Based on Henry Denker’s play and directed by Karl Malden, an officer investigates a charge of treason against a major who collaborated with the enemy in a Korean POW camp.
American soldiers are captured and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea. One man tries to climb the fence and is shot dead.
Col. William Edwards (Richard Widmark) takes a ferry to Governors Island and goes to the headquarters of the First Army.
In an office Sergeant Baker (Martin Balsam) tells Lt. George Miller (Rip Torn) that he is on time and offers him an Esquire magazine to read. Corporal Jean Evans (Dolores Michaels) is typing and gives Baker a look. Miller looks at the map of Korea, and Baker shows him where Camp Geegee is. Miller is anxious waiting for the colonel and wants to go on leave. Baker says there may not be a court martial. Baker says the colonel and he were in the Battle of the Bulge. He tells Miller that Evans has looks and brains, but she won’t go for a sergeant.
Col. Edwards comes in, and Evans tells him that the general called twice. Edwards goes to the office of General J. Connors (Carl Benton Reid). Edwards says he was interviewing witnesses in the Cargill case. Connors wants him to wrap up the case as soon as possible.
Baker admires Miller’s wrist watch, and Edwards sends Baker out to deliver papers. Edwards questions Miller as Evans takes shorthand. Edwards establishes that Miller and the others lived together in the camp for nine months before it happened. He asks him how it happened even though he has the versions of fourteen other witnesses.
Miller says it was a very cold day when they were taken out for a lecture by Col. Kim (Khigh Dhiegh) who tells them to sit on the ground. He reviews the history of class struggle, and the men start coughing. He asks them to repeat, “Communism is peace,” but all they do is cough. He calls out Major Harry Cargill (Richard Basehart) from the back of a truck and turns the class over to him. Cargill asks them to cooperate with him. He talks about the history of class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Kim says he is doing well and does not need him. He warns them that any harm to Cargill will bring reprisals on all of them. Kim leaves in the truck. Cargill continues, but the men stand up and tell him he is gone. The prisoners walk away as Cargill says that Communism works for peace. He shouts that the man means business now, and he has to show results. He asks if they understand.
Miller tells Edwards that he still does not understand. Edward confirms that that was the first time Cargill went over. Edwards asked what else Cargill did to collaborate, and Miller says he signed a confession that he used germ warfare. Edwards shows him the printed confession. Edwards asks him why he went over, and Miller asks if he could have been plant from the beginning; but Edwards says that contradicts his previous testimony. Edwards asked if he and Cargill were buddies, and Miller says no. Edwards says two men died on the day before Cargill went over. Miller says they both died of acute dysentery. He explains how many died of the dysentery after dehydration. Miller says Cargill did not have any close friends. Cargill was an instructor and was called professor. Miller says one of his most vivid memories was when they buried one of the men. Cargill had just arrived, and at the grave he said, “My brother died so that I may live. May I be worthy of his sacrifice.” After that they listened to Cargill and trusted him. Edwards says that is not the enemy’s philosophy. Miller says Cargill had a long time to think. Edwards asks if Cargill embraced their philosophy, and Miller says he does not know.
General Connors comes in, is introduced to Miller, and asks if he knew his son there. Millers says yes, Connors asks for a minute, and Evans and Edwards leave the room. Edwards leaves the door open and listens with his back turned. Miller says he knew Joe Connors well before Geegee. He says that when he died, everyone felt they lost a brother. The general invites him to go out with him for a drink, and they go out.
Edwards asks Baker how the general’s secretary knew that Miller was in there. Baker says he is a one-man radar. Edwards asks Baker what is up. Baker closes the door and asks permission to discuss the matter. He thinks the case is open and shut, and they don’t even need a court martial. Edwards asks him why. Baker says he does not need a reason. Edwards tells him to shut up but then tells him to wait. He sends Baker out to get them coffee and gives him money. Evans suggests that Edwards is the one who is touchy. He gets more irritated and goes in his office and closes the door.
Baker brings the coffee and chats with Edwards in his office. Edwards says there is a prescribed routine for court martials respecting rights. Evans comes in and says Cargill is at the reception desk. Edwards tells her to have him come up. He puts on his coat and positions a chair.
