Based on the play by George Bernard Shaw, British soldiers are punishing Americans for rebelling against paying taxes. After the British hang an innocent man, Americans get in trouble for burying his body. A man who prefers the devil heroically takes the place of a minister who is turned into a revolutionary captain.
In 1777 the British have sent an army to punish the Americans for rebelling against their government while the American are fighting to defend themselves. Both sides decide that they have to kill as many of the others as they can.
In a small town a scaffold has been erected, and British soldiers march and keep people away from it.
Major Swindon (Harry Andrews) goes into a building where General John Burgoyne (Laurence Olivier) who is known as “Gentleman Johnny” is telling the Philips family that they have to eat their oxen and will replace them with horses. Swindon says they are ready for the hanging and asks for his support. Burgoyne says it is a way of obtaining fame without ability. He tells him to proceed immediately.
In a church Rev. Anthony Anderson (Burt Lancaster) is giving a sermon and says that in this conflict justice will prevail. Christy Dudgeon comes in and says it is a matter of life and death. He says his father was arrested as a rebel in Springtown. They killed his uncle Peter, and they are going to hang his father. Anderson says they all know he is not a rebel. He will go and tell them. He asks older men to go with him, but they do not want to endanger themselves. Anderson leaves with Timothy who says his mother is not well. Anderson sends his wife Judith Anderson (Janette Scott) to care for the mother. He says nothing will happen to Timothy Dudgeon because he is an innocent man.
Timothy Dudgeon is hanged, and the local minister tells Burgoyne that he is loyal to King George. Burgoyne orders Swindon to establish a garrison there. He complains that they have not made contact with General Howe and are being sabotaged. Burgoyne tells Swindon to be less generous with the blood of his men. He says the Americans are of British stock and outnumber them six to one. He asks what they will do if the colonists find a leader. Burgoyne gets on his horse and leaves with his men. He sees Anderson on a buckboard blocking their way and orders him moved out of the way. Anderson falls to the ground, and Burgoyne rides by him. Anderson rights the buckboard. Christy says they killed his father before they got there. Anderson asks to see the officer in charge. He finds him and says the man was innocent and that he is his minister. He wants to bury his body and clear his name. The local minister tells Mr. Hawkins (Basil Sydney) that his minister from Websterbridge is stirring up trouble there. The officer tells Anderson he cannot have the body. Anderson walks toward the scaffold, and the officer orders him arrested. Hawkins says the minister does not understand. Hawkins explains that the body has to remain as a lesson to others, and he keeps Anderson from being arrested.
That night Richard Dudgeon (Kirk Douglas) rides up and takes the corpse and rides off with it as the soldiers shoot at him.
Anderson and Judith return home, and she tells him it was a long day and to come straight to bed. He takes care of the horse and walks into the church and prays. He hears someone and goes out.
Anderson comes out and asks who is there. He walks to the cemetery and sees a horse. He sees the corpse, and Richard Dudgeon presents himself and his father whom he found at a loose end. He says he was not a rebel either. Anderson asks why he risked his life. If he is caught, they would hang him too. Richard asks if he would be a big loss. Anderson believes that a man’s life is worth saving. He invites him to come for supper, but Richard says he never knew a minister who did not invite him for supper to give him a sermon. He says the pastor cannot convert him. He was brought up on religion but saw that people cringed before God in fear. Then he met the devil who was his natural master and friend. He promised him his soul and that he would stand up for him in this world and stand by him in the next. He says that promise made a man of him, and he rides off.
Judith looks out the window and asks Tony who that was. He says it was Richard Dudgeon. She asks what he wanted. Tony says he brought his father’s body. He tells her to go to bed, and he will tell her about it in the morning. He says he did not ask before taking it. She says he should not reproach himself. He says they don’t understand what this fighting means, and she hopes they never will. She blows out the lamp and gets in bed. He puts on his night shirt. She asks if he talked to him and wants to know what he said. He says it is not important.
Anderson concludes the funeral service, and Christy says okay.
While the will is being read, Richard comes into the house. His mother (Eva Le Galliene) tells him to leave her house, but he asks how she knows it is her house until they’ve heard the will. Richard greets all his relatives and notices the minister and is glad to see that his wife is good-looking. He is sorry to see by her expression that she is a good woman. He tells the lawyer Hawkins to proceed with the reading. This is a revised will that gives to his youngest son Christy £50 upon his wedding day. Richard says she may not marry him, but Christy says she will if he has £50. Timothy bequeaths everything else to his oldest son Richard. Mrs. Dudgeon stands up and says he had nothing of his own but what she brought him as her marriage portion. She says he robbed her. Judith asks Hawkins if it is true that his wife gets nothing. She asks if it is a proper will. Hawkins says the courts will sustain the will for any man against a woman if they can. He says good day and goes out.
