In this sentimental film directed by John Ford a mother disapproves of her son's marriage and gets him drafted; he is killed in the war, and she comes to realize her error.
In Three Cedars, Arkansas Hannah Jessop (Henrietta Crosman) works in the field with her son Jim (Norman Foster). She reads to him from the Bible about the dangers of an evil woman, and he says he wants to enlist. Jim meets Mary Saunders (Marian Nixon) at night, putting her drunk father to bed and hiding his jug in the hayloft. Mary asks Jim not to enlist. Jim tells his mother he wants to earn wages so that he can marry. Hannah tells Mary to stay away from Jim and gets Jim put in the army. Jim gets off a troop train and kisses Mary, who tells him she is going to have a baby. He tries to stay to marry her, but he is forced back on the train. Jim fights in the trenches. In a rain storm Mary's father asks Hannah to help deliver Mary's baby. A telegram to Hannah reports that Jim was killed. She pieces together a torn photo of him.
Ten years later Hannah buys 20 acres more. Jimmy Saunders fights at school with boys who say his mother never married. He and Mary want to move away. Hannah is invited to go to France as a gold-star mother on a pilgrimage. She declines until they accuse her of being scared. She boards the train, and Mary gives her flowers to take. Hannah befriends a Carolina woman who smokes a pipe on the cruise ship, and in Paris they both excel at a shooting gallery. The mothers are honored by the French and place flowers. Hannah says her son disgraced her, and she won't go to the cemetery.
On a bridge Hannah finds a drunk young American named Gary Worth (Maurice Murphy). She gets a taxi to take him home, and everyone argues over the fare. She fixes breakfast for him, and he tells her he wants to marry Suzanne (Heather Angel); but he needs his mother's permission. Suzanne comes in and at first thinks Hannah is Gary's mother. The three spend their last day together in the country at a hay festival. Hannah realizes that Suzanne is pregnant and offers to take her in. Hannah calls on Mrs. Worth (Hedda Hopper) about her son, saying they both are cruel because they are possessive. Hannah says she killed her son in the war, and she tells Mrs. Worth to let Gary go his way with Suzanne if she wants him. Mrs. Worth accepts Suzanne. Hannah goes to Jim's grave and asks forgiveness. Hannah calls on Mary and asks her to forgive her too, hugging and kissing Jimmy.
The sad lesson of a possessive parent who ruins her son's life is eventually learned when she finds a similar situation in France. The tremendous losses in a world war take many forms.