In this expurgated version of the novel by James Jones, a bugler refuses to box for his army company and is punished while his friend ends up in the stockade with a sadist. The sergeant falls in love with the captain’s wife but declines to become an officer.
In 1941 Private Robert E. Lee Pruett (Montgomery Clift) arrives at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober) wants him to box, but Pruett refuses. Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) advises Pruett to fight. Warden sees the Captain’s wife Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr) and offers to help her. Karen accuses her husband Dana of seeing other women. Pruett tells the boxers he won’t fight, and he is strictly disciplined and punished.
While Dana is in town, Warden visits Karen. They drink, and he kisses her. On payday Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) invites Pruett to go to a club in town. Pruett meets Lorene (Donna Reed). Maggio quarrels with piano-playing Sergeant Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine). Warden and Karen meet, swim at the beach, and kiss passionately. He asks about her past lovers. She tells how she lost a baby because Dana was drunk; now she can’t have children. Lorene tells Pruett that she came there to make money. Drunk Maggio gives Pruett a bottle. Pruett tells Lorene that he blinded his friend boxing.
Pruett gets more extra work. He refuses to clean up a mess that Sergeant Ike Galovitch (John Dennis) made, and Holmes sends him on hikes. Warden persuades Holmes not to put Pruett in the stockade. Warden gives Pruett double duty.
In a bar Pruett plays a bugle. Fatso and Maggio pick a fight, but Warden intervenes to stop it. Fatso threatens to get Maggio in the stockade.
Warden gets Pruett a weekend pass, but Lorene tells Pruett that she is busy. Later she finds him. Drunk Maggio comes from guard duty, and Pruett tries to help him; but MPs arrest Maggio. He is sentenced to six months in the stockade.
Lorene gives Pruett a key to her house. Warden goes out with Karen, who suggests he become an officer so they could marry. Pruett tells Lorene that he wants to marry her, but she doesn’t want to marry a soldier.
Pruett learns that Fatso is beating Maggio. Pruett gets into a fight with Galovitch, and Holmes learns that Galovitch started it. Drunk Warden shares a bottle with Pruett in the road. Maggio escaped and tells them he is injured. He dies, and Pruett plays “Taps.”
In town Pruett finds Fatso, and they fight with knives. Fatso dies, and wounded Pruett goes to Lorene. Warden does not report Pruett’s absence. Holmes is charged with cruelty and has to resign. Galovitch is busted to private. Warden tells Karen that he did not put in his application. She says he is married to the Army and says goodbye.
Pruett drinks in Lorene’s house. At 7:55 on Sunday morning Japanese planes attack Pearl Harbor. Warden orders men to stay by their bunks with their rifles. They get ammunition and shoot at the planes, downing one. Lorene tries to keep Pruett from going back. He says he is a soldier. Pruett tries to sneak back and is shot dead by men on guard duty. Warden explains he was a hard head.
In the final scene Karen and Lorene leave on a boat. Lorene says her fiancé was a pilot named Pruett.
This drama portrays men’s love-hate relationship with the Army, and ironically the movie version was censored to keep from offending the US Army. Army life for some seems to be a place where sadists and masochists can meet up. Warden’s reluctance to become an officer shows the GI’s point of view.