Richard tells his relatives and friends who are eating to be merry that the British are marching this way. They all run out. Anderson comes down the stairs, and Richard says the wolves will be in his fold. His mother is leaving, and Anderson is helping her move. Judith asks if they are leaving the girl there. Judith goes back in and calls to Essie. Richard asks her if she came back for something. He tells Essie that Mrs. Anderson wants to rescue her from the devil. Richard makes Judith walk closely past him in the hall in order to leave.
Anderson and Judith come into their house. He says he does not like Richard, but something makes him respect him in spite of himself. He tells her that hate can be close to love. She tells him not to say that and runs upstairs. He goes up and asks what is the matter. She says he always thinks the best of everyone. She says she is going to change and closes the bedroom door.
Outside Anderson sees British soldiers ride by, and one is told to nail the proclamation to the church door. A soldier does so and says it is martial law with a curfew. They see the tombstone for the man they hanged and say they will report it. Essie tells Anderson that they will hang Richard. He tells her he will find him, and he tells her to go home.
Burgoyne’s army only had to march a few miles from Springtown to Websterbridge, but they had to pass through a forest. The British soldiers found their road blocked by fallen trees. Burgoyne tells Swindon that at this rate they will not get to Websterbridge until Christmas. They suffer from snipers in the day time, and now they are felling trees during the day too. Swindon says the Indians will get them. Burgoyne says they kill as many friends as enemies, and so the snipers still flourish. Burgoyne learns he ate rattlesnake soup, and he says it was delicious. Swindon says the road is clear, but they hear trees falling. Swindon says he will make an example at Websterbridge. Burgoyne tells him to get them there.
British soldiers take goods from a store and tell the owner to see the paymaster. Richard says the paymaster will give them paper money they can’t spend. He asks Mr. Hawkins if that is so. Richard says they may even take over your wives, and it is all within the law. He says the only way is to get rid of that government, but that is illegal. He has heard there has been some fighting, but that is not a game for pious men. Hawkins tells him to stop talking and do something. Richard says he has no respect for any law.
Inside Richard plays a flute while the British eat by the fire. He says they have come a long ways from home and asks a corporal how long since he left home. The corporal says he has been gone a year. Richard says his wife must know her duty, and they laugh. He tells them to talk to the minister Anderson who tells Richard that Essie wants him. Anderson advises him to come home now. He says a previous matter has arisen again. Richard says he thought that was buried and done with. Richard tells the corporal to write to his wife because even a letter is something she can take to bed.
Judith sees Richard and Tony come in out of the rain, and Tony tells Richard to take off his coat and dry it by the fire. Judith welcomes Richard for her husband’s sake. Richard says he does not want to break bread there. Tony accepts his enmity and asks him to sit down. Christy comes in and says mother is very ill. She wants to see the minister. Tony asks Judith to keep Richard there for his safety, and he says he can depend on her. Tony leaves with Christy.
Richard says he will not burden her, but she persuades him to stay there. He sits down at the table with her and says he has missed the joys of domesticity. He says if a stranger came in, he would take them for a married couple. He says her love helps her to be a good woman just as his hate makes him a bad man. She is upset that he put himself in her husband’s place and cries. He gives her a handkerchief, and she blows her nose. She pours tea, and he says he takes milk but no sugar. He offers her toast. He laughs because he thinks she is afraid that even this will make her fall from her high place. He says the higher her principles the more irresistible becomes the temptation. She coughs, and he tries to help her. She tells him to leave her alone. Three British soldiers come in and arrest Richard thinking that he is Anthony Anderson. Richard asks what act of rebellion he is alleged to have committed. The soldier says they don’t arrest them unless they intend to hang them. Richard puts on Anderson’s ministerial coat and collar. He takes Judith aside and tells her to have her husband go away. She has to tell him that he cannot save him, and from now on he must give the devil his due. Richard says she has to kiss him so that they will think they are married, and he kisses her and goes out with the soldiers.
Christy, Uncle William, and Anderson come back, and Judith is crying hysterically. William says he should not have left her in the house with Richard who is not to be trusted. She tries to explain what happened. Anderson says he will go see Richard to free him. She says they will arrest Tony because they thought Richard was him. She says Richard went with them to save Tony. William tells Tony he cannot help Richard, and he must flee. William says they will take his buggy. Anderson tries to think of what he can do. He tells her to get word to Richard by pretending to be his wife. He tells her to go home and leaves in a buggy. She says he is running away, and William says he is not the fool he thought he was.
Anderson knocks on a door and calls to Mr. Hawkins who lets him in. Anderson says they arrested Richard Dudgeon. He wants him to tell them that Anderson will give himself up if they will release Richard. Hawkins says he does not have time, and Anderson asks if he does not have time to save a man’s life. Hawkins says many people may die, and he gives orders to the Americans who are preparing to fight the British. Anderson realizes that he is with the rebels. Hawkins says he is fighting a war and cannot help Richard. He tells Anderson to go back to his church and pray. Hawkins rides off with the American soldiers.
