Adapted by Gore Vidal from the book by Nicholas Halasz and directed by Jose Ferrer, a Jewish officer on the French army staff is unjustly convicted of treason, but eventually the case is re-opened.
In 1894 Major Esterhazy (Anton Walbrook) goes to the Germany Embassy in Paris and tells the military attaché Col. von Schwarzkoppen (Carl Jaffe) that he has French military secrets to sell because otherwise he will commit suicide. Schwarzkoppen says they do not want to corrupt French officers. Esterhazy says he is already corrupt and puts on his desk a list of the documents he has and writes down his address before leaving. Later a cleaning woman finds the papers in a waste basket and takes them.
Captain Alfred Dreyfuss (Jose Ferrer) comes to work in the morning and meticulously prepares his desk. Three other officers come in and ask about his night. Dreyfuss says he worked late on the plans. He knocks on a door and gives his report to Major Picquart (Leo Genn). Dreyfuss hopes that his being a Jew will not matter, and Picquart says he does not regret recommending him. Major Henry (Harry Andrews) comes in and tells Picquart to attend a meeting called by the War minister immediately.
The French general staff has gathered. War Minister General Mercier (Donald Wolfit) comes in with Col. Sandherr (George Coulouris) who tells them that a master plan is missing with other information essential to French defense. He orders them to report any information they may have.
Esterhazy goes to the Statistical Section and knocks. Then he goes to the office of Dreyfuss and asks him where Major Henry is. Dreyfuss helps him find Henry, who greets his friend Esterhazy and invites Dreyfuss in for brandy. Henry mentions that Esterhazy has large debts. Dreyfuss says he is married and expected at home. Henry says he is working late because of a spy whose letter was intercepted. Sandherr comes in and is introduced. He learns that Esterhazy was Hungarian before he became French. Henry tells Esterhazy that Sandherr hates all foreigners and that Dreyfuss is the first Jew on the general staff. Esterhazy asks Henry to help him get a transfer and leaves. Sandherr shows Henry a letter and says they know the name of the spy begins with the letter D. He asks Henry what regiment Dreyfuss was in before, and Henry says it was artillery. Sandherr says Dreyfuss is their man.
At home Dreyfuss welcomes his brother Mathieu (David Farrar) who talks with Alfred’s little son whom they call “General.” Alfred’s wife Lucie (Viveca Lindfors) sends the boy to bed. Mathieu has gifts for them, and they hear the baby girl. Alfred goes and gets her while Mathieu tells Lucie she has made Alfred more human. She says he has what he wants; he is on the general staff. Mathieu says goodnight and wishes he could work with his brother. Alfred is happy in the army.
Major Henry points out Dreyfus to Major DuPaty de Clam (Herbert Lom) as they go into a meeting with Sandherr and Picquart. Sandherr asks DuPaty if it is the handwriting of Dreyfuss, and he confirms that it is. Sandherr tells Picquart that his staff officer Dreyfuss is the spy. Picquart says he cannot believe it. Sandherr shows him the evidence. Picquart says Dreyfuss has no need of money. Sandherr asks Picquart for useful information, but Picquart does not believe it. Sandherr tells DuPaty to question Dreyfuss and try to get a confession.
DuPaty questions Dreyfuss in his office as two men observe. He asks Dreyfuss to write something for him and dictates the start of the letter in question. DuPaty notes that his hand is trembling, and Dreyfuss says it is chilly. He ask what this is about, and DuPaty says the writing is exactly the same. He arrests Dreyfuss and accuses him of high treason. Dreyfuss asks what he did. DuPaty puts a pistol on the desk and says he has only one alternative to save his honor. Dreyfuss walks out.
Majors Henry and DuPaty call on Mrs. Dreyfuss with a warrant to search the house. She finds keys, and Henry takes them from her, locking her out of the room.
Mathieu and Lucie Dreyfuss ask Sandherr to let Dreyfuss see a lawyer, but he says not until the court martial starts. Mathieu says he will hear from them again, and they leave. Henry tells Sandherr the evidence is lacking, and the handwriting is not exactly the same. Sandherr tells him to keep questioning, and they will get more evidence.
Esterhazy calls on Henry and asks about his transfer. Henry says they are too busy with the spy they caught, Dreyfuss. Esterhazy says his own affairs now seem unimportant and leaves.
Esterhazy goes into a church and seems to pray while he whispers about the spy in the German embassy and that they have arrested Dreyfuss. He asks if he is one of their agents, and the man says no. Esterhazy says he will create a diversion. The man says his money is in the usual place.
Esterhazy tells newspaper editor Drumont (John Chandos) that some may think him disloyal. Esterhazy says Dreyfuss is under arrest, and there is no doubt he is a German agent. He is Jewish. The newspaper publishes the story on the front page.
