Based on Eugene O'Neill's adaptation of the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus, after the Civil War a family destroys itself with adultery, jealousy, murder, and guilt.
In "The Homecoming" Lavinia Mannon (Rosalind Russell) eagerly awaits her father's return after Lee's surrender, and she knows that her mother Christine Mannon (Katina Paxinou) is in love with her husband's relative, Adam Brant (Leo Genn), who has also kissed Lavinia. Christine has not loved Ezra since he went away to the Mexican War, and she persuades Adam to send her poison. Brigadier General Ezra Mannon (Raymond Massey) comes home, and Christine quarrels with him. When he asks for his heart medicine, she gives him the poison. Jealous Lavinia comes in to their bedroom and finds the poison after her mother faints.
In "The Hunted" wounded Orin Mannon (Michael Redgrave) is welcomed home by his mother and sister, who compete for his affection. Christine warns him that Lavinia is in love with Brant and is jealous of her. Orin loves his mother, but Lavinia explains what has happened and takes him to Brant's ship, where they overhear Brant talking with Christine. After Christine leaves, Orin shoots Brant; Lavinia tells him to make it look like a robbery. Lavinia and Orin go home and tell Christine what they did. Orin begs for forgiveness, but Christine goes in the house and shoots herself.
In "The Haunted" Orin blames himself for his mother's suicide and closes himself up studying law, crime, and punishment as his father, a judge, had wanted him to do. However, Lavinia had been changed by the voyage to the South Sea islands, where Orin accused her of having an affair with a native. Lavinia now accepts the love of her suitor Peter Niles (Kirk Douglas), but this makes Orin jealous. Orin is writing the family history, and Lavinia is afraid that he will tell Peter's sister Hazel Niles (Nancy Coleman), who is in love with him. Jealous of his sister, Orin tries to give the manuscript to Hazel so that she can show it to Peter before he marries Lavinia; but Lavinia catches Hazel with it and burns it. Orin feels so guilty that he wants to confess in order to find peace. Lavinia suggests that he kill himself, and he does so while cleaning his pistol. Mourning Hazel accuses Lavinia of driving her brother to suicide and asks her not to marry Peter. Lavinia implies to Peter that she did have "love without guilt" in the islands, and the thought of that sin causes him to reject her. Finally Lavinia asks the gardener Seth (Henry Hull) to close up the house, where she plans to suffer alone for a long time.
This postwar tragedy strongly reflects Freud's theories
of the Electra and Oedipus complexes. The psychological damage
to Orin is a powerful anti-war theme, and the failure to solve
problems by violent revenge, instead of by a process of justice,
causes the feuds and the guilt to continue.