his badge, he slaps Bragg across the face, calls him out to the street for a duel, outdraws him and shoots him dead. He then rides out of town alive. By his own account (his voiceover narration continues as he confesses his motives to a whore he knew in town), he gives Cole his career back as a lawman, as well as another chance with Allie.
Plot keywords: murder of a sheriff/marshall, buddy plot, love triangle, trial, train holdup, crime pardoned, gunfight
Scenery: desert, scrubby trees and brush, rocky cliffs
Trivia: The DVD of Appaloosa includes a short feature on the historic accuracy of the clothing, weapons, saddles, spurs, badges, and buildings used in the making of the film.
Appaloosa is available on DVD.