Cargill comes up the stairs to the office, and Baker takes his hat and coat. Cargill goes in the office and sits in the chair. Edwards reminds him of his rights, but Cargill already knows them and says he is willing to answer all questions and does not want to be there while he questions witnesses. Edwards reviews his record and tells him the charges against him. Cargill lights a cigarette. Edwards asks if he made a radio broadcast for the enemy in which he admitted to using germ warfare, and Cargill says it is true. Edwards asks if he gave indoctrination lectures to fellow prisoners, and he admits it. He agrees it is his signature on the confession. Edwards asks Cargill if he made propaganda newsreels for the enemy, and Cargill says yes. Edwards urges him to get a lawyer before they go on. Cargill says no, and Edwards says he is being accused of treason. He asks why he confesses to that which he did not do. Cargill tries to leave, but Edwards says the army also wants to know why he did those things. Cargill says he had no choice and that he was tortured by being put in the hole about nine times. Edwards asks if that made him break, and he agrees. Cargill says he is guilty, and that is what is important. He has nothing else to say. Edwards plays a tape of a radio broadcast introduced by a Korean in English. Cargill answers his questions. Edwards asks him about the broadcast, and Cargill asks to do it later. He becomes upset and begs him to turn it off. Edwards holds Cargill and motions to Evans who turns off the tape. Edwards says he can go, but he will be called back tomorrow. Cargill says Edwards does not understand that he is guilty, and then he goes out.
Later Edwards tells Evans not to work overtime and has her leave with him. He asks her if Baker has been pressuring her about this case.
They walk to the ferry, but Edwards apologizes and says he has to go back and work. She stays on the ferry, and they wave to each other.
Evans comes into his office in the morning and sees Edwards sleeping on the couch. She straightens up his desk, and Baker comes in. She takes him outside so that Edwards can sleep. He shows her an order from the general signed by him that the case should be completed with efficiency and dispatch. Baker says Edwards is in trouble. Baker puts it in his pocket, and she says he cannot do that. Edwards opens the door and asks what it is. He takes the memo and sends Baker for coffee.
Evans goes into his office and says what Baker said. Edwards says Baker is like Confucius. He says the general would tell him what he wants. Baker brings in the coffee, and Evans hands him books to take back to the library. He notices they are on prison camps and brainwashing. Edwards tells him to get a car.
The general sees the car drive off. A driver takes Edwards to an apartment building, and he rings the Cargill apartment. Mrs. Cargill (June Lockhart) opens the door a little and says her husband is on the way to his office. Edwards says he wants to talk with her, and she lets him in. He says she looks younger than 32, but she says she looks it. He tells her that her husband is facing serious charges and is refusing to defend himself. She did not know that, and he asks why he is not defending himself. She asks if she will be a witness, and he says yes. Edwards says it could not be any worse than it is now. He could get the limit. She says she does not know anything because he has not told her anything about the prison camp. He asks if she asked him. She thought he would tell her in time, but he did not. She remembers that on his first day back he asked why people cannot just belong to the human race. Edwards says he may have been ripe for a cause. She wonders why humanitarian ideas are criticized. She says he is a very sensitive man who has been deeply hurt. She asks Edwards to give him a place to stand. He wants her to make him talk. She says that in five months they have not even been to bed together, and she cries. He tries to comfort her, and she says there must be a way. He asks her if there was something her husband was afraid of, but she says no. Once in a letter he wrote that he had finally become afraid. He ended the letter with a quotation about how killing one man is killing the whole world, and he asked how many worlds he has killed. Edwards starts to leave, and she asks him to tell her if he finds out anything. He says he will and goes out.
In the office Edwards tells Cargill he will call him when he is ready. Edwards goes into his office and tells Evans that there are two Cargills. He says his wife’s Cargill does not commit treason. Evans asks if it is a causative factor. He asks about that phrase, and she says her father was a lawyer. He is surprised by her. He asks what happened that changed Cargill. He asks about Miller’s testimony about somebody meaning business now. She looks at her shorthand and finds the quote. She reads it for him, and he realizes that it was Col. Kim. He also remembers the word “suddenly.” Evans says there is repetitive wording. She says the witnesses used similar phrases to describe how the men died. He asks her to find those places, and she shows him transcripts from the witnesses. They all use the words “acute case of dysentery.”
