Set during the Gold Rush, the ‘Polka’ Saloon, which is near California’s Cloudy Mountain, hosts the local community of gold miners. Like every good Western, this saloon is a place for drinking, gambling, fighting, dancing, and watching women, but in this lonely place the only woman worth watching is Minnie, the owner.. The men constantly argue over which among them Minnie will choose, and the bartender, Nick, knows the value of her presence as the men spend their winnings and wages trying to impress her. The local Sheriff, Jack Rance, is obsessed with her. A brooding and violent man, he cannot appeal to Minnie’s love for life, her love of God, and of the beauty of the world.
When the stranger Dick Johnson arrives at the saloon with news that he is chasing a well-known local bandit, all of the miners seek the opportunity to impress Minnie with their gallantry and heroism, and go in pursuit of this man who they believe is guilty of many murders and other crimes. Johnson and Minnie are left alone, and she finds herself drawn to him, feeling the first intoxicating effects of attraction. She invites him to visit her at home later that evening, an offer he cannot resist. A surprise visit from the Sheriff interrupts their intimate evening; he has come looking for Johnson, whom he believes is the bandit Ramerrez that they have been looking for. It is up to Minnie to find out the truth, and save Johnson from execution.
Despite its problematic portrayals of Native Americans and frequent racism, which are products of the setting and context of it’s creation, La fanciulla del West is at its heart a love-story. Minnie and Johnson’s destiny is completely changed from the moment they meet, and she risks everything to save his life.