In this fine adaptation of Victor Hugo's great novel Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing bread, is forgiven for stealing silver, becomes mayor, and is hounded for years by a persistent lawman.
In 1800 France a bearded Jean Valjean (Fredric March) is sentenced to ten years in the galleys after he stole bread for his sister's hungry family. Javert (Charles Laughton) was born in prison, made the laws his Bible, and is appointed a law officer. Valjean uses his back to lift a beam to rescue an injured man. Javert won't allow the collar to be removed. Valjean is released and must report regularly, and his passport is yellow for having attempted to escape. He is turned out, and in the rain is told to knock on the bishop's door. He steals the silver plates, and police bring him back. The bishop (Cedric Hardwicke) gives him the candlesticks too, asking him to give.
Five years later a clean-cut Valjean, known as Madeleine, is asked to be mayor by popular acclaim. Javert reports to Madeleine as the new police inspector. Fantine (Florence Eldridge) asks Javert for her daughter and complains to Madeleine he dismissed her from his factory. Madeleine tells Javert the law doesn't matter and helps her. He goes to a tavern and brings her little daughter Cosette back. On the road Javert sees him lift a wagon with his back and begins investigating. Javert tells Madeleine to punish him, because he reported him as Valjean; but the real Valjean was caught. Madeleine orders Javert not to resign and goes to the trial. A bearded man says he doesn't know Valjean, but four convicts identify him. Madeleine says that he is Valjean and proves he knows the convicts. At home he says good-bye to Cosette and leaves 20,000 francs with her mother. Javert arrests him, as Fantine dies. Valjean throws Javert down, gets money, and leaves with Cosette. Javert chases them, but they hide in the woods. Valjean writes a letter as Madeleine to Mother Superior and is hired as a gardener at the convent.
After the adult Cosette (Rochelle Hudson) is confirmed, they leave. One day they hear Marius (John Beal) speaking against unjust sentences. Cosette sees Marius daily, and Javert is ordered to investigate Marius. Valjean sees Javert and packs. During a student uprising Cosette's letter for Marius is given to his jealous secretary Eponine (Frances Drake). Cosette won't go to England with Valjean because of Marius. Valjean is disappointed. Eponine brings a message that Marius is trapped by the police. Valjean and Eponine go to get him, followed by Javert. Students grab Javert, and Valjean wants to shoot him but frees him. Eponine is shot by the police, and Valjean carries Marius. They escape in the sewers, as deep water causes Javert to turn back. Valjean delivers Marius to Cosette. Javert's law arrests Valjean, but he lets him say good-bye. Valjean tells Cosette and Marius that he is going to England, asking them to love each other, because "life is to give, not to take." Valjean prays and finds the handcuffs left by Javert, who jumps into the river.
This powerful story contrasts the legalism of Javert to the mercy that rehabilitates Valjean. The bishop's faith and charity transforms Valjean's life, and his goodness in turn eventually causes the strict Javert to turn against himself.