British soldiers are preparing for another hanging. Judith comes to visit Richard who calls her his wife. She says Tony is no longer her husband because he ran away. She asks Richard why he let them take him last night. He admits he did it for her too. She says she will tell them, but he says they will hang him anyway. She asks if he will kill himself. He says he is the only man he has a right to kill. Richard says no one cares about him. He made his own will last night that will surprise them. He gives her some credit for liking him more than she did before. She says she will go with him to the end of the world and kisses him. He says he lied when he said he did it partly for her. He says men often lie to women. What he did last night he did for himself. He had no motive, but he could not put another man’s neck into the noose. He says he would have done the same thing for any man. The soldier comes in and says the court is about to sit.
Major Swindon asks Burgoyne if he will preside, but he says he will sit at the foot of the table. Richard is brought in. Burgoyne asks who the woman is, and the soldier says that she is the prisoner’s wife and that he thought she might like to watch. Burgoyne agrees and tells him to give her a chair. Swindon presides and asks the prisoner’s name. Richard asks if they brought him there without knowing who he is. Swindon asks him to give his name as a matter of form, and Richard says he is Anthony Anderson. Burgoyne learns he is a Presbyterian minister and asks what he believes. Richard says he cannot convert him in less than a fortnight. Swindon says they are not there to discuss his views. Burgoyne asks his political views, and Swindon asks if he denies he is a rebel. Richard says he is an American. Swindon asks him what he is expected to think of that. Richard says he never expects a soldier to think. Swindon advises him not to be insolent. Richard says he can’t help himself because when he makes up his mind to hang a man, he puts himself at a disadvantage. Why should he be civil? He may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. Swindon says he has no right to assume that the court has made up its mind without a fair trial. They notice the sounds of the scaffold being prepared, and Swindon closes the window. Swindon tells him not to call him general because he is a major. Richard thought he was Burgoyne, and Burgoyne tells him who he is and that he is called Gentleman Johnny. He hopes that if they decide to hang him as a matter of political necessity rather than from anything personal, he will not have any ill feelings toward them. Richard says that makes all the difference. Judith stands up and comes forward, but Burgoyne says that Anderson is taking this like a gentleman and tells them to give him a chair. Swindon asks him if he is aware of his obligation to King George III. Richard says he is aware that George III is about to hang him because he objects to Lord North robbing him. Swindon says that is a treasonable speech, and Richard says he meant it to be. Burgoyne asks him why he should object to a stamp duty and a tea duty. As a gentleman it is his duty to pay with a good grace. Richard says it is not the money, but to be swindled by a pig-headed lunatic like King George—. They shout at him, and Burgoyne says that is another point of view which he cannot go into except in private. He says that if Anderson is determined to be hanged, there is nothing more to say. Swindon asks if they should call witnesses. Richard stands up and asks what need is there for witnesses. If the villagers had listened to him, they would have found the place barricaded and the people in arms. Swindon says they will teach him and his fellows a lesson they will not forget. He asks if he has anything more to say. Richard says they could have the decency to treat him like a prisoner of war and shoot him like a man instead of hanging him like a dog. Burgoyne tells him how bad the marksmanship of the British soldiers is and implies a firing squad would make a mess of it. He urges him to be hanged, and Richard says he withdraws his objections. Swindon says he will be hanged at twelve. Judith comes forward and says they can’t do this without a proper trial. She says the general does not care what he does. She says they think they can murder a man if they do it in uniforms. She says he is not her husband. Burgoyne comes back and asks her to make this clear. She says they can ask anyone, and they will tell them that he is not her husband. Burgoyne urges Swindon to have a recess while he finds out who they have been trying. Swindon says he has condemned himself out of his own mouth. The sentence is unchanged, and he will be hanged at twelve.
Meanwhile Hawkins is out killing foreigners rather than saving a fellow countryman. Anderson has joined them and watches the fighting. The Americans are running away, and he tries to advise Hawkins who runs too. Anderson walks over to where the British are firing cannons and watches them. A soldier tells him to get inside, and Anderson goes in the building. He looks out a window and sees a great amount of gunpowder just outside. The local minister warns him. Anderson lights a paper; but when he opens the window, the wind blows it out. Anderson hears the British and locks the door. The minister tries to get out. An officer comes in as Anderson has wrapped a burning log in his coat; but instead of throwing it out the window, he throws it at the officer. The officer shoots his pistol and misses, and Anderson jumps at him and gets his sword away from him. Anderson sees the coat on fire, and takes off his outer shirt. The officer comes up behind him and hits him with a chair. Anderson stands up and takes blows from the officer and then with his fist knocks him across the room. Two British soldiers come in and fire their muskets at Anderson; but he ducks and pushes a table at them that pins them against the wall. The officer tries to pick up his sword; but Anderson steps on it and with his fist knocks out the officer. The two soldiers have pushed the table toward him, and Anderson overturns it. He picks up a musket and uses the bayonet to stab the burning log. More soldiers come in and aim at him; but the officer behind says they will hit him. Anderson turns and throws the burning log out the window.as the officer ducks. The officer accuses Anderson of masquerading as a minister in time of war and plans to have him shot. The minister runs away. The officer sees the fire burning the powder barrels, and they explode. Only Anderson remains standing.