Lucie and Mathieu consult with the attorney Edgar Demange (Felix Aylmer) who believes Alfred is innocent and will take his case. Lucie asks if she can see her husband. Demange says he will ask the minister. He hopes they will recognize their mistake and release him. He leaves. The maid asks Lucie to pay her because she is going home, having believed the news report. Lucie pays her, and she leaves.
War minister Mercier is angry and asks Sandherr how they stand. Picquart disagrees that the case is strong. Sandherr accuses Picquart of trying to exonerate himself for having selected Dreyfuss. Sandherr says he will be found guilty. Mercier insists on a closed courtroom. DuPaty says he is positive that Dreyfuss wrote that letter.
The scene dissolves to the courtroom with DuPaty testifying about the letter. He says Dreyfuss made an attempt to disguise his handwriting. Demange cross-examines him by asking him how a guilty man behaves, but the witness refuses to elaborate. Other officers testify about Dreyfuss who always seemed to have money. He wanted to know everything. Major Henry is called and says he was warned that there was a spy on the general staff, and that it was Dreyfuss. Demange objects when Henry refuses to name his source. The judge asks Henry to swear to what the officer told him, and he does.
Demange calls Dreyfuss and asks if he wrote the letter. Dreyfuss says no. He asks why he worked late, and Dreyfuss says he was doing his duty. Dreyfuss denies he was hostile to other officers, but he was aware that he was not accepted as one of them. He tried to be friendly. Dreyfuss says his family is French. He was from Alsace-Lorraine, but the prosecutor notes that it is now part of Germany. He says his family moved from there to stay in France. DuPaty says a Dreyfuss factory burned down last year and was insured by a German company. Demange’s objection is sustained. Dreyfuss does not know about his family’s business, but they are loyal to France. Demange argues that the evidence is inadequate and that Dreyfuss is a loyal officer unjustly accused. The prosecutor says there is no doubt that the document proves Dreyfuss is guilty of treason. The judge asks Dreyfuss what he has to say, and Dreyfuss says he is innocent.
Newspapers report that Dreyfuss was found guilty. At the prison an officer tells Lucie that her husband tried to kill himself last night. She is allowed in his cell, and they embrace. He asks about the children and does not want them ever to know. She tells him not to give up and kisses him. The officer forces her to leave the cell.
Mercier says the government is pleased, and he tells Henry and Sandherr that they need a confession. Mercier says if he refuses to confess, it will be disagreeable.
DuPaty tells Dreyfuss he will have a good life in Martinique if he confesses. Dreyfuss says he cannot confess to what he did not do. DuPaty says he will get life imprisonment on Devil’s island.
Picquart is given a note from the Germany embassy because Henry is not there. He learns that the letter was addressed to Esterhazy. He finds Esterhazy’s request for a transfer in his desk. He notices that the handwriting is the same as the letter to the German embassy.
Mercier tells Picquart that the Dreyfuss investigation is closed. He says this new letter is a different case. Picquart says Dreyfuss was illegally tried. Picquart says he must re-open the case, but Mercier refuses because of the honor and duty of the French army. He says he will handle the Esterhazy case himself and dismisses Picquart who leaves. Mercier tells a subordinate that Picquart has requested a transfer to the front and is ordered to Tunisia.
A crowd has gathered outside an iron fence. Captain Dreyfuss is told he is unworthy of carrying arms and is degraded, pulling things off his uniform. The editor Drumont is watching and wonders if he may be innocent. His sword is broken. Dreyfuss shouts that an innocent man has been degraded, and he cheers France. As he marches off under guard he shouts again and again.
At her home Mathieu tells Lucie he is proud of him for what he shouted.
Picquart gives his lawyer a sealed envelope. If he is killed, he is to give it to the President. It contains information that Dreyfuss is innocent because Esterhazy is the spy. The lawyer says he must expose this. Picquart says he is a soldier and cannot go over his superiors. He says the lawyer cannot do what he wishes with it if he dies.
On Devil’s Island an officer says that Dreyfuss talks to himself. He has had a letter every day from his wife, but he is not allowed to see them. A guard shackles the legs of Dreyfuss for the night as he talks about his plight with no response. Alone he talks to Lucie, and he wishes he will get back his honor for the sake of the children and her.
Lucie is combing her daughter’s hair, and her son Pierre comes in and asks her about Devil’s Island. He asks if his father is ever coming home, and she says he is. She sends the girl upstairs and shows her son on a globe where Devil’s Island is. She says his father is happy there working for the army. Mathieu sends the boy out and asks her how he found out. He shows her a headline that Dreyfuss has escaped. He tells her he is still there, but he arranged the report to try to open the case.
Mathieu and Lucie meet with a senator, who says the Dreyfuss case will be discussed in the Senate. Picquart’s lawyer tells them he has proof of Alfred’s innocence. He says the real spy is Esterhazy. They believe they can re-open the case.