General Connors comes and asks to talk to Edwards. He asks why he went to see Mrs. Cargill. Edwards says Cargill refuses to defend himself. Connors says he has been letting him take his time; but he questions if she is a relevant witness. Edward says he needs to gather all the facts. Connors wants him to get to the court martial, but Edwards says that prejudges whether they need a court martial. Connors thinks Cargill may have been turned before he got to the camp. Edwards says there is no evidence of that. Connors urges him to finish it up. The men are having to relive that hell in the prison camp. Connors says that Miller nearly broke down and cried. He said that his son Joe said that his brother died so that he could live. Edwards agrees it is a fine sentiment. Connors wants it over fast so that they can pick up their lives again. Edwards agrees but says he has to be thorough. The general orders him to get Cargill’s file and come to his office immediately. He goes out, and Evans comes in and puts together the witness reports for Edwards. He picks them up and goes out.
On the way out he tells Baker to get Cargill in there so that he will not meet Miller yet. Edwards leaves, and Baker asks Evans what is going on. Baker says he is bucking a general for a traitor. Cargill comes in, and Baker has him go into the office and closes the door. Baker offers him a cigarette, and Evans comes in to listen. Baker tells Cargill that Edwards is being “chewed out” by the general. Baker chatters to Cargill and says they even worry about traitors. Baker asks Cargill to tell the truth or die. Evans objects to Baker, who explains that a colonel with a bad rating has his career ruined. Baker says Edwards is fair and gives people a break; he does not want him messed up by Cargill and storms out of the office. Evans says he is right about making it easier for Edwards. Cargill asks why truth is so wonderful when it can be vicious and terrible. The misery of what one man does to another is truth. Pressure can turn men into cowards. She asks him to defend himself and care. He says there are not any answers and asks her to let it go. She goes out.
Edwards comes back in his office and apologizes for running the tape for so long. He hopes he has recovered so that he will tell him more. Edwards asks him about a sequence of events for nine months when nobody broke. Then suddenly in two days Harvey and Connors died, and he broke. He asks if there was a connection; but Cargill denies it. Edwards asks how Harvey died, and Cargill says he does not remember. Edwards asks him about the quote at the burial. Cargill admits he said it. Edwards asks the reason why he broke, and Cargill says the weaker break first. He says a man wants to stay alive. Edwards asks about millions of Asiatics, and Cargill says that did not matter. Edwards calls him an expert on germ warfare, and he accuses him of damaging minds by his broadcast. Cargill objects to this inquisition. Edwards says he will be defended whether he likes it or not. He refers to standards of justice, and Cargill says they are gone in a new kind of world of kill and destroy. Edwards quotes the statement about killing one man kills the whole world. Cargill asks where he heard that, and Edwards says from his wife. Cargill objects and tells him to leave her out of it. Edwards makes Cargill go into an adjacent room and closes the door.
Edwards tells Evans to get Miller, and she hands him a document. Edwards pours a glass of water, and Miller comes in. Edward has him sit down and asks him about Cargill saying a man means business now. Miller says Kim must have been getting impatient. Edwards asks who said the statement at the grave, and Miller says Cargill did, not Connors. He asks Miller how Harvey and Connors died, and Miller says they both died of an acute case of dysentery. Edwards has Evans and Baker come in, and then he lets Cargill come back in. Edwards asks again how the two men died, and Miller says they died of dysentery. Miller is nervous and pauses during his explanation of how the disease works. Edwards hands him a transcript and tells him to continue. Miller says they had no choice. They had to pool their rice and water to keep the sick alive. He stops and accuses Cargill of telling him. Miller gets up and lunges at Cargill. Baker and Edwards restrain Miller, and Edwards says that Cargill did not remember how they died. Cargill says he told Edwards nothing. Miller says they all agreed to do it except Cargill.
In the prison shack Cargill tells the others they cannot do it. Another man says he was outvoted. They draw broken cigarettes to see who gets the burned one. One man says to hurry because he is coming. The man says they are all in this together. They open their hands, and Miler has the burned cigarette. The man tells him he knows what to do. Cargill says he can’t do that, but others hold him back. Joe Connor comes back in the shack and says they put him through the ringer in the last two days. He wonders why two men are muffling Cargill. The men ask Connors to look in the corner, and he asks where Harvey is. The others say he had no chance to escape. They grab Joe, and he struggles while the two men continue to muffle Cargill. A man says Joe tipped them off. Harvey never tried to escape, and he would be alive if it were not for Joe. They found the knife on Harvey because Joe tipped them off. Miller takes a rope and tells them to hold him. Joe shouts, “No, Miller no!” Miller puts the rope around Joe’s neck.
