Adapted from Pearl Buck's novel, a family of Chinese peasants resists the Japanese invaders.
In 1937 Ling Tan (Walter Huston) and his family plant rice in China. His second son Lao Er (Turhan Bey) looks for his wife Jade, who hears of the Japanese invasion. Ling shares food with his cousin (Henry Travers), who can read. Lao Er and Jade talk intimately, and she asks for a book. He asks her brother Wu Lien (Akim Tamiroff) for advice. Villagers come into Wu's shop, take his Japanese goods, and burn them. Lao Er gives to Jade the novel All Men Are Brothers, and they love each other. Planes fly over and drop a bomb. Wu and his family come to Ling for refuge. Ling decides to stay, but Lao Er and Jade leave with the refugees hauling machinery. The Ling valley is harvested. Wu advises cooperating with the Japanese. Army trucks arrive, and the Japanese ask for wine and women; Ling promises both. He tells his family to flee; but he and his wife (Aline MacMahon) hide as the Japanese plunder their house. Orchid (Frances Rafferty) runs to draw the soldiers away from her children, and her husband Lao Ta (Robert Bice) buries her.
Wu Lien collaborates with the Japanese army and is given a nice house. Soldiers take fish, animals, and crops from Ling. The machines are hauled over the mountains. Famine and pestilence spread, and Ling's last grandchild dies. His cousin and his bitter wife (Agnes Moorehead) bring a message to Ling that his grandson was born. Ling and his wife are given seeds to plant, and she digs a hole to hide food. Lao Er and Jade return with their baby, and Lao Er organizes resistance. The third son Lao San (Hurd Hatfield) says he killed Japanese to get guns. Ling goes with them to fight with the guns. Ling tells his wife that they need to learn peace.
Wu and his family arrive with Japanese guards; he offers to help Ling, who declines. Ling's cousin and his wife go to Wu, who promises them food and money for information. She says that Ling's family is leading the resistance, but Wu is married to a Ling and does not tell the Japanese. The cousin warns Ling that his wife informed, and he says he beat her. Jade buys poison and goes to Wu and his wife, asking which side he is on. Jade declines food and goes to the kitchen to work. She puts poison in the sauce and runs out, but Wu sees her. The Japanese soldiers dining collapse, and one shoots Wu, who tells his wife to go to Ling. She tells them that Wu is dead.
Jade and Lao Er go to the hills and come back to tell a meeting they must destroy their crops and homes, but Ling and the others disagree. Ling slaps his murderous third son, who leaves. Jade says they all kill because the enemy must be driven out. Ling says he will burn his fields and go with them. Ling sets fire to his house while Jade and Lao Er burn the fields. They see the village is burning too. Ling and his wife leave the young to fight and head for free China. Jade gives them their grandchild to take with them.
The strong family values of the Chinese help them to
withstand Japanese aggression in this powerful anti-war drama.