Hawkins and the Americans see the huge explosion and fire. Anderson walks from the ruins of the building. A man dressed as a frontiersman tells him that he has a special message from General Howe for General Burgoyne. Anderson points to the ruined room, goes in and closes the door. A ruckus is heard.
Outside Hawkins leads his men forward. Anderson comes out wearing the buckskin and reads the message. He tells Hawkins to go after them and not let them rally. Hawkins agrees and does so.
Soldiers are lined up for the hanging. Swindon tells Burgoyne that everything is ready, and it will be twelve in two minutes. Burgoyne congratulates Swindon for provoking the prisoner into being guilty during the trial and calls it a “forensic triumph.” A minister tries to console Richard who says this is no place for a man of his profession. He says he is making murder of his piety. He asks how he can talk to him of Christianity in the act of hanging his enemies, and he calls it blasphemous nonsense. The minister starts to read from his Bible, and Richard says, “Thou shalt not kill.” Burgoyne comes forward and asks the minister to remit, and that pleases Richard who tells him that his name is Dudgeon and that they hanged his father. He says they are doing it because they are paid to do it. Burgoyne says if he knew how much his commission cost him, he would think better of him. A soldier ties Richard’s hands. Anderson arrives on a horse, and Judith tries to run to him. Anderson tells them to release his friend. Swindon asks who he is, and Anderson tells him his name. Swindon says he is in time to hang and orders the soldiers to arrest him. Anderson draws Swindon’s sword and then hands it to him. He shows him his safe conduct paper from General Phillips in Springtown. Swindon reads it, and two British officers come in and say they had to ask for a truce. Anderson tells him to take him to General Burgoyne. Swindon says the prisoner was convicted on his own account and will be hanged. Soldiers escort Richard to the gallows. A soldier apologizes to Anderson for arresting the wrong man in his place, and he says that they seemed to be man and wife, and he thinks it may have brought him some domestic trouble.
Anderson goes in and asks Burgoyne to give the orders. Burgoyne says he is delighted to meet him, but he thought he was a clergyman. Anderson says that in an hour of need a man finds his true profession. Anderson wants to discuss terms and tells him to stop the execution. Burgoyne wants to know what the deal is. Anderson looks out the window and see Richard stepping on to the gallows. He says in the next six hours Springtown is to be evacuated; all prisoners are to be released; and all cannons, ammunition, and stores are to be left behind. Richard is to be set free. Swindon calls this monstrous impudence. Burgoyne says it is too stiff. He says they may have a temporary advantage; but he is about to be joined by General Howe in Albany, and the campaign will be over in a week. Anderson says that Howe is not in Albany but is still in New York. He shows him the dispatch from Howe. He believes that Burgoyne is still in Springtown and sent it there. Anderson asks him to take the rope off the American citizen. The drums play, and Burgoyne orders them to stop the drums and release the prisoner. Judith sees that Richard is saved. Burgoyne tells Anderson that he only won a skirmish. Anderson says Burgoyne can occupy towns and win battles, but they cannot conquer a nation. Burgoyne says that they shall see, and he goes out with Swindon. Burgoyne tells him that some officer forgot to give the order to General Howe because he was going on his vacation. As a result England will lose its American colonies. He says that in a few days they will be outnumbered by the Americans at Saratoga. Burgoyne says that British soldiers can stand up to anything except the British war office. Swindon asks what history will say. Burgoyne says history will tell lies as usual.
Richard is given his coat and collar back, and Anderson tells Judith that the Rev. Anderson no longer exists, but he is now Captain Anderson of the Springtown militia. Anderson winks at Richard who tells Judith that he has little to offer her; but he says he will do his best and asks if they should go. She looks at both of them and then runs away. Burgoyne comes out and invites Richard to have tea with him, and Richard sees that a pretty woman will be there. Judith gets on Anderson’s horse with him, and they ride away.
This comedy satirizes the folly of war as men on both sides are trying to kill as many of the others as they can. In the 18th century men were so dominant that few women could own property as is shown by the woman who lost even what she brought to her marriage after her husband died. A a man frees himself from religious hypocrisy by aligning himself with the devil to become a man, but he still is able to sacrifice himself for another man. A minister renounces his profession when he finds himself called to fight for the revolution.