Miller cries that he did not want to do it. Edwards says he is sorry he had to do it to him. Miller says he is glad he told the rotten secret. He asks if they will try him for murder, and Edwards says he does not think so. He gets the transcript from Evans and rips it up. He says there will be no evidence of this in the file. Cargill tells Miller he is sorry, but Miller tells him not to touch him. Miller goes out with Baker.
Edwards questions Cargill about the rest of the story. Cargill says it will not help. Edwards asks what happened next. Cargill says there were no more stool pigeons. Edwards holds his tie and insists he talk. Cargill says they are decent men. He asks what will happen when they pressure the entire human race. They hear sounds outside, and Miller forces his way into the office. Baker and Edwards try to restrain him, and the general comes in. Miller says they will get him for murder. The general asks what he means by murder. He asks who was murdered. Miller says they killed his son because he told them about a man who was trying to escape. Miller says it was his son, and Edwards slugs Miller. Baker helps Miller up and out of the office. The general asks Edwards what he was going to say. The general says it was about his son planning to escape and asks what it was. Edwards says it would not do any good. Connors orders him to give him information, and he asks the name of the man who betrayed his son. Cargill leans toward Evans and refers to his idea of truth. Edwards excuses Cargill, but the general tells him to wait. He asks who betrayed his son and stops Edwards from interfering. Cargill says he cannot answer that. The general calls him one swine protecting another. Edwards intervenes again and says he could not let the general go on like that without knowing the truth. Edwards tells the general that his son was not betrayed nor killed by the enemy. He was killed by his own men because he was the stool pigeon. The general says it is a lie, but Edwards says it is the truth and that he has conclusive proof. The general turns away, and Edwards says that every man has his limits; being human is not a crime. The general says his son was raised to know better, and he cannot forgive cowardice in his own son. Cargill asks why we are tougher on those we love. He says a man can be a hero for his entire life but then may break under pressure. Cargill says he does not judge, and his son was a hero except on one day when he broke. He says the men had a reason to save their lives. The general says Cargill has said enough. The general refers to a better code than Cargill followed. Cargill asks if a life is the most a man can lose. The general asks what he means. Cargill says that no one breaks for months; but one day one man breaks, and the men kill him for it. The commander of the camp has been deprived of the one man he was able to break. He calls in the highest ranking officer and tells him he has reached the limit of his patience. Either you collaborate, or he will kill sixteen men. He asks what the general would do, and the general says maybe he has to take the chance. Cargill says he could not take that chance because the men and their families seem important to him. So he gave them everything they wanted. Cargill sits down and cries. Edwards says he had a feeling. Cargill would not do something for selfish reasons. The general is sorry for him, but he knows they need the code. Edwards objects, but the general says no one is exempt. The fact remains that he helped the enemy. Edwards says he would like to defend him if he is brought to trial. The general tells Cargill that every military leader must decide things that can mean the lives of his men. He asks him to carry the weight of thousands. He has done that, and so has every war-time commander. He says the code is their Bible, and he thanks God for it. The general says he will wait for the recommendation by Edwards, and he will disqualify himself. The general goes out. Cargill says the general is right and that he was wrong and should be tried; reasons do not matter. Edwards says reasons do matter, and he realizes that Cargill did not tell the others and asks if that was part of his deal with Kim. Edwards dictates a memo to Evans about his recommendation. He says that Cargill collaborated with the enemy but did so without selfish motives and to preserve the lives of his fellow prisoners. Although he was mistaken in judgment, he was no traitor. Therefore he recommends no charges. Edwards tells Cargill that there will be a court martial. He tells Cargill they have work to do and asks him to be there tomorrow morning. Edwards sends his regards to his wife. Cargill asks if they can get the answers that way, and Edwards says that they will know they asked the questions. Cargill goes out.
This dramatization of a military criminal investigation explores the misery, terror, and secrets of prisoners abused during an ideological war. Layers of truth are exposed, and looking at them can be very difficult for people.