Esterhazy meets at a café with Henry, who tells him that after the court martial he will be asked to resign and should leave the country. Esterhazy says he knows they forged the evidence against Dreyfuss. Henry asks if he would shoot himself, but Esterhazy says life is good for him.
In the courtroom Picquart explains how he found that the writing of Esterhazy is the same, but that of Dreyfuss is not. The judge accuses him of prejudice. Henry testifies that secret documents convicted Dreyfuss, and Demange says he would like to see them. The judge will not admit that evidence. Esterhazy testifies about a woman he knew in the German embassy. He says friends of Dreyfuss are trying to get him convicted of his crimes and that he is innocent. After court is dismissed, Lucie and Mathieu are introduced to the writer Emile Zola (Emlyn Williams) who says that Esterhazy is a liar. An officer tells Picquart that Mercier has ordered him arrested. Picquart thanks the senator and goes with the officer. Mathieu says maybe they should give up, but the editor says they will not stop and will appeal to the world.
The senator meets with the “conspirators.” The senator gives the editor a letter to the world from Zola. The senator reads it aloud. It is addressed to the President of France. Esterhazy has been acquitted, but the general staff has perverted public opinion. France is guilty of anti-Semitism. The letter accuses the army officers of fomenting lies in the press and of keeping evidence from the accused. He calls for light in the name of humanity because a human being is suffering on a rocky prison for a crime he did not commit. He dares them. The editor takes the letter from Zola and goes to have it printed on the front page with the headline I ACCUSE.
The public is aroused and demonstrates at the military gate.
General Mercier is questioned by the President. A window is broken, and a letter is found asking them to bring Dreyfuss back from Devil’s Island because he is innocent. The President says he has been appealed to by leaders of other nations. He says evidence against Dreyfuss was forged. He says that Major Henry has confessed. He calls Mercier incompetent and his work illegal. Mercier says Germany will attack within months, and the people must trust their army. If the army is found guilty, France will be defenseless. The President says they will bring Dreyfuss home and give him a new trial.
Dreyfuss is told that he is returning to France for a new trial, but he does not react at first.
Mathieu and Lucie wait, and she asks him if she has changed in five years. Lucie is the first to visit Alfred in a cell. They have difficulty with words, and he says she is still the same. He says he is old because he had no one to talk to. Mathieu comes in, and they embrace. Alfred feels weak and says it may be fever. He asks about the new trial. Mathieu says most people agree that Esterhazy is guilty; he was the real spy. Lucie says Picquart discovered the whole thing. She says he has thousands of friends who believe he is innocent. They hug.
In court Picquart testifies about Mercier refusing to re-open the case after new evidence was found. Mercier tries to justify his action and says he cannot remember the evidence. Demange asks Mercier if he instructed judges to find Dreyfuss guilty of treason. Henry testified that he handed the judges such instructions. Mercier refuses to answer. Demange says Mercier is being accused, and Mercier says he is shocked at that. He says Dreyfuss is being used to discredit the republic and the army. He has no doubt Dreyfuss is guilty.
Dreyfuss is questioned in court and says he cannot remember if he had a document in 1893. He denies he was at any maneuvers in Germany. He knows nothing about the insurance on his family’s factory. Dreyfuss feels weak, sits down, and says he has fever.
In his cell Dreyfuss tells Demange he is sorry he was a bad witness. Demange says if he is found guilty, he will be pardoned. To accept the pardon, he has to admit he was guilty. He asks if he would be allowed to go back to the army. Mathieu asks why he would do that, and he says he and others believe he should refuse the pardon. Demange says he must decide for himself. Alfred does not like the choice between Devil’s Island or to be thought a traitor. He says he cannot fight. He accepts the pardon so that he can go home.
At home his son asks Dreyfuss when he will wear his uniform again. Lucie calls the children to lunch. Alfred says he is running out of stories to tell them. His son will never be allowed to serve in the army. After two years he feels frustrated that he has become a cause. He says he should have refused the pardon. Lucie disagrees, and they quarrel. She embraces him.
Esterhazy calls on a publisher in London. He needs money and hopes he will publish what he has written. The publisher refuses to publish a traitor’s defense. Esterhazy says it is not a defense and shows him the manuscript.
Dreyfuss in a military ceremony is made a knight of the Legion of Honor. General Picquart shakes his hand. Dreyfuss gets into a carriage with his family.
This dramatization of a true story reflects the anti-Semitism in the French army in the late 19th century that led to the condemnation of an innocent and hard-working Jewish officer. The film Life of Emile Zola tells the same story from the point of view of the writer who worked to get his case re-opened. This historic episode shows how intelligent efforts and perseverance can awaken public opinion in order to correct injustice.