Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson), head of a wealthy Texas ranching family, travels to Maryland to buy War Winds, a horse he is planning to put out to stud. There he meets and courts socialite Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), who ends a budding relationship with Sir David Karfrey (Rod Taylor) and marries Bick.
They return to Texas to start their life together on the family ranch, Reata, where Bick's sister Luz Benedict (Mercedes McCambridge) runs the household. Luz resents Leslie's presence and attempts to intimidate her. Jett Rink (James Dean) works for Luz and hopes to find his fortune by leaving Texas; he is also secretly in love